[fusion_builder_container background_color=”” background_image=”” background_parallax=”none” enable_mobile=”no” parallax_speed=”0.3″ background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” video_url=”” video_aspect_ratio=”16:9″ video_webm=”” video_mp4=”” video_ogv=”” video_preview_image=”” overlay_color=”” overlay_opacity=”0.5″ video_mute=”yes” video_loop=”yes” fade=”no” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding_top=”20″ padding_bottom=”20″ padding_left=”” padding_right=”” hundred_percent=”no” equal_height_columns=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” menu_anchor=”” class=”” id=””][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_3″ last=”no” spacing=”yes” center_content=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” background_color=”” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” hover_type=”none” link=”” border_position=”all” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” animation_type=”” animation_direction=”” animation_speed=”0.1″ animation_offset=”” class=”” id=””][fusion_text][/fusion_text][/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”2_3″ last=”yes” spacing=”yes” center_content=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” background_color=”” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” hover_type=”none” link=”” border_position=”all” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” animation_type=”” animation_direction=”” animation_speed=”0.1″ animation_offset=”” class=”” id=””][fusion_title size=”1″ content_align=”center” style_type=”none” sep_color=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” class=”” id=””]At the Back Fence Issue #211[/fusion_title][fusion_text]

November 21, 2005

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:


This column evolved into one quite different from the one originally planned, which was to have led off with a segment by AAR’s Ellen Micheletti on audiobooks. And then, because of a chance remark in a recent Entertainment Weekly review on the new Pride and Prejudice movie, along with my own reading of a certain romance, we were going to tackle The Big Misunderstanding, but this time around without bashing the premise.

Everything continued according to plan until Robin sent her piece in…she wouldn’t quite get with the program. While a great piece, she didn’t exactly go along with Anne and I on TBM. And a last-minute email from me to the author of the book I’d read led to a terrific segment from that author on TBM, as well as a segment from another author (also on TBM) who’d responded to my call for input on various e-lists. That second author too didn’t quite get with the program either, but ATBF exists to allow a variety of viewpoints, and taken together, all five segments fit together strongly.

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By this time the column was extremely long – too long – but what to cut? Everyone had written so well and so passionately about the topic that we’ve delayed Ellen’s piece, which will now lead off our early-December column. This particular column, because of its length, has been more or less cut in two so that those readers who only have time to digest the first part now can do so. If you’ve got time for the whole thing, great! (But if you do choose split your reading of the column, please come back as soon as possible and read the rest, and because we don’t want the message board to stay bare, it is not necessary to have read Part II before posting about Part I).

The original idea was to look at The Big Misunderstanding in perhaps a less jaundiced light than we all usually do – not only because I’m contrary, but because the premise has been used in fiction for centuries (if not millennia) – and more or less, three of us who contributed to the column followed that theme. The other two…not so much, and so it seemed clear that the column should be organized along those lines, with Part I presenting an argument less negative about TBM than usual (there are still enough qualifications that nobody is arguing in favor of TBM) and Part II presenting the more traditional view. After all, we know that much of the message board discussion will argue along the lines of the more traditional view anyway. Whether or not the three of us who participated in Part I convince you to rexamine your own position is up for debate; just read with an open mind.

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Part I

[/fusion_title][fusion_text]Are We Fair To the Big Misunderstanding? (Laurie Likes Books)

Over the years we’ve treated The Big Misunderstanding, along with The Big Secret, and more recently, The Big Assumption, pretty roughly. I’d say that the only other romance novel staple to receive such regular disdain is the Too-Stupid-To-Live heroine. This is what popped into my head last week when I read Entertainment Weekly’s review of the new Pride and Prejudice movie, because the reviewer referred to the “war of misunderstandings” between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Surely, if Jane Austen could write The Big Misunderstanding in her classic, beloved novel, how bad could it really be?

I became fixated on this question because one of the two books by Elizabeth Rolls I wrote about in our discussion of The Cold Shoulder in the last issue of ATBF featured a critical Big Misunderstanding. As I mentioned in that column, some on AAR’s staff bemoaned The Cold Shoulder as nothing more than TBM, and worse, declared that all that is necessary for TBM not to exist at all is a five-minute conversation between characters. In far too many instances, this is entirely true – the book that comes to mind most quickly when I think of this is Geralyn Dawson’s The Kissing Stars, followed closely by Edith Layton’s The Cad. That I read both books long ago (the former in 1999, the latter in 1998) is a strong indication of how very much their Big Misunderstandings stuck in my craw – six and seven years respectively is a long time to hold a fictional grudge.

On the ATBF MB, several readers joined in; they pointed to the authors they read, ones who didn’t employ The Cold Shoulder or TBM, mostly because as a plot device TBM is so artificial that a quick discussion between hero and heroine would quickly deflate it. But what if TBM couldn’t be resolved with a five-minute conversation?

In Elizabeth Rolls’ His Lady Mistress, the Big Misunderstanding readers encounter early on, which eventually becomes The Cold Shoulder, is also based in part on The Big Assumption and The Big Secret. Regardless, in Rolls’ book, a five-minute conversation between hero and heroine wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. The hero’s Big Assumption based on a [sort of] Big Secret (I say “sort of” because the heroine is forced to perpetrate it), led him to his Big Misunderstanding of the heroine and her motives for not revealing her true identity early on in the story. Let me set the scene:

During the war Max served under the command of Colonel Scott. When the colonel died, Max consoled the man’s grieving daughter, Verity. Five years later, after the death of his older brother, Max inherited an earldom. As Earl Blakehurst he pays a visit to the Faringdon home (Lord Farington is Verity’s uncle), to find out how Verity fares. He is told by Lord Faringdon that Verity died. She had not; the Faringdon’s forced her to assume the identity of Selina Dering to perpetrate the lie that Verity had died, which allows the family to treat her like a servant. Max is so taken with Selina that he offers to make her his mistress. He believes Faringdon’s son has been tupping her and treating her badly.

That’s Verity’s Big Secret – Max has one too, but for this discussion it’s not necessary to get into it. Verity eventually decides to take Max up on his offer; she’ll give up her virginity and accept in return his protection and money. She assumes that he’ll tire of her in about six months, but will have built up during that time enough money to buy herself a situation. They do the deed – and it’s wonderful – but Max is shocked to discover blood on the bedsheet the next morning. That is, until he chances to discover that Selina is really Verity. His Big Assumption and Big Misunderstanding is that she tricked him, knowing that if he took his old commander’s daughter’s virginity, he would feel honor-bound to marry her. He confronts her with both his assumption and an offer to marry, which she refuses.

