Most of you are aware that one over-used source of conflict in a fictional relationship that drives nearly all readers absolutely batty is the Big Misunderstanding. You know the trope. The hero or heroine witnesses something or overhears something or is told something that leads him or her to a wrong conclusion about his/her love interest. Rather than confront the potentially wayward lover as soon as possible to ask her/him to explain the situation, the discussion never happens and the romance grinds to a complete halt. Too often, this Big Misunderstanding drags on and on to the point of ridiculousness, causing the reader to want to shake the fictional characters silly and throw the book at the wall.
The problem with the Big Misunderstanding these days is not so much that they happen – people frequently do jump to the wrong conclusions – it’s that the conversation it would take to clear things up is so easily arranged. At least in historicals or any story set before telephones, the character who gets the wrong idea can flounce off the scene in a snit, making a soul-cleansing heart-to-heart chat much harder to happen until their unjustly maligned partner physically hunts them down. Depending on how far away the abused party gets, the Big Mis could conceivably drag on a bit before the truth comes to light.
But with today’s cell phones, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter feed and about a dozen or more ways to communicate almost instantaneously, there is simply no excuse for the Big Mis to last more than a day. Heck, I’d even argue an hour. You see your hunky man at a restaurant with a gorgeous blonde supermodel? In 140 words or less you can easily clear up the problem.
Suzi Wishywashy: Who was that woman with you at Le Restaurante? (Text – 9 words)
Joe Bob Studly: My cousin
(Text – 2 words)
@joebobstudly Where were you last night?
Had dinner with @laurasexy, my cousin, who’s in town for the #SportsIllustrated swimsuit photo shoot.
(Twitter feed – 20 words)
Joe Bob Studly commented on Suzi Wishywashy’s relationship status change
Aren’t we dating any more?
Suzi Wishywashy Not since you started dining with leggy blonde supermodels
Joe Bob Studly That was my cousin
Suzi Wishywashy Oh
(Facebook – 19 words)
Let’s come clean, and admit that in this age of instant communication, there really is no excuse for a Big Mis to linger. So how do you solve this problem so that you can continue to use this tired old workhorse of the romance genre?
Why, you have your confused character refuse to answer her/his cell phone.
Two out of the last five books I’ve read and reviewed have had this happen. The heroine witnessed something about the hero that was greatly distressing. She fled the scene without sticking around to ask some questions (mistake one). After experiencing radio silence for too long, the hero attempted to contact her on her cell phone. She saw who was calling and instead of answering with a “What the heck was that?!”, she…ignored the call.
In one book, the heroine ignored the dozens of frantic calls and voice messages left by her would-be boyfriend for two days.
In the second book, the heroine never did pick up the phone, requiring the confused hero to follow her all the way to Hawaii to have a conversation.
And in both cases, any affection I might have felt for the heroine evaporated like a puff of smoke. Because unless you’ve well established your character as the type of person who fears confrontation at any level or who has a history of ignoring important cell phone calls or is Amish and thus does not utilize modern technology, not answering the phone simply smacks of immaturity. She’s pulling the literary equivalent of sticking her fingers in her ears and saying “Nah nah nah nah, can’t hear you!”. I just can’t get behind a character who is, for all intents and purposes, pouting her way through the world’s biggest self-pity party.
The poor confused hero is trying his best to understand what’s suddenly come over his one true love, making the effort to contact her to ask what’s wrong or, if he knows that she’s under the wrong impression, to explain the mistake. But she can’t be bothered to even listen to him? I have half a mind to advise the guy to cut his losses while he can because lord knows how she’ll react when he gets unexpectedly tied up with a crisis at work on their anniversary or is ten minutes late for their Lamaze class because he stopped to help a little old lady with a flat tire on the side of the freeway.
I would also ask, my writer friends, why it’s so often the heroine who is pulling this kind of passive aggressive maneuver? Not to impugn my own sex, but heroes seem more interested in solving the problem as easily and quickly as possible – i.e. they pick up the phone. It certainly doesn’t speak of strength and independence if a woman is so afraid to confront a problem she chooses to thrust her head in the sand so she doesn’t have to talk about it. No matter how timid or insecure, it doesn’t take that much backbone to answer the call and ask the person who is supposedly in love with her, “Please help me understand what I just saw and why I shouldn’t be concerned.”
So, I’m asking you here and now, please just stop with this. If you can’t find any other way to drag on the Big Mis without having a character ignore cell calls (or e-mails or Twitter feeds or Facebook posts, et al), then don’t use it as a lazy tool to create conflict between your characters. Be creative. Come up with a different source of conflict or at least find some darned good reasons why the couple justcan’t have a simple conversation.
This would be much appreciated.
Always a fan,