The delightful snares of ambiguity

There’s the lame of joke that has to do with a husband asking his wife “What’s wrong” and she says, “Nothing.” In this case, “nothing” means “something.”

If somebody laughs and says, “You’re the world’s greatest lover” it means you aren’t.

Satire, sarcasm, irony, words with multiple meanings: these things can be a writer’s greatest joys and for others the greatest hell.

If you live in North Florida, then you know that if my response to you is, “No, yeh” it means yes, but that if it’s “Yeh, no” it means no. Slang and dialect and passing language fads ad to the mix of joys and hells.

Years ago, if somebody was called “badass,” that meant nasty, trashy, murderous, unkempt. Now, it’s a badge of honor. The changing meanings of words and phrases through time add to the fun as well as the snare of language. And then there are all those words and phrases that are perfectly fine in the U.S. will get you in big trouble in England, another example of two countries separated by a common language.  (That phrase doesn’t quite tell you if “common” means low class or if it means “the same.”)

And heaven help us if parents try to understand what their children are talking about, especially if they’re texting.

No wonder people have trouble communicating with each other when they have the best of intentions.

I always have fun yanking people’s chains when they say things like “nothing is sacred.” I know what they mean, that is, that people are not treating sacred words, songs, motions, ceremonies, etc. as sacred. But if I pretend to take the person who says that literally, I ask how it’s possible for nothing itself to be sacred. Or, when they say, “Nothing’s certain,” I ask how it can be that the only certainty comes from nothing.

“Nothing” is one of those words that begs to be played with.

The delightful snares in language work to a writer’s advantage if s/he is writing mysteries, satire, comedy, and ghost stories. The snares are also quite common in the hands of politicians. Meanwhile, the reader assumes the writer (or politician) is writing to reveal when they’re writing to conceal.  ‘Struth, maybe none of us are any better than PR flaks.

The only way I can think of to end this post is: “Can you see what I’m saying.”


If you love double meanings and nasty wordplay, you’ll enjoy “Special Investigative Reporter.”



Always shake up your readers

Readers are like a good martini: they need to be shaken and not stirred.

This scares them and/or brings out the best in them–if they survive. If something bothers them, do it a lot. It’s like saying “what can possibly go wrong” to a person who’s superstitious.

Weird combinations of words are one way to do it: God’s beautiful sunset was enhanced by his beautiful mosquitoes.

ironyOr: Her lips were like cherries from sucking blood out of her victims.

He was a good cook, using parsley, sage, rosemary, and time to create all his recipes.

In his book, A Scots Quair, Gibbon describes an old lady at the breakfast table poking at her grapefruit the way a sparrow pecks at dung. (What a nice breakfast time image.)

I like more than plot twists, I like language twists, warping proverbs into hash, making quiches our of cliches, turning good ideas upside down, and saying the very last thing the reader expects. As examples, here are a few proverbs with the shit slapped out of them:

  • Absence makes the heart wander.
  • Actions speak louder than words to those who are listening.
  • A journey of  a single step makes a more boring story than a journey of a thousand miles.
  • All ends begin with good things.
  • A watched pot never boils, especially when you’re smoking it.
  • Beggars can choose to be beggars.
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder before cataract surgery.
  • Better never than late.
  • Cleanliness is next to godliness and that explains why the shower is my church.
  • Don’t bite the hand that feeds you unless you don’t like the food.
  • Don’t count your chickens before the enemy opens fire.
  • Don’t book a judge without a cover story.
  • Don’t put off until tomorrow what’s due today.
  • A stitch in time wastes thread.
  • Bob wasn’t the sharpest marble in the box.

Sometimes, your twists become irony as in this well known example from George Orwell’s Burmese Days: “In the evening the wounded boy was taken to a Burmese doctor, who, by applying some poisonous concoction of crushed leaves to his left eye, succeeded in blinding him.”

Or Churchill’s response in this old joke: She:  “If I Were Your Wife I’d Put Poison in Your Tea!” He: “If I Were Your Husband I’d Drink It”

Or plays on words as in a prospective sign in the Leavenworth penitentiary kitchen: “NO UNLEAVENED BREAD.”

And, a sign on the door of a church restroom: No Holy Crap OR a sign in a brothel, “We’re proud to leave you f_cked up.”

Or a statement made by a Jewish mohel during a circumcision: “Let’s cut this bris short, I have an incoming call.”

It’s so easy to say things like “same old, same old” and “same difference” rather than something fresh, new and possibly dangerous like, “I’ve replaced ‘same old’ with ‘everything is new under the sun'” or, at least, “a different sameness.”

If everybody’s saying it, it doesn’t belong in your story–unless you’re twisting it up, using sarcasm, some nasty irony, or mocking somebody like a bird brain. While all this might be fatal for readers, it’s not serious.


sofcoverIf you want to see this kind of a twisted approach to story telling taken to an extreme, I invite you to read my satirical novel Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.


Irony – The Sharp, Double-Edged Sword

conciseOxford“Irony: A subtly humorous perception of inconsistency, in which an apparently straightforward statement or event is undermined by its context so as to give it a very different significance. “In various forms, irony appears in many kinds of literature from the tragedy of Sophocles to the novels of Jane Austen and Henry James, but is especially important in satire, as in Voltaire and Swift.”  – Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms

If the protagonist in a novel says, “He is a bad doctor,” and lets it go at that, he has made an assertion. If the protagonist is a doctor, we might believe his statement. However, in fiction–as well as in nonfiction–assertions are much stronger when backed up by facts. Backing up assertions is part of showing rather than telling.

Now, consider this line from George Orwell’s Burmese Days: “In the evening, the wounded boy was taken to a Burmese doctor, who, by applying some poisonous concoction of crushed leaves to his left eye, succeeded in blinding him.”

Thiss is verbal irony. The audience knows the doctor did not intend to blind his patient, yet he did so because he was inept. There are two levels of meaning in irony: the meaning on the surface and the unexpected, actual meaning. The use of the word “succeeded” and the term “concoction” here rather than “medicine” are strong indicators that the author’s intention here is ironic.

Sentimentality is an Assertive Showing

StyleEastman“The sentimentalist over-urges or mis-urges his readers to feel emotion,” says Richard M. Eastman in Style: Writing as the Discovery of Outlook. “Many good writers simply allow the reader without urging, to infer his own emotion from detail well chosen and carefully drawn.

“The ironist actually counter-urges in such a way as to draw his reader forward into active collaboration toward the desired response.” (Eastman changed the book’s title in the edition shown here.)

Irony can be understated or overstated. Either way, it shows–with the reader’s interpretative help–rather than tells. However, in most novels other than dark satires, it’s best used with some restraint. Too much irony is like too much hot sauce on the taco.

(More often than not, when people say–in conversation–that something is ironic, it isn’t. It’s usually simply odd or strange. The Guardian had a nice article about this some years ago.)

In using irony, as Eastman says, a writer can rather bluntly signal irony by overtly saying what is obviously false: “This rain is Mother Nature’s way of drying the field for the baseball game.” However, this is rather weak because its surface meaning isn’t really believable. As you see here, we have a blurry lines between sarcasm an irony.

When you lead the reader realistically toward a conclusion that suddenly collapses at the end of the passage, the impact–as in the Orwell quote–can be very great. Double meanings can also point symbolically to the novel’s overarching themes in many subtle ways. Irony is one of the many tools on the writer’s drawing board for luring the reader into a memorable story.


My short story “The Lady of the Blue Hour” is free on Kindle for five days. Read about the blues, the band trip, the empty house, and a mysterious lady looking for the dead.