The Big Misunderstanding that sets His Lady Mistress into motion is not one that might have been resolved with a five-minute conversation. Indeed, the two have the obligatory talk, but it does no good and while in his anger Max can almost see Verity’s position, he persists in misjudging her motives as other misunderstandings arise throughout the book.

So here was my dilemma: Jane Austen wrote TBM in a book many of us adore and Elizabeth Rolls proved that TBM can’t always be resolved through communication. Hmmm, in what other romances might the negative connotation of TBM be wrong? Could I have maligned TBM for years unnecessarily? Does it only work if it can’t be resolved through communication, or if it occurs in conjunction with one of the other “Bigs?” In other words, when might TBM itself be good, just poorly executed all too often?

When I brought up the idea of books we love featuring TBM on our Potpourri Message Board, among many of the responses were those decrying the idea that there even is a Big Mis in P&P. My sense is that the concept of TBM is so very ghastly to readers that even if TBM is staring them in the face within a classic novel, they won’t be able to see it. Pride & Prejudice features TBM, The Big Lie, and The Big Secret, and TBM can also be found in Gone With the Wind, among other beloved romantic novels.

When I think about P&P, I’m instantly reminded of Wickham’s deceit to Elizabeth Bennet as regards his treatment by Mr. Darcy. Yes, it’s a Big Lie that plays heavily in The Big Misunderstanding, but Elizabeth all too easily accepts the lies Wickham feeds her. What’s great is that it’s The Big Secret of Darcy’s involvement in rescuing Lydia from Wickham’s perfidy that at last illustrates to Elizabeth that she misunderstood in part, Darcy’s character. (In general, my favorite sort of Big Secret is one that is revealed to the reader at the same time as it is revealed in the book – otherwise it can sometimes read like Chinese water torture as bits of the secret are dribbled out along the way.) Yes, he was arrogant and condescending, and yes, his hands weren’t clean because he actively worked to keep Mr. Bingley away from Jane – which, as I read it, grew out of another misunderstanding – but Elizabeth was wrong, nonetheless, in seeing Wickham as a champion and Darcy as a villain.

Author Sabrina Jeffries believes TBM is too often maligned because it is confused with The Big Secret. Where I see the two often working hand in hand, she thinks that “too many critics lump books that have characters of a different period keeping dark secrets from each other for very good reasons in with books that have what I would criticize as Big Mis books -stories where the hero sees the prudish heroine talking to a brothel-keeper and jumps to the conclusion that she’s a whore or where the heroine assumes that the hero hates her because her brother tells her he does.” She argues that TBM is TBM only if it could be resolved in a five-minute conversation…otherwise it’s something else. Even so, “‘misunderstandings’ can be justified” for Jeffries “if the characters are well-developed, are acting according to the mores of their time, and have reasons for keeping things from each other. The books that have given the Big Mis a bad name, IMO, are the ones that are not tied to character or setting or believable justification.” On this we agree; it all comes down to whether or not TBM feels artificial to the reader. Working TBM’s for Jeffries include Lord of Scoundrels, Whitney, My Love, and The Devil You Know.

In many of my favorite romances, TBM is nowhere to be found, but TBM can be found in others. In looking at just the first half of my personal top 100 romances list, I found TBM books written by Judith McNaught (and I’m not talking about Whitney, My Love), Elizabeth Lowell and Catherine Coulter (no surprise there!), Julie Garwood (yes, even in funny romances TBM exists), Lisa Kleypas, Elizabeth Elliott, and Mary Balogh. In some of these books it was TBM that made the story; in others I loved the book in spite of TBM.

Something else ties into the message board discussion about The Cold Shoulder regarding TBM; I’m not particularly happy to admit it, but I’ve been guilty of giving The Cold Shoulder before, and I’ve been guilty of TBM as well. Many a reader who responded on the message board indicated they absolutely can’t stand reading books where characters all of a sudden jump to the wrong conclusion in a whopper of a Big Misunderstanding that is entirely out of character for them, which leads the reader to believe the story has gone awry, that the author only added a hackneyed plot device so she could move from Point A to Point B and couldn’t think of a better way to do it. While it’s true that irrational behavior can kill a book if it’s not character-based, now I must ask myself, “If I’m not a terribly irrational person and I occasionally exhibit irrational behavior such as TBM, have I come down too hard on romances where something similar occurs?” The easy answer is that nothing in my real-life behavior can match the sorts of things heroes and heroines do when they are in the midst of TBM, but then…and say it with me, everyone, “Fiction is not reality!”

So now I wonder whether I’ve given authors enough slack on this issue as it relates to love: in the first throes of a romantic relationship, physiological and chemical changes occur in the body…basically, love can make us loopy. So it stands to reason that if a hero or heroine is falling in love hard, some of their irrational behavior may not be so difficult to believe after all, an idea shared by Janice, who has noticed TBM in real life – and not solely in romantic relationships either. She argues, “People get upset over something they heard and misinterpreted all the time, even when the individuals involved otherwise seem intelligent, well meaning people.  When you add  gossip, distance or somebody’s active malice, it’s even more intense.”

Much of the Potpourri Message Board discussion focused on P&P particulars, but because the argument of whether or not the book features TBM could continue indefinitely, let’s move on to other books and ideas mentioned by readers. Elle, for instance, gets stuck, as do many of us, because TBM as a term has such a “negative connotation as an awkward plot contrivance.” She agrees that TBM works for her better when the hero and heroine don’t know each other all that well; when TBM occurs in a story involving long-term married couples – Karen Robards’ Sea Fire, for instance – she’s less impressed.

Like a lot of us, Elle can easily list books with TBM that annoyed her, but only a few where it worked well for her. She mentions Laura London’s The Windflower wherein the hero believes that the heroine is his arch-enemy’s mistress because she was found sleeping in his bed. The heroine’s contention that she is an innocent virgin is less convincing than it otherwise may have been because she actually is hiding something from the hero.

Elle also points to a couple of Laura Kinsale’s romances. First, The Hidden Heart – after the “other woman” lies to her, the heroine believes that the hero is having an affair. She rejects him and his proposal of marriage, and the big breakdown in trust and communication eventually leads to an H/H separation. The second Kinsale book involving TBM occurs in the second half of The Dream Hunter. She explains: “Arden and Zenia are married but know one another only in a very different setting (the Arabian desert vs. the English countryside) and cannot seem to get on the same page with their communication. Every time that Arden tries to reach out to Zenia, she withdraws and visa versa. But Arden is a fully developed character who is awkward in communication with everyone, so the plot works well for me in this case.”

