Miscommunication is something that we all run into in daily life. It can also be a powerful tool for driving stories… unless you use it wrong.
What is it?
Plots often hinge on missing information. That’s fine. However, how you make the characters keep the information from each other can be a problem when the failure to communicate feels contrived.
Miscommunication in conversations happens all the time in real life. Our speech is imprecise. However, in books and television, conversations are stylized. Story conversations are like stage fencing: they look good and sound natural, but they’re really not. Story conversations are more condensed, have less flack, and are more to the point. This means that they also leave less room for miscommunication. As a result, a miscommunication can feel contrived. It’s like the uncanny valley of story conversations.
The more unlikely the miscommunication, and the longer it holds during interaction between characters, the worse this uncanny effect gets. One misunderstood sentence I can tolerate, two I start to frown, and three make me cringe.
Imagine two characters, John and Bill, who speak to each other. John is mad at Bill because of something Bill said, but Bill sent an apology letter. John never got the letter, though.
“Did you mean what you said?” John asked.
Bill nodded; it was hard writing an apology, but he meant it. “Every word.”
“Well, I don’t buy it,” John said. If Bill would apologize, things would be fine, but apparently, Bill was having none of it. He was doubling down on his insults.
Bill nearly chocked. “You ungrateful, condescending piece of sh*t!”
And it gets worse from here on. The characters speak to each other, but they both choose their words in such a way that the conflict escalates because of miscommunication. Trouble could have easily been averted, if the characters had spoken like normal people. What about a simple “did you get my letter?” as an opening?
Yes, the above example could happen in real life, but it feels contrived.
I saw a similar plot twist in Stranger Things Season 2 last week: Eleven, one of the main characters sneaks up to her friend Mike, pining for him, but she catches him just at the end of a conversation where he was discussing how he misses Eleven. Only, she only hears the last part of the conversation out of context and gets mad. Cringe.
If you want more examples, go watch an episode of a soap opera. Those thrive on these kinds of problems, at least the ones I’ve watched – which was at least 15 years ago, I admit.
How to fix it?
There are several ways to fix this.
One is to do nothing. Keep in mind that not everybody hates this type of plot; heck, soap operas thrive on it. It won’t be a story for me, but I’m not all readers.
Another approach is to limit the interaction between the characters. As I said, I only frown slightly at the first contrived exchange. The more characters talk around each other, the worse it gets. Have them be so angry they refuse to speak to each other. Have them called away by emergencies. Kill one of them before the crucial information can be exchanged (that’s a favorite in detective stories).
A third approach is to distract one or both of the characters. If they are not in their right mind, it’s easier to accept that they don’t listen very well to others. Have them be stressed out of their mind, make them extremely angry, or make the conversation take place during a crisis.
Finally, you can change the plot so that one of the characters is deliberately withholding information. It’s not contrived if one of the characters is actively trying to withhold things from the other. This can usually increase tension as a bonus. However, depending on the type of character arc you’re going for, this might not work in all situations.
Miscommunication has started wars in the real world, but as a writing tool it’s a blade that cuts both ways.