Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What's Wrong with the Big Misunderstanding?

If you spend any time reading romance novel message boards or blogs, pretty soon somebody's going to complain about "the Big Misunderstanding" in a romance, and that if only the couple had had a simple conversation, the conflict would be resolved, end of story.

I dunno about you, but I've seen plenty of examples in real life where there has been a serious, deep conflict that has lasted for years and that yes, could have been resolved by a conversation in the beginning, but that conversation never took place -- and it wasn't because the parties involved were too stupid to realize that talking it out would solve the problem.

It's because there can be a whole lot more going on within the minds and hearts of the people involved than the supposed subject of the disagreement. Often, that issue is a catalyst for a whole lot of other, deeper issues -- issues that may have lain dormant, or (more likely) quietly festering for years, until that problem/question/conflict lit a match to the tinder of resentment/bitterness/dissatisfaction and a conflagration ensued.

Often, these issues reach right into the quarreling peoples' deepest insecurities, vulnerabilities and fears. What if I'm wrong? What if I admit it? Will I look weak? With that mean the other person has "won" and therefore I've "lost?" What if I'm rejected because I was wrong? What if they're right? Does that make me a bad person? What if the other person being right means something I've believed in/worked for/trusted for years isn't worthy of that belief/effort/trust? Have I been duped? Am I a fool?

Sometimes, it's easier to stay angry/bitter/resentful and not communicate than find out the answer to such questions.

In other words, a big misunderstanding can be big to the parties involved regardless of the subject and no matter how trivial it may seem to others simply because what's at stake has very little to do with the actual subject or issue. Having that "simple conversation" represents a huge emotional risk, and one that may be more difficult for a character to face than physical danger.

So why do people get so frustrated by misunderstandings? I suspect it's because the author hasn't gone deep enough into the characters. The author hasn't really shown what's at stake for them beyond the apparently trivial issue that caused the initial understanding. The author hasn't used the misunderstanding to the full extent possible and hasn't shown the reader why the characters are so very reluctant to have that "simple" conversation.

It's because (or should be because) it's anything but "simple" to them.


Molly O'Keefe said...

I am so WITH you Margaret! Often times that Big Misunderstanding conflict when it's done well is the most gut wrenching. because of all the reasons you said - vulnerability and insecurity. I love the big misunderstanding but like so many devices in romance it got watered down by overuse and poor use. Great post!

Margaret Moore said...

Glad I'm not alone, Molly!

Another problem I see is that the dialogue turns into cyclical bickering -- things go round and round without any change, never getting any nearer the deeper inner conflicts.

Maureen McGowan said...

I never understood this either. To me, in real life, most big problems are caused by the "big misunderstanding". I know most big problems in my own life (some ongoing) have been caused by fear of discussing something that, once discussed, would solve the problem.

I wonder if it's overuse if tge "big misunderstanding" that gets people so worked up... (Oh, did Molly say that? Ooops.)

I'm wondering, from you two published authors... do readers complain about this, or just other writers who also read... I wonder

Margaret Moore said...

Maureen, I see this as a "pet peeve" on reader message boards. I can't remember any writer starting such a topic, but some may have weighed in on the boards (I can't think of any specific examples at the moment).