Earlier I mentioned that a favorite Judith McNaught featured TBM, and Elle wrote about it on the message board. In Kingdom of Dreams, the heroine leaves the hero in order to save him…and he believes she has betrayed him and broken her word. The Big Misunderstandings in this book are truly character-based, and the resolution of the trust issue between this couple is magnificent, because it requires the heroine to go with her heart when all her life she’s been told she’s not worthy of love.

In Lorien’s message board post, she alludes to what I wrote about earlier; that in real life where love is concerned, sometimes we don’t act altogether rationally. Lorien writes, eloquently:

Many of us can say “Why don’t they just talk about this?” And sometimes, that is exactly what should/could/ought to be done. However, I know that sometimes talking about deeply felt issues in a relationship is not always as easy at it sounds at first or even second glance.

Talking about insecurities, fears, jealousies with another person is always a situation abundant with various pitfalls and unknown outcomes. Sometimes our fears and insecurities have no real basis in fact, but nonetheless, we feel them – and talking about them leaves us in a very vulnerable situation. Being vulnerable is a frightening situation which most of us avoid. Depending on how the relationship unfolds, that vulnerability can lead to increasing intimacy between a couple, or conversely, vulnerability can lead to pain when exploited, even unknowingly, by another person.

It takes much courage to face a problem in a relationship – to put your feelings on the line and leave yourself open to judgment or attack. Sometimes people are quick to judge another person’s emotions, reactions, or actions, without having all the facts. But even with the facts, we often put our own “spin” on those facts and reach a judgment. Sometimes judgment is an assumption based upon similar situations from a person’s past where they assume that if “A” happens then it follows that “B” happens. All of us base our perceptions on our senses and experiences – but those can sometimes be misleading. Often, in books, this quick judgment is what causes the “Big Misunderstanding” and it is this issue that most often irritates the reader. But usually, the reader has a broader view of the situation, and this is what often drives the story — the observer knows more of the truth, and sometimes all of the truth, which is hidden from the main characters. If we are invested in the story, we read on, hoping that soon the issues will become clear and happiness will prevail.

Depending upon the skill of the writer, I can either go along with the “Big Mis” or give up in disgust. If I can be shown/told enough about the motivations and feelings of one or both of the main characters, I can agree that perhaps their misunderstanding has possibilities. However, my willingness to go along is severely diminished when misunderstandings are perpetuated by unreasonable, wacky, or childish behavior.

Time and again, readers scream “Just talk about it, will ya?” But in life, really, is it always that easy?

Misunderstandings, fears, weaknesses – all of these haunt relationships, from time to time, because we can never know exactly what another person feels or thinks at every moment. Most of the Big Misunderstandings in books occur early in a relationship before the main characters truly know each other thoroughly. If the author can show me how the misunderstanding could have happened, and show me how the main characters learn, grow, and come to “see the light”, then I can agree with the process and get some enjoyment of going along on the journey.

I mentioned before that often, TBM is connected to some of the other “bigs,” and for Jocelyn, it is only when TBM is connected to The Big Lie that she finds it acceptable. Of that type of Big Mis, her favorites include Shana Abe’s The Secret Swan, Madeline Hunter’s Lord of a Thousand Nights, Arnette Lamb’s Chieftain, Julie Garwood’s The Secret, and Karen Ranney’s My Beloved. Another book by Karen Ranney featuring TBM was recommended; Lee suggests Till We Meet Again.

I think Yuri really hit it on the nose when she wrote that “for the Big Mis to work, there has to be a credible reason for the five minutes of conversation not to happen.” Without such a reason, TBM reads like a plot device. She added, “In P&P the misunderstanding…occurs because they don’t know each other…” Yuri argues that many failed Big Misunderstanding plots “occur among people who know one another, and who at least at one point have liked each other, making the lack of communication far less understandable.” Peggy made a similar point, writing, “A Big Misunderstanding is usually used to keep people who really love each other separated. In P&P, they still have a ways to go to prove their compatibility and regard after the Misunderstanding.” While I agree with Peggy that some Big Misunderstandings occur to keep people separated who are really in love, others occur right away, as was the case in the Elizabeth Rolls book I mentioned earlier. Which supports my notion that TBM, if it happens during that initial and highly intense part of a romantic relationship, may be more reasonable than we think.

For those of us who can point to at least some great romances featuring TBM, the common thought is that execution can be a killer (no pun intended), as is the case with other plot devices. As Deidre pointed out, “A truly talented author can write any storyline and make it work…the books that are flitting through my mind that used this particular plot did it really badly. It was something reeeaaaally stupid.” Janis’ comments echo Deidre’s: “A superior execution can rescue a so-so story and a bad execution can destroy a good one. Some especially gifted authors seem to be able to pull off almost any situation believably.”

When well done, TBM enhances the story rather than detracting from it. It can provide drama without melodrama when in the hands of a gifted writer, and it can make the ultimate connection between hero and heroine all the sweeter and more touching if it makes sense to the reader. But, as Beibei writes, “The whole concept of the Big Misunderstanding has been soured by the vast number of poorly written cop-out Big Misunderstandings out there. It’s so easy for a writer to be lazy and not bother thinking of a ‘proper’ conflict, and simply write about a bunch of convenient misunderstandings. Of course, the Big Mis is not always like this, but there are so many that are, most people heave a big sigh and think ‘here we go again’ when they read a book with an obvious Big Mis plot device.” Beibei adds that as plot devices go, readers may tire of TBM sooner than other overused plot contrivances because “it relies to an extent on the stubbornness (block-headedness?) of the characters.”

Confessions of a Big Mis Addict (Anne Marble)

I’m a Big Mis addict. Unlike most romance readers I know, I love Big Mis stories and seek them out when I can. Nothing can give me as much pleasure as a good Big Mis story, and nothing can drive me up the wall as quickly as Big Mis that could have been solved within a few minutes of conversation. Don’t get me wrong – I won’t stop reading that Big Mis story (although I might skim the more obnoxious ones). And even while I’m reading a badly done Big Mis, I’m enjoying myself while I read. OK, maybe enjoying myself is the wrong phrase. I’m more like driven to finish the story so I can see the hero realize he’s been wrong – that he’s been nothing but a “Big Missy” all along. Even with a bad Big Mis, I can say “I couldn’t put it down” – although that’s usually because I was trying to nail the book to the wall.

