One of the tropes I absolutely despise is when the conflict in a story could be resolved if the characters sit down and talked to each other for five minutes. I bring this up because last night I got Mail Order Bride back from the editor, and one of her comments was “I am delighted to say that all of the conflict comes from young people trying to find their own way forward, and not from the usual lack of communication.”
To say I was delighted by this comment was an understatement, but ironically, I got the comment at the exact moment I was working on a chapter in The Master of Puppets that focuses on a rather major miscommunication, and it got me thinking about the difference between a Lack of Communication and Miscommunication.
The chapter in The Master of Puppets arises from a cultural misunderstanding. The Master of Puppets, and in fact the entire War of Souls series is about the relationship between a human woman and an alien woman. At the end of the previous character, the human makes a small gesture of gratitude for something the alien had done. However, in the alien culture, because of differences in anatomy, the gesture holds a much greater significance, and the resulting misunderstanding becomes the central focus of the following chapter.
This does raise the question of why, if I hate lack of communication so much, I am building part of a plot (even a relatively small part) around a miscommunication. The answer is, there’s a difference between lack of communication, and miscommunication. A miscommunication happens when people are genuinely trying to talk to each other, but for whatever reason, what one person is saying isn’t what the other person is hearing. A lack of communication happens when people just don’t talk to each other.
Both miscommunication and a lack of communication happen in real life, and both can destroy a relationship and cause all sorts of trouble, but why is one more tolerable in fiction than another. Why is miscommunication cause for anything from hilarity to tragedy, while a lack of communication will just end up annoying your reader and turning them off to your story?
The answer is agency. In order for readers to really get invested in characters, those characters need to have agency. Bad things can happen to a character, a character can make a mistake, a character can make a horrible decision, and readers will still get invested in them. But the one sure way for a character to lose the interest and sympathy of the reader is for a character to do nothing. No one wants to read about a character who sits there and passively lets plot happen to them.
Which brings us back to lack of communication vs. miscommunication. Miscommunication is a mistake. The characters are trying. The characters are active. The characters have agency. Miscommunication is something that happens while the characters are doing something. Lack of Communication is passivity. The characters aren’t trying. The characters aren’t active. The characters don’t have agency. Lack of Communication is the characters sitting there, passively letting plot happen to them.
Again, lack of communication does happen in real life, but fiction isn’t real life, and passive characters will drive your readers insane. I can’t begin to count the number of times I have ended up screaming at a character to do something. To do anything. I also can’t begin to count the number of stories I just did not finish because the characters couldn’t be bothered to do something about the plot happening to them. The last thing you, as an author want, is for your readers to experience that kind of frustration with your characters. Unless your name is Mary Shelly and your book is titled Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, in which case, more power to you.
One final caveat to this. While miscommunication can be a useful plot device, and it won’t drive the readers to distraction the way a lack of communication will, there comes a point at which miscommunication becomes a lack of communication. In order to avoid that, it’s important to remember that a miscommunication must be resolved. Not necessarily at the first opportunity, but the longer it lingers, the more it risks transforming into a lack of communication, at which point, you lose your readers.
In my case, the chapter I was writing centers around the discovery of the miscommunication, and while the miscommunication itself does not linger, the impact of the miscommunication, however brief, will last for the rest of the series because the miscommunication shifted a character’s perspective. It forced them to look at something in a different context, and once that happens, they can’t go back to their old way of thinking.
Which, I think, is the best way to use miscommunication as a plot device. Have it stick around just long enough to have the desired impact on the plot, then have it cleared up. And, if you can, get a few laughs out of it, because really, the moment when your normally calm and levelheaded character stops and screams “I did WHAT?” is always going to be fun.