What’s in a Novel Grrr! Why don’t they just TALK?! AKA the “misunderstanding” plot device and why it might frustrate you to read, but would frustrate you even more if it was nonexistent

I didn’t have this listed originally s a topic I’d post on, but after receiving a few emails, I added it to the list.

I’m sure you’ve all read a book (or seen a movie) where you want to yell at the characters to JUST TALK! But the truth is, if they “just talked”, the story would likely fall flat.

As writers, we’re supposed to “entertain”. How entertaining would it be if there wasn’t any conflict? Sure, the conflict could be external, but that’s not always possible. (Not to mention if that’s how a book always played out, that trend would get old very quickly.) There are many times when a couple gets along great and doesn’t have a lot of external conflict that keeps them apart. So instead, their conflict must come in the form of a misunderstanding or a reluctance to communicate.

For as infuriating as it might seem while reading the book, it’d be far more infuriating to you as a reader–or at least I’d feel this way–if you paid $5 for a book that was only 10,000 words because in the beginning, the characters meet, then they fall in love without any sort of conflict. That’s not fun and it’s not very entertaining.

Sometimes, their communication breakdown comes from one or both of the characters not divulging the information they’re holding because they think it’s unimportant, or they don’t want to expose that part of their life, or simply because they don’t know how to explain themselves to the other person. Part of making books more realistic (and I use this word loosely as let’s face it, they’re works of fiction, they can’t be completely true to life or nobody would want to read them) is having characters face some of the same struggles we do, but just with a neat, tidy, happy ending a few chapters later where their horrendous problem has been completely rectified. Without them facing the same struggles we do, we can’t relate to them. Communication is a crucial part of any relationship and yet, there are many people who don’t have good communication skills because of the same reasons listed above. The difference with a book is, you’re getting to be in two different heads (hopefully at different times) so you can see the other side of the relationship and understand the other person’s thoughts and ideas, but their counterpart in the book doesn’t haven’t that advantage. So think of it like you’re in a fight with your significant other, you don’t know what they’re thinking–nor do they know what you’re thinking. Characters are the same.

Another reason some don’t “just talk” is the time isn’t right. Whether it be they don’t trust the other–which, once again, thinking about it from the reader’s perspective, YOU know their counterpart is trustworthy, but they don’t. Or perhaps they simply hadn’t been afforded the time to tell such a thing–one thing about writing historicals is in trying to keep with the norms of the period, private time  for unmarried couples to chat would have been greatly limited and if the topic were really important, it might be hard to find enough uninterrupted time to talk. Not to mention the post I made a month or so ago about what was taboo to talk about with a suitor before marriage.

Then of course, there are times when the entire plot of the book relies on a misunderstanding or else the couple wouldn’t be thrown together in the first place.

Like most writers, before I started writing books, I read hundreds, if not thousands of them, and I, too, would groan and say, “Just tell her you love her, you coxcomb.” But then I’d get to the end of the book, and found myself far more pleased with how it ended and realized it wouldn’t have all worked out this way (nor afforded me so many hours of entertainment) without their failure to communicate properly early in the book.

So, as my challenge to you–and there is one of you out there I’m talking to directly!–next time you read a book with a big or little or multiple misunderstandings, let them go and realize that without all these little hurdles in their relationship where she has to learn she can trust him and he has to learn how to put his thoughts into words, they wouldn’t grow into who they were meant to become. (Plus, would you really be ready for the book to end right then anyway?)


12 thoughts on “What’s in a Novel Grrr! Why don’t they just TALK?! AKA the “misunderstanding” plot device and why it might frustrate you to read, but would frustrate you even more if it was nonexistent”

  1. I agree with you completely–without any type of conflict and/or if the characters have a “perfect” relationship, for me personally, as a reader, that will not hold my attention for very long. As you said communication (and I will throw trust in there as well) is the backbone of any relationship, whether it’s a significant other, spouse or your best friend. So when those things are called into question in a story and the events and issues keep building towards a “disaster” (for lack of a better word), it does make the ending much more satisfying. I often find I can’t wait to get to the end of the story to see how characters work everything out. I’ll use two of your characters as an example with a big SPOILER ALERT here. Edwina hides the fact that she can’t read. You know at some point it’s going to come out, but the mystery of how and when, as well as how it will affect her relationship with Wallace is part of what “makes” the story.

    1. I’ve read a few books where the hero and heroine had a perfect relationship right from the start–no conflict at all–and not only did I struggle to stay interested, I got to the end and couldn’t figure out what the climax (or disaster lol) was. It was just like 400 pages about their life together. For me, there has to be some sort of conflict, and sometimes the situation doesn’t allow for it to be external.

      Also, I’m right there with you about the trust being just as crucial to the relationship, be it any kind of relationship. And often, it’s when the trust isn’t there, that the communication falters.

      Using the same example of Wallace and Edwina, but a different misunderstanding (there were quite a few in that one), Major Minor. At first, Wallace’s belief the man existed kept him from asking Edwina to marry him, then later, Edwina relied on Wallace’s belief that Major Minor existed and used it to guard her heart from him because she truly didn’t believe he loved her. Someone expressed their distress about my not clearing this up sooner, but from a writer’s standpoint, I needed this storyline to continue because both of them relied on it a bit in order to make the story work. Without “Major Minor”, there wouldn’t have been any conflict. Just like without Edwina’s inability to read there wouldn’t have been a reason for them to be thrown together, found in a scandalous situation, and later having to come to terms with the fact that though she could accept imperfections in others, but not herself, she was just as vulnerable in that as Wallace was and that it was okay for her to be imperfect, too. (Which I think is pretty rare in books, usually it’s one terribly flawed character–scarred, mental disability, horrible past, etc–matched up with a perfect person.)