So what’s the point? Heck, if I knew that, I might be a psychiatrist now. Actually, I think I do understand the point of the Big Mis, to a point. Like clichés, plot devices exist for a reason. They’re not just tools that make it easier for the writer to create a novel – although they can be used that way. They stem from the way we think and feel, and from the way books become enjoyable to us. Big Mis fans (all three of us!) love the final payoff when the characters realize they were mistaken and make up for their mistakes. But even before that moment, there’s another part of the Big Mis that makes us feel an emotional connection. We’ve all been through it. Those times when we’re right, we’ve been wronged, but we can’t get anyone to believe us. The Big Mis brings those emotionally charged moments back to life, with the added payoff of a happy resolution at the end. Just as when I used to love children’s books about kids who couldn’t get anyone to believe in their innocence until the very end, I love reading about heroes and heroines in the same plight. As long as those books don’t suck, of course.

So which Big Mis books don’t suck? That’s harder to answer than I thought. As I thought back to books I’d loved, I realized one thing. If all I remember about a book was the Big Mis, then it wasn’t a very good Big Mis story. Unlike, say, Big Secret books, the whole book shouldn’t be built around a Big Mis. There should be more to remember – the story, the background, the love story. After all, I want a love story, not a hate story. I want to care about the hero and heroine, not throw things at them. When a story is that good, it transcends the Big Mis. It is no longer a Big Mis story. In many cases, I don’t even feel comfortable calling those stories “Big Mis” stories.

A case in point is My Darling Caroline. Sure, the characters withhold information about each other, and assumptions are made. But is it a Big Mis story? Or is it about two people who fall in love and then must learn to trust each other and to share their dreams? While there are some miscommunications, I don’t really think of it as a Big Mis book. Or maybe I’m like the readers who claim to hate romance and yet love Nora Roberts books – as long as they can call it a suspense novel or woman’s fiction instead of a romance, it doesn’t count.

Compare that to something like Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower, where the hero and heroine end up together because she thinks she has killed her aunt’s creepy would-be rapist brother, so she runs away, and then she sees men she thinks are police, so she lets them take her away, only they are really sailors who think she is a prostitute, and they take her to the hero, who rapes her (even after he’s figured out she’s a virgin and not a hooker) and gets her pregnant. After this series of Big Misses, they end up together, only to endure some more Big Misses along the way before finally realizing they love each other. I loved this sort of stuff when it first came out, but even then, I shook my head at the way Heather leapt to conclusions as if she were a track and field star clearing hurdles.

What separates a Big Mis like the typical Woodiwiss Big Mis from the better kind – that is, the Big Mis that isn’t a Big Mis? What separates the believable Big Mis from the rest of the pack? What makes one Big Mis great, and turns another book into “bring it the UBS” material? What makes me shout “You stupid idiot” while reading one book, while another makes me mourn, “Oh if only they had known…”?

I think the crux of the Big Mis is in the characters. I must be able to believe that they have this Big Misunderstanding and that they go through it for a long time. Also, they can’t go overboard in how they treat each other over it. Even when they’re being illogical, I want my characters to be logical about it. (Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense, but you know what I mean…) Also, I don’t have to believe that any reasonable person would act that way, but I must be able to believe that they would act that way. They need reasons to be like this.

Generally, I need more than the standard “I was abused by my parents and no longer trust anyone…” excuses. Or that old warhorse, pride – romance characters always forget that it goeth before a fall. But I can buy into those excuses if the story is good enough. Or at least wrenching enough. I still have fond memories of reading Mary Jo Putney’s The Controversial Countess (later expanded into Petals in the Storm) and believing in the Big Mis at its center because darn it, I loved those characters and could believe they would act like that in those circumstances. Unlike other books I had read at the time, I could believe that the hero was ready to believe the worst of the heroine, in part because he was so young and full of pride. (Brandon of The Flame and the Flower should have known better because he was in his thirties, but Rafe, the hero of The Controversial Countess, was only 21 when he made his big screw-up.) When the truth finally came out, the heroine herself later admitted that she responded the way she did out of pride instead of telling him the truth when confronted. For me, that was a refreshing change in a romance novel. A character finally admitted to stupid pride! (Some readers were disappointed in this story because of the Big Mis and the hero’s behavior.)

On the other hand, what I really have a hard time believing is an otherwise sane character who distrusts the other for no discernible reason. While it’s not really a Big Mis story, Jane Ashford’s The Bargain came apart for me because of that. The hero, Lord Alan Gresham, is a Regency-era scientist who joins forces with the heroine to help Prinny with a ghost. However, Alan thinks that women are only interested in trivial things like fashion, so he keeps underestimating the heroine. Imagine my surprise when we met his mother, and she turned out to be a strong, intelligent woman who was involved in educating women. For the rest of the novel, I kept waiting for the time I learned why Alan thought women were twits. It didn’t come, so while I did enjoy seeing this stuffed shirt hero fall in love, I was also waiting for him to lighten up about the heroine. (By the way, I am one of about two people who had problems with this book – LLB gave it a DIK, although she too was bothered by the hero’s underestimation of the heroine and wrote about it in her review.)

So what about a Big Mis that works? For this one, I’m going to go outside of romance and use Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. After all, many of you have seen the play or the movie. Like most people, I like it because of Beatrice and Benedick – the way they bantered and bickered and yet ended up in love after all. Both are strong characters – even Beatrice is allowed to be intelligent and to match wits with Benedick! There was a misunderstanding between them at one point because their friends joined forces to make each think the other loved them. But that wasn’t the most important part of their love story. You might even say that Beatrice and Benedick endured as characters despite the device.

Contrast that to the story of Claudio and Hero (who is a heroine) from the same play. They fall in wuv and are engaged to be married from early on in the play. Yet shortly before their wedding, the villain conspires to make Claudio believe that Hero has been having trysts with another man. In an ever-so-heroic fashion, Claudio waits until the two of them are right at the altar before revealing his “knowledge” and refuting Hero in the most publicly humiliating way ever. It’s like the Othello plot, only without the murder at the end. But don’t worry, it gets resolved, and Claudio ends up looking like a dunce before it’s all over. Still, while Beatrice and Benedick have plenty of fans, I don’t know of many people who go to a performance of Much Ado About Nothing hoping to root for Claudio and Hero’s relationship. I’m sure many people leave the play thinking “Wow, I hope they grow up, or they will be miserable together.”

Come to think of it, I do wonder if Claudio and Hero will have an HEA together. I don’t have those doubts about Beatrice and Benedick because although they can argue, they have proven that they can go beyond that. And I can easily see an HEA for Caroline and Brent of My Darling Caroline. Not so for the heroes of a typical Diana Palmer romance where the hero spends most of the time believing that the heroine is a slut. Maybe that’s what separates the Big Mis that works from the one that falls apart like a house of cards. It’s not just “Can I believe in this people?” There’s also an added element of “Can I believe in their future together?” If not, then I can’t buy into the story – at least not as a love story.

