The Big Misunderstanding Can Be a Big Mistake
Have you ever been watching a movie or TV show or reading a novel and found yourself yelling “Just TALK to each other already!!!!!!” at the screen or book? There’s a very common storytelling device where an ongoing conflict is created between two characters by a series of misunderstandings and avoided conversations. It’s actually become such a pervasive trope that it has its own name: The Big Misunderstanding. And, despite its popularity, if it is the only source of conflict, it can often become a bit of a trap.
The Big Misunderstanding can be one of the most frustrating sources of conflict in storytelling for readers, because we all know that the solution to it is so very simple and always the same: the characters need to talk to each other. And the longer writers and storytellers avoid that conversation, the more frustrated readers and viewers get. Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand that misunderstandings happen, and they can be good sources of comedy or drama if done correctly. But they can’t be the only source of drama in the story. No single misunderstanding, by itself, is strong enough to hang a whole novel on, especially when the solution is so simple. It takes too much of the tension away.
So, if you are thinking that you might like to include a Big Misunderstanding in your story… tread carefully. Make very, very sure that there is a good reason (or ideally several good reasons), that readers can understand and identify with, for avoiding that honest conversation. And, most importantly, make sure that there are other sources of conflict, other problems that need to be solved, so that even while your characters are avoiding the simple obvious solution about this one issue, there can be forward momentum for the reader on other fronts.
If you don’t, you run a serious risk of losing your readers/viewers. I’ve known many people who have rage quit books and shows because they got so frustrated waiting for the characters to “JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER ALREADY!!!!!,” (I might even be guilty of this one myself). Or, conversely, readers might just get bored and wander off because they already know what the obvious solution is—an honest conversation between two characters—and they don’t have anything else to keep their attention.
Just remember that every great story has multiple sources of conflict. People are more the capable of caring about more than one thing at a time, and characters can be as well. You can have misunderstandings, and relationship issues, but you also need a larger plot to hold everything together.