      Wowza. Enough blabbing! LOL

  2. In real life, I think it’s rare that people communicate effectively anyway in a relationship. Even if you say what’s on your mind, the other person can misinterpret what is being said so he/she takes it the wrong way. And then that person gets upset and either internalizes it or says something that has nothing at all to do with the actual conversation so you end up in an argument. Then after the dust settles, how many couples sit down and fully resolve it? You might resolve a piece of it, but it’s been my experience that it’s not all neat and tidy and complete. God knows that even after 12 years of marriage, my husband and I can end up rehashing the same stupid thing. LOL

    Life is full of conflict. it’s just in fiction, we assume that when “the end” comes, the couple never has another problem ever again. Oh how I wish that was the case. 😀

    1. Oh yeah, misinterpreting is a very real way to make a misunderstanding. Tone and simply how well you know the person can make it easy for a misunderstanding stemming simply from what you say.

      LOL on your last part. Even when past heroes and heroines are seen in other books, they’re usually happy (except, I think you had a character–Sally–who wasn’t happy with her marriage during a later book) and getting along. It’s because that’s how we want to believe it is. But it’s so not! I do think there are some big misunderstanding plots that could be resolved with a simple sentence, but most of the times, it’s really not that simple.

      1. Yep, that was The Wrong Husband. I love Sally best of all the Larsons and wanted to give her some additional time in that book. I brainstormed with a reader to come up with that subplot. I do intend to write a third Dave and Mary book where he can’t perform in bed due to feeling worthless after his injury, but he won’t dare tell Mary (because of male pride) who’ll think there’s a different reason he doesn’t initiate anything physical, not even a kiss. So there will be some misunderstandings in that book. 😀

  3. I know I’m weird but I love the big misunderstanding. The bigger and better it is the more i”m just sitting there on the edge of my seat waiting for it to all fall apart.

    1. Ah, that’s why you were disappointed Marcus never confronted Emma about reading the naughty book…

      I somewhat like the big misunderstanding. Sometimes I think it’s necessary and the motives behind it becoming a misunderstanding are very good. But, I couldn’t just read books with this plot.

      1. I’m not even sure if I would have considered Emma reading that book a misunderstanding persay but I just thought it would have been a funny to see how they both react.

  4. The thing about this is sometimes authors take conflict/misunderstanding to the extreme. I have read several books where it seems like every other chapter there is a new misunderstanding. That can get really irritating and sometimes makes me stop liking the characters because they just seem so stupid or gullible.
    I found it refreshing in Contract that she discovered the contract early on and he knew about it as well. It was nice to just read how he courted her and how they really fell in love.

    Also on the HEA subject I remember reading a series where in a later book a couple who had there own book were not doing so well and it was part of a secondary story in the later book of them working through problems and resolving them.
    I have been married for 13 and a half years (long to some people) and I dearly love my husband but let me tell you it hasn’t been all roses and sunshine. At some of our lower points I didn’t like him all that much, but I still loved him enough to work through our differences.

    1. I was referencing misunderstandings between the hero and heroine, I don’t like it so much when everyone is involved with a new misunderstanding. But I also think there is a difference between it being a true misunderstanding the secondary characters are involved in and pretending to misunderstand in order to sway the main characters.

      I didn’t think it’d work to have Edward and Regina go through the entire book with a lie between them. Sure, at the end, he’d have fallen in love with her, but how could she believe him when there’s an enormous lie that was between them for the length of the book. I just didn’t see it ending well to have that resolved at the end, so I did it at the beginning.

      I’ve only been married since 2004, so not quite as long, but I have a saying that I picked up from How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days (and then I modified it a little) that goes something like this, “I love you, Bobby, but I just don’t like you right now.”

      1. The books I was talking about with all the misunderstandings were between the main characters. It was so frustrating because just when you thought the first one was going to work itself out there was another one.

        I was also thinking about this today. I have read books were the hero and heroine are in love with each other with no misunderstandings but there are other things keeping them apart. Like a villain and things beyond there control. So I guess there doesn’t has to be a big misunderstanding in a book for me. In fact, I was thinking of one of the books I had started writing and that was going to be the case. I had a villain type character who was also in love with the heroine and he and his deeds were what was keeping the main characters apart.
        Just something I was thinking over today.

  5. I think this definitely works to an extent, and can be a great source of conflict when done well. It can also be done less than well by writers who don’t understand the concept. As a device to move the plot forward towards, to provide us with a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the characters and their growth arc this can work, but it works better as a short sequence and less well as the entire plot of the novel, in my opinion.

    ‘They met, they both refused to communicate as we watched them have fifty-seven scenes where they had a chance, but chose to both not share themselves and distrust the other person until the end where they are finally forced by some outside force to come clean and they all live happily ever after,’ just doesn’t work for me. How is that the basis of anything close to a realistic romantic relationship?

    There’s also a big difference between CHOOSING not to communicate and being unable to communicate or being kept from being able to communicate by outside forces. Characters who simply choose not to communicate are very difficult to relate to without exceptionally well developed internal motivations for doing so. When external forces intervene, then you have an interesting story. When external forces intervene for 40 chapters, you have a comedy of errors.

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