Still, when done well, the Big Mis story can result in a believable love story. It’s human nature to screw up, and when this kind of plot is done well, it’s easier to relate to the characters than to, say, a heroine who keeps going into dark alleys even though assassins are out to get her. Yet why is it that the Big Mis is so hated? Is it because there are so many bad ones? Is it because it often draws out cruelty from the characters – especially the hero? It might be that we hate seeing characters act out of stupidity, but I don’t think that’s all. After all, while people hate TSTL characters, they don’t get as upset about them as they do about the Big Mis.

Of course, most TSTL moments are fleeting. On the other hand, the Big Mis can last for chapters, if not the entire book. When the Big Mis is flimsy, it can be excruciating to wade through the shouting matches. When the characters keep flouncing out of the room rather than talking, I feel bounced around – or maybe I should say “jerked around.” It’s like watching a movie that uses a fancy device, like the split screen or slow motion. I don’t know about you, but those jerk me right out of the story. Who wants to be reminded that you’re watching a movie? A badly built Big Mis plot is like watching a mediocre movie where the director tries to be cool by using slow motion. Instead of being drawn into the story, we wind up getting pushed out of it. We roll our eyes instead of believing in the characters and the story. And that’s often when the Big Mis turns into a wallbanger.

LLB: After having read and thoroughly enjoyed two of Elizabeth Rolls’ books back-to-back, I emailed her to ask for her comments on both The Cold Shoulder and The Big Misunderstanding. She agreed to share her thoughts on The Big Misunderstanding.

The Big Mis (Elizabeth Rolls)

Within the romance reading community the Big Misunderstanding has garnered a reputation similar in proportion to Romance itself with people who despise the genre as a whole. Some people disdain Romance, period. Within Romance, some people disdain the Big Mis. That’s fine. But the idea that absolutely any serious problem or misunderstanding between ordinary acquaintances, let alone lovers, can be sorted out by “one good conversation” is ludicrous. Okay, sometimes it can. But not often. I think of it as the Five Minute Marriage Counselling solution – have a good chat and a cuppa and it will all go away. Hogwash. The truth is that you might sit down and have a cup of whatever hits your fancy and talk it all through, but it will not just go away. Not without a good deal more effort. Not if it is a real problem and involves trust. Words are only words. If it were that easy in real life marriage counsellors would be out of business.

Mary Balogh uses the Big Secret and the Big Mis in Irresistible. When I read that I found myself thinking, “But you could tell Nathan. He wouldn’t walk away.” But then I had to look at it from Sophie’s point of view. No. She couldn’t tell him. Not that particular secret. Not during the Regency. I only knew that Nathan would understand because I had his viewpoint. And because I knew he was the hero. She didn’t. Sophie’s secret touched on her identity and her shattered self-respect. If you are dealing with something that touches a character’s identity or self-esteem, then it takes a great deal more than a conversation to sort it out. Which brings us back to the point someone mentioned that the Big Mis has to be character-driven. That is when it works, because the people who can hurt us most are the ones we love the most.

Another Mary Balogh where the tension between the hero and heroine hinges on a Big Secret and a Big Mis is More than a Mistress. Jane has a very good reason for not telling Jocelyn the truth at first. In the end he finds out independently and is furious. Sure, if Jane had told him the truth earlier that would have solved some things, but the likelihood of her confiding a secret like that to her protector before developing some emotional trust was about zero. Jocelyn’s ducal arrogance has a big part to play in that as well. So for me the book works because of its characters and setting.

I can also think of a number of Elizabeth Lowell’s earlier books where the tension derives from (usually) the hero’s pig-headed assumptions about the heroine, leading to misunderstandings. It still works, although there are one or two that I find hard to swallow. My point is that in these circumstances the characters need to be shown the truth over time. Not told it over a cup of tea or coffee.

The version of the Big Mis, where one or both characters hesitate to declare their love, gets criticism too. But how easy is it to tell someone that you really believe has married you for your money, or out of duty, and also happens to think you trapped him/her into marriage, that you love them? Not easy. Nobody wants to make themselves that vulnerable. Ever. That was the situation in The Dutiful Rake, one of my books that Laurie has mentioned. Marc and Meg married out of necessity before they knew very much about each other. They made a very clear bargain about the terms of the marriage and both of them hesitated to step over the boundaries set. They had to learn to know and trust each other first.

Pride and Prejudice is a classic example of a Big Mis and a Great Big Lie. They do have the conversation – in the form of Darcy’s proposal and ensuing letter – but it takes time and distance for them to sort things out. Elizabeth needs time to accept that much of what he said about her family was true. She had to do some growing up first. Darcy needed to accept the fact that he had behaved badly, that he had hurt and insulted Elizabeth, which was of course why he wrote the letter. But why does Elizabeth believe Mr Darcy’s version of events in the end? I think Elizabeth believes him because in telling her of the failed elopement, he makes himself and his sister vulnerable to her. He trusts her. But she takes a long time to accept this. So even though they do have the conversation, sort of, it still takes time for the initial feelings and hurt on both sides to be overcome. He has to show her, not tell her, and it takes time to sink in. And a lot of other stuff happens along the way.

When I wrote His Lady Mistress, I had in mind a very particular situation – one in which the heroine’s self-esteem had been so undermined by the circumstances of her father’s death and what she had been through afterwards, that she was almost incapable of believing herself worthy of love. If I failed to portray that strongly enough for readers, that’s my fault. But the misunderstanding between Max and Verity was not one that either of them could have understood with a five minute conversation. Verity was barely capable of thinking about her father, let alone talking about him. So Crime Number 2 – Verity is Harbouring a Big Secret. And so is Max. In Verity’s case her reluctance to speak is not so much centred on Max, as on her own fragile sense of self-worth. She believes to the depths of her soul that her father’s death was her fault. Just talking about it to someone would have helped, but she never had anyone she could tell. By the time Max came along the damage was done.

I’m the last person in the world to preach on a well-built Big Mis plot. Obviously my books worked for Laurie, but not for others. That is not the fault of the Big Mis as a plot – it is a failure on my part to please everyone all of the time. I will say though that I agree the Big Mis needs to be character driven and it needs to occur early, before the characters have any chance to develop the sort of emotional intimacy that would make a five minute conversation possible or effective. When I have written books where the conflict centres on misunderstanding, the characters generally have pretty good reasons for not having that vital conversation. Or, if they do have it, very good reasons for not believing the other person.

