Archive for January 13th, 2011

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about the Big Misunderstanding as a plot device and why I disliked it. Since that time, I’ve actually used a Big Misunderstanding in a plot of my own (see Venus In Blue Jeans), so I’ve sort of moderated my opinions. Yet I found myself thinking about it once again after reading a few books lately that used a familiar Big Misunderstanding plot device: the Misunderstood Conversation.

You know this one. The hero or heroine overhears her/his Significant Other in conversation with someone else, and something said in the conversation convinces him/her that his SO is a Cheating Bastard. Or has Done Something Terrible. The heroine/hero seldom hears the entire conversation, mind you, because she/he is so overcome with emotion that he/she runs away before it’s over.

My tolerance for this particular plot device is somewhat slim since it requires the character to not do what most people would do in that situation, to wit, ask the SO what the hell is going on. My willingness to put up with this kind of reaction depends on just how long the misunderstanding continues. If it’s a relatively short-duration thing, I’m willing to go with it for a while. But if the hero/heroine goes on being pissy for several chapters, I find myself gritting my teeth and skimming to find the chapter where the misunderstanding will actually be taken care of. And I figure setting things up so your reader ends up skimming your prose rather than reading it isn’t a really good idea.

The thing is, though, there are ways of making this plot device work without making the h/h behave like a dimwit. First of all, the h/h can confront the SO immediately and the SO can refuse to explain, either in pique (“How dare you question my ethics? What kind of person do you think I am?”) or because the plot demands that the SO keep it a secret. In which case the h/h has an interesting dilemma—to trust or not to trust?

Or the SO can turn the situation around, saying “Why are you so insecure that you believe this means I’m untrue to you?” Or the h/h can confront the SO and discover that the conversation is, in fact, just as incriminating as it seems to be, although, of course, the SO will eventually be cleared of any wrongdoing.

In other words, the h/h can actually behave like a normal human being without terminally crippling the plot.

What I really hate, I must admit, is the plot where the h/h does none of the above. The one where the h/h flounces off, leaving a snotty message for the SO, or where the h/h flounces off with no message whatsoever leaving the SO confused about what exactly is going on. Then there’s the variation where the h/h breaks up with the SO without explaining why and we have to endure a couple of chapters where the h/h and SO both suffer terribly because they’re In Love and because they’ve Been Betrayed.

The problem is that we, the readers, frequently find ourselves out of sympathy with that suffering. Because behaving this way is basically the action of a moron rather than a hero. And morons do not make for fun reading.



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