Liam Hogan's picture
Liam Hogan from Earth is reading Hugo Nominations June 30, 2015 - 3:16pm

Here's a question. If you have a first person piece, and you want your narrator to mishear what someone else says, how do you do it? At the time they hear it, they don't KNOW they've  misheard, that comes out later. I got feedback that queried why the person they were talking to was annoyed if they had said the wrong thing earlier (which they hadn't...).

I wrote:

    “Hi,” she says, her voice muffled by something going pop in my ears, “I’m Stella.”

Her name is actually Estella, so a few lines of dialog later I have :

    I spread my hands in what I hope is a placating manner. “Alright, alright. Thank you, Stella-”

    “Not Stella, Mr. Third Rating Xenobiologist Brad-ley Harrison. E-stella. Got it?

I'm tempted to scotch the whole misunderstanding if I can't make it clear, but any advice/suggestions before I do?

Cheers, and ta,

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal June 30, 2015 - 4:59pm

How about saying "she introduces herself as Stella." in your narration?

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore July 1, 2015 - 11:35am

It's first person, so distract the reader the same way the protag is in that moment, making the name seem insignificant in comparison to something else.

"She introduced herself with a name that sounded like Stella. Or maybe she was barking for another beer, I dunno. Goddamn did I need a drink."

"My ears popped at the moment of her introduction, her mouth forming shapes that looked like Stella."

I wrote a book a few years ago about a deaf protag, filled with misunderstood lip readings.

Jimothy Scott's picture
Jimothy Scott from Canada is reading The wise mans fear July 4, 2015 - 10:11am

What you have seems straight forward enough to me. Perhaps the reader just read too fast. Was it brought up more than once by different people?  Embarrassingly I've submitted reviews questioning the existence of a third character in the room, then upon re-reading I found out there wasn't and I had just misread a word as a name. That being said Gordon Highland's idea is a good one.

Liam Hogan's picture
Liam Hogan from Earth is reading Hugo Nominations July 4, 2015 - 11:35am

Cheers. Got another suggestion from a friend that I make the misheard vowel a perceived vocal tick - "I'm, uh, Stella"...

What I didn't want to do was make it obvious he hadn't heard - but I think this is a tricky thing to do, and I may still decide not to. I thought what I had should be good enough, but I guess it depends a little on the reader.

Classically, you'd have the narrator question what was heard and the person repeat it, but again, this assumes the narrator knows they misheard, which is where I struggle.


bethwenn's picture
bethwenn from Milwaukee is reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann July 17, 2015 - 5:53pm

I would use indirect discourse rather than direct, and also use present tense first person narration. Don't put it in quotation marks. Have them describe hearing it and put the words in their thoughts. Something more like: she says her name is Stella.

Personally, I wouldn't put doubt into the narrator's experience of hearing it unless it's in the past tense. It's also not necessary to make the narrator experience something like their ears popping, unless that's somehow important to the scene. Putting the initial mishearing in indirect discourse and then having her correct it in direct discourse will be enough. Their experience is subjective. Any first person narrator is inherently an unreliable narrator in this way. Everything they hear is just what it sounds like is happening to them. It's unnecessary to specify that the name sounds like Stella to them in the present tense. It's better that the narrator is confident they've heard correctly and that they behave as they would in every and any other exchange of dialogue you have them in.

Don't underestimate the cleverness of the average reader. If you try to hold their hand too much in your writing, your prose will suffer from unnecessary lines that go unspoken and add nothing to the scene. Not only this, but the reader will either feel condescended to, or they'll feel that the prose is clunky with overexplanation.