Of course the Big Mis can work. I think it comes down to character, setting, and skill in execution as to whether it works, which you could say of any book. Anything can work if it is done well and it is believable. Rhett can leave Scarlett in the end because it is totally believable. In fact it is the only possible in-character outcome.

If a problem could have been fixed with a five-minute chat, then the book may have failed. But in the circumstances, was that five minute chat likely to take place? And if it did; would both parties have been truly convinced and satisfied by it? Or do they need to show each other? This all comes down to execution. If you aren’t convinced then the book failed for you. That may be personal taste, or it may be execution. One thing I do know; every book I hate, has a lot of people who love it. And vice versa.

Post your comments and/or questions on Part I to our At the Back Fence Message Board

(If you stopped after Part I for a breather, make sure you return for Part II!)

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Part II


Not so Fast (Robin Uncapher)

I had to laugh when I read Laurie’s comment that we’re not bashing around the premise of the Big Mis. Ah, hi Laurie, hand in the air here! Who’s we?

I’m perfectly happy to bash around the Big Mis. It has to be my least favorite plot device of all time. Secrets can be okay. Assumptions may be hard to take, but if they make sense they can work. But the Big Mis? Say it ain’t so.

When Laurie first raised this topic she mention that, although she has dumped on the idea before, the more she thought about it the more she realized that many of her favorite books have a Big Mis in them. This sounded logical to me. Like Laurie I believe that a really good writer can make almost anything work. Though, like everyone else I have a short list of pet peeves, its not uncommon for me to discover that a really good writer has managed to put together a great story using a plotline I generally despise. So I might say I don’t want to read adultery books, but Anna Karenina, the granddaddy of all adultery stories, is my favorite book of all time. And books that start off with immature teenage girls who fall in love at first sight might annoy me, but The Bronze Horseman will always be a book I adore and reread.

But the Big Mis? I thought and thought and tried to think of a favorite with a really Big Mis. What kept jumping into my head were classics that everyone loves, that I don’t, because of the Big Mis.

The main one of these, the play that will forever drive me straight up the wall is Romeo and Juliet. Okay so maybe as a critic humility is not my strong point. Nothing like dumping on Shakespeare to start things off with a bang.

But really, as Dr. Phil would say, “Will, what were you think-in?”

That ending just drives me nuts, every single time. I love the play and the Franco Zefferelli movie. But that ending! As far as I am concerned it has become unwatchable. Why after all that loving and fighting and killing does Shakespeare kill these two off in a misunderstanding? To me, the ending of Romeo and Juliet is one big cheat. Juliet takes a potion to make her appear to be dead. Romeo thinks she is dead and kills himself, then Juliet kills herself because Romeo is dead. Are their suicides the result of being tragic star-crossed lovers or is it the result of two people getting their wires crossed? It’s not that I think Romeo and Juliet should live happily ever after. That would cheat the point that Shakespeare is making. But why not have them die as a result of the fighting between the two families? Why not have Romeo killed in one more sword fight and then have Juliet do away with herself?

It’s the frustration of the Big Mis that I just can’t take. Every time I see the scene I want to yell, “Hey Romeo, don’t worry. She’s not really dead. Don’t do it, Romeo, don’t do it!

It’s that wanting to scream the answer out to one of the couple that makes the Big Mis such a problem for me.

Miunderstandings in most stories are too much like accidents to make a story interesting. One person is seen or heard doing something that leads the other person to jump to the wrong conclusion. This can make for great comedy. In the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, news anchor Ted Baxter labors under the illusion that the crew around him find him impressive. Ted seems to know, deep down in his heart, that he is no deep thinker, but nothing can dissuade him from believing that others think that he is a brilliant newsman with credibility on the order of Walter Cronkite in 1968. The more Murray and Lou Grant ride him, the more Ted believes that they are simply joking. It’s hilarious and the audience never feels the need to shout, “Ted, they think you’re a moron!”

But that’s because it’s supposed to be funny. If Ted were not funny, if the audience took him seriously, plots based on misunderstanding would be tiresome.

Is Pride and Prejudice a Big Mis story? On reflection, I think it is. But it’s got me thinking about why the Big Mis might work every once in a while. The reason the Big Mis works in P&P is that the audience is part of the misunderstanding. Readers of P&P are not yelling at Elizabeth Bennet to wake up and recognize that Wickman is a bounder and Darcy is a hero. They only have Elizabeth’s point of view to depend on for information. When Elizabeth Bennet meets Wickham, we are sucked into his slanderous story about Darcy just easily as she is. Darcy, after all, has behaved disgracefully exhibiting a huge amount of snobbery, hurting our heroine and delivering one of the most romantic and yet most disastrous proposals in all of literature. We readers know Darcy must be a good man. After all he is handsome, rich and clearly destined save Lizzie from her situation as one of a family of sisters. But we don’t know how he is going to turn out to be good, and we understand completely when Elizabeth falls for Wickham’s story.

This identifying with Elizabeth probably explains why I love Pride and Prejudice more than any other Austen book. The misunderstandings that come up in the other books can be funny (Northanger Abbey) and tragic (Miss Grey of Sense and Sensibility) but they are never so understandable as in P&P. Many critics love Austen’s Emma for its portrayal of a flawed but well intentioned woman who grows. I love Emma too, but the Big Mis planted in the middle of it, which has Emma completely misunderstanding the intentions of a young man toward her friend, and making all kinds of stupid mistakes based on that misunderstanding, always have me squirming.

Most romance novels today have two, and not one point of view, which is probably one of the reasons I find the Big Mis such a problem romance. In today’s romances we read the thoughts of the hero, then the heroine. Too often the Big Mis is based on a mistake that is barely understandable. In Mary Jo Putney’s otherwise wonderful The Rake, the heroine runs away from friends and family and exiles herself for years based on one overheard conversation. In this conversation her fiancé tells someone he is marrying her for her money and agrees that she is unattractive. The heroine becomes a steward and is one of the most intelligent and independent women in romance – yet she completely changes her life based on a mistake.

The Rake works in spite of, not because of this Big Mis. Luckily it is not a critical part of the plot and, if the reader can suspend disbelief for long enough, it’s easy to get swept into the rest of the plot which has mostly to do with the redemption of the hero, Reggie.

Another reason The Big Mis works in Pride and Prejudice, and even, to a lesser extent, in Emma, is that the misunderstanding comes not only from the accident of missed cues, but from the character of the people involved. Elizabeth Bennet is already prejudiced against Darcy when Wickham tells her lies about him. She is eager to believe that he is cruel and high-handed because, in a way, that mitigates his feelings about her family. How much easier to believe that Darcy is dismissive of her family because he is a snob than to think, deep down, that he might have a point? Similarly Emma’s disastrous matchmaking is not only the result of accidental misunderstanding, but of Emma’s ambitious silliness, which we see from the start. While it is frustrating to read Emma’s encouragement of her friend, it is also humorous at times. And of course, what could be more hilarious than the Big Misunderstanding of Mr. Collins, Elizabeth’s cousin and would-be suitor? Mr. Collins labors under the illusion that Elizabeth wants to marry him and that, in asking for her hand, he is doing her a great favor. He also believes himself to be intelligent and insightful making his response to Elizabeth’s refusal of his proposal more and more humorous.

Here is a portion of that conversation beginning with Elizabeth’s initial refusal:

“You are too hasty, Sir,” she cried. “You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without farther loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me, I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than decline them.”

“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”

“Upon my word, Sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is rather an extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. – You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so, – Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation.”

“Were it certain that Lady Catherine would think so,” said Mr. Collins very gravely — “but I cannot imagine that her ladyship would at all disapprove of you. And you may be certain that when I have the honour of seeing her again I shall speak in the highest terms of your modesty, economy, and other amiable qualifications.”

“Indeed, Mr. Collins, all praise of me will be unnecessary. You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say. I wish you very happy and very rich, and by refusing your hand, do all in my power to prevent your being otherwise. In making me the offer, you must have satisfied the delicacy of your feelings with regard to my family, and may take possession of Longbourn estate whenever it falls, without any self-reproach. This matter may be considered, therefore, as finally settled.” And rising as she thus spoke, she would have quitted the room, had not Mr. Collins thus addressed her:

“When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on this subject I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.”

“Really, Mr. Collins,” cried Elizabeth with some warmth, “you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as may convince you of its being one.”

What makes this passage so funny is that the misunderstanding between these two comes completely from character. Mr. Collins is being told, more and more directly, that Elizabeth does not want to marry him. But he literally cannot believe his ears, and so continues blithely on his disastrous course.

The more I thought about it the more I realized that for me to find a Big Misunderstanding palatable it is those two factors that must come into play. First, I have to be party to only one point of view on the misunderstanding. This means I can see the situation either from the point of view of the person who understands or from the point of view of the person being misunderstood. If I see the situation from both sides, I am going to begin to have problems. There is little that is more annoying for me than to read a whole chapter relating one person’s side of a misunderstanding and then the other person’s. The second, equally important factor in making the Big Mis work is that the misunderstanding should be derived from character. The person making the mistake should make it because of the kind of person that he or she is. It the misunderstanding is a silly accident, the plot is going become very tiresome.

The best example I can think of a Big Misunderstanding almost completely derived from character is the misunderstanding between Rhett and Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. At the end of Gone With the Wind we discover that Rhett has a Big Secret, which is that he has been in love with Scarlett for years. But Rhett’s secret is part of a huge misunderstanding between these two. For hundreds of pages the reader watches Rhett and Scarlett miss each other’s cues. One of the most obvious of these is Scarlett’s reaction to Rhett’s “rape” of her. We the readers know that Scarlett was not really raped. While she initially refused Rhett, she was a willing participant in the sex that followed when he carried her up the stairs to bed. Yet Rhett completely misunderstands Scarlett and leaves immediately after their night of passion.

Scarlett never believes that Rhett loves her. Though Rhett thinks his love is a secret, we the readers have been following it throughout the entire book. We knew he loved Scarlett! But we do not have Rhett’s point of view, which is probably a good thing. We may know that Rhett loves Scarlett, but we see things from her side and we understand why she can’t see it.

The more times you read Gone With the Wind (and I have lost count of how many times I have read it), the more you see the complexity in the relationship between the characters. For example, I am continually confused about how Ashley felt about Scarlett. Did he love her, really love her? Sometimes I reach the book and say yes, sometimes no. But I am never confused about Rhett. I always know he loved Scarlett, knew her well and was fascinated by her. When I was young, age thirteen, and first read Gone With the Wind, I could not believe that Rhett would walk out at the end, right when Scarlett finally knew she loved him. How could he do that now that all the misunderstandings were finally resolved?

But now I am older and I understand completely. Rhett leaves Scarlett not only because he is generally disgusted, not only because he knows she will never treat him well if she knows he loves her, but because the Big Mis is something that will always be with them. These are two people who have known each other for years, in the most dire circumstances. In many ways they are very much alike. But their characters are set in such a way that they will never truly understand each other. They will always miss each others cues. They will always have the Big Mis to deal with. If you can be married to someone for years and years and still not understand the person who loves you most, what are your chances of resolving the problem with one dramatic conversation?

The Big Mis works in Gone With the Wind – but it also illustrates why it is so hard to use in a romance. If two people misunderstand each other, not by accident, but as the result of character, what are their chances for a believable happily ever after? All of us have read books where two people who are in love bicker and fight constantly over misunderstandings. Julia London’s The Ruthless Charmer was a book I still remember for its constant squabbling and Big Mis. Although Julia London is a good writer, and a favorite of mine, I could not help but be suspicious of the happy ending. After all of that misunderstanding and fighting over nothing, how was I to believe that it was all over. Life is full of the kinds of conflicts that the hero and heroine could not communicate about and life is also full of husbands and wives who make themselves miserable by arguing about them.

Clearly though, I have less tolerance for The Big Mis than the average reader. The best example of this is my reaction to Dicken’s Great Expectations, a masterpiece that many critics believe is his best work. Well, not this critic. Great Expectations is a about a boy name Pip, the stepson of a blacksmith. One night Pip is taken hostage by a vicious criminal who terrifies him. Pip saves the man’s life not out of sympathy but out of fear. As the book progresses Pip is befriended by an eccentric, indeed very strange lady, Miss Haversham. Miss Haversham spends her life reliving the day of her wedding, a day her groom never came. She encourages a relationship between Pip and her ward Estella. Pip also learns he has a mysterious benefactor whom he assumes is Miss Haversham.

As the book progresses Pip is sent to school by the benefactor. He is given “great expectations” far beyond the ones he could expect as the son of a blacksmith. He also falls in love with Estella, who is brutally cruel to him but is also the ultimate tease.

Near the end of the book, Pip learns that his expectations both of his status and marriage to Estella are based on an enormous misunderstanding. The mysterious benefactor turns out to be the criminal he helped so long ago and his success has been financed with ill gotten gains. Miss Haversham, it turns out, brought Estella up as a kind of revenge against the male sex. She was so bitter about her abandonment that she trained Estella to make men fall in love with her and then break their hearts. Pip had been chosen to get his heart broken.

Though I enjoy some parts of Great Expectations, I find I don’t reread it because the Big Mis just drives me crazy. Estella is such an incredible b_tch (in her case it is hard to think of another word to do her justice) that I found her an insult to all womankind. Pip’s love for her is irritating to any woman who wants to believe that being good to a man will pay off in the end. But as a reader, I also find the book frustrating. All around him Pip gets conflicting messages on what his great expectations mean. The blacksmith who brought him up truly loves him and, as Pip gains education he has less and less in common with this good man. Pip believes, as all children do, that he is getting what he deserves in being sent to school and prepared for better things. But what really gets me about the book is that Pips expectations are the result of a Big Misunderstanding. The criminal who provides Pip with his education seems to not understand the terrible fear he instilled in the boy. He seems to think Pip was kind to him. And Pip, when he learns how he got his money, is completely repelled and not at all thoughtful about this strange man’s behavior.

Pip’s shock over his lifelong Big Mis causes him to go away to India and make a large fortune on his own. I have nothing against that but I could not help but reflect that Great Expectations would have been far more interesting for me, if Pip had been more responsible for his initial success the way David Copperfield was.

The “romance” with Estella is also far from satisfying. Estella is so vicious to Pip that the reader constantly wants to set Pip straight. At the end of the book Estella explains to Pip that her cruelty to him was not her fault as it was engineered by Miss Haversham. Estella’s behavior it seems was also a Big Mis, not only to Pip but to herself.

The very end of the book the romance between these two is inconclusive. We see Estella and Pip together but it is unclear if Pip with take her back. Much as I like an HEA, seeing these two together is not my idea of one. Their relationship was one Big Mis, to such an extent that I did believe a good relationship was possible. As my brother Andrew once said, “Frankly Estella, I don’t give a damn.”

So, while I think the Big Mis can work sometimes, it’s a dicey thing and not even great writers can pull it off for cranky readers like me. Though maybe with two characters as endearing as Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, it’s a possibility.

It Only Works For Me When…” (Jo Beverley)

I do think there’s a difference between the lie and the misunderstanding. Let’s say Lady Frisky is falling in love with handsome Rafe Savage. The jealous Duchess of Spite tells her he thinks she’s a bothersome twit. She refuses to speak to him again and promises to marry someone else. That is not a misunderstanding. She understood the duchess perfectly. It’s a big lie. Whether it works or not depends on how believable the lie is. As Robin wrote, the reason Wickham’s lie in P&P works is that it’s believable. Darcy is prideful. It’s believable that he’d refuse to let his sister marry a man of low birth. If Wickham had tried to spread the word that he was a French spy, he’d have been laughed at.

To me, the misunderstanding requires that the character is exposed to one thing and sees it as another. It’s misinterpretation, such as the classic one of the hero seeing the heroine in dubious company and assuming she’s a slut. I think it’s very hard to do with speech, though in Heyer’s – is it The Nonesuch? – the heroine overhears something to do with the hero’s brats and assumes he has hordes of bastards. In fact, he funds orphanages. In that book, however, it only runs a little while before being cleared up. It’s a misunderstanding but not a big one.

For me, the crucial thing about a Big Mis is the “big.” We use the term because this misunderstanding, this misinterpretation, is too big for its boots. It is the often the only factor keeping hero and heroine apart and just isn’t up to the job.

Anything can work, but I think there are three reasons this so often irritates readers. One is that it often doesn’t accord with what the reader and the misunderstanding character knows about the victim. This decently dressed lady is a whore simply because she’s walking down an unfortunate street? The otherwise honorable hero is a thief because he is seen with someone else’s jewelry?

The next is that it runs too long – goes from being a misunderstanding to a Big Mis. Certainly there are many situations where we mistake what we see or hear and then won’t confront people about it because it would be uncomfortable, but if these two people care and if this detail is making them miserable, they will do something. If they can’t bring themselves to confront their beloved, they could ask others, or do a bit of investigation. I think we as readers know when it’s run too long, when the character really would do something. Too often it’s obvious that the only reason they don’t is because a bit of enquiry or a direct question would bring the book to a rapid end. What the author needed to do was either pile on more evidence, or kill this one but come up with something even worse.

The third is the love factor. Love makes people loopy, yes, but if we’re supposed to believe that a powerful love is growing, we want to believe that they have something going for them beyond lust. Necessary things like belief in the other’s good qualities and trust. We want that belief to cause them to fight not crumple at one piece of evidence. A misunderstanding in the early days can be a useful complication, but the farther we are in the book, the weaker its power should be – or the more believable it must be to overcome their loving trust and belief.

In addition to all this, I really like it when some of the conflict, the barriers to happiness, are not lies or misunderstandings at all. When they have substance so that investigation or confrontation doesn’t blow them away. They are real and must be dealt with. In P&P these are the difference in status between Elizabeth and Darcy and his arrogant pride. Those are what give the book such substance.

So for me, little misunderstandings are great plot twists. Big ones rarely work.

Hey, Hey! (Laurie Likes Books)

As I read through Robin’s and Jo’s segments, what stands out is that none of us – or the people we’ve talked to about it – can abide TBM if communication would have prevented its necessity. Among the five of us, I’d venture that each of us can probably point to at least one romance we loved, as Robin indicated, in spite of (but not because of) TBM. There appears to be some consensus that if TBM occurs early on in a romantic relationship, it is more effective, and that if it doesn’t extend the entire book, it can be more palatable for readers. Defining terms, though, can be difficult; is something a Big Misunderstanding or is the true plot device a Big Lie or Big Secret?

Something I believe we all agree: if TBM occurs solely to forward the plot and is not at all character-based, it hasn’t been well-done and deserves in entirety its bad reputation. But because all of us occasionally behave out of character, I think in the future I will be less inclined to roll my eyes in disdain when I come across TBM. Because I’ve now seen it used effectively and realize there are romances I’ve liked or loved not in spite of The Big Misunderstanding, but because of it. What about you?

Time to Post to the Message Board

We throw open the ATBF Message Board to your thoughts and comments on all the “Bigs”: The Big Misunderstanding, The Big Secret, The Big Lie, The Big Assumption…have I missed any? While we realize that the traditional view of these “Bigs” is not a particularly positive one, we’d appreciate it if you considered those books featuring any or some of these “Bigs” that you enjoyed either because or in spite of the “Big” premise[s]. And if Anne, Elizabeth, or I were successful in having you look at TBM differently, let us know!

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,

Laurie Likes Books, Anne Marble, & Robin Uncapher,
in conjunction with Elizabeth Rolls and Jo Beverley


Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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