Can You Hear Me Now? – An Open Letter to Romance Authors

5843405057_af77f6bfb4 Dear Writers of Romance Novels,

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,
Jenna Harper

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20 Responses to “Can You Hear Me Now? – An Open Letter to Romance Authors”

  1. farmwifetwo says:

    Lush, Lauren Dane. It wasn’t the first teenage reaction so I flipped to the end…. and decided I had no patience with dealing with children. It should have been a ‘growth’ story.A book about making it work. It wasn’t.

    I want the growth. The maturity. Yes, the misunderstandings. But, like adults not children.

    • pamelia says:

      @farmwifetwo: I immediately thought of this book too. I thought it was a real letdown and completely out of character for Mary. Just disappointing!

  2. Lori says:

    This reminds me of how I felt reading Kristen Callihan’s Winterblaze. Okay, not contemporary–no cell phones to ignore–but the hero and heroine do spend most of the book *almost* having the needed Come-to-Jesus talk to clear the air and resolve their hurt feelings, but at the last minute, one or the other always backs down based on some excuse or other, or else they are conveniently interrupted.

    My thinking? “Fine, be that way. Don’t talk, don’t get back together. Whatever. I’m already over you.”

  3. maggie b. says:

    I don’t like the Big Mis because even without technology it shows a certain immaturity and frankly, a lack of the communication skills needed to make a marriage work. That said, authors can make it work. For example, Heroine sees Joe Undercover Cop commit crime. She becomes convinced he is chasing her to kill her. Rather than take chances she ditches her cell so he can’t trace her and starts to run for her life. That might work but most of the time the big mis is actually really simple and little and the author insults us and her characters by using it.

    • AARJenna says:

      I agree – that would be a clever way to make the Big Mis work. And I would think that a heroine who ditches her cell phone thinking she’s being followed or traced is acting smartly in protecting herself. See…it can be done well!

  4. Kathy says:

    OMG, yes! I read a book just last week in which the heroine and hero went through a Big Mis for almost half of a book (about 200 pages). She likes him but believes that he is annoyed by her, thinks of her in a sisterly way. He likes her but believes she is involved with his cousin. Of course, the Big Mis was aided and abetted by the cousin who told both of them lies about the other and manipulated and schemed to keep them apart. Still, there were countless moments it could have been cleared up if they both had just had a real conversation.

  5. Louise B says:

    In real life, the Big Mis just doesn’t help one work at a marriage. I can remember at one time our city was absolutely snarled due to a major accident. My husband was catching a ride with a co-worker to meet me somewhere. The co-worker said there’s no way your wife is at that spot. My husband said “she is. She always keeps her promises.” I, on the other hand, totally understood my husband would be late because he IS the guy who stops to help the little old lady with the flat tire, and the teenage girls caught in a ditch during a snowstorm, and the family stranded when their car broke down. All these times I’ve seen my husband in action and more besides. There is no Big Mis unless the characters want one.

  6. pwnn says:

    I don’t think recent technology changes much. It’s not like there haven’t been phones for over a century. The same people that wouldn’t pick up their land line don’t answer their cell. Now it’s just easier to automatically block calls. Those that wouldn’t answer a knock on the door or a letter won’t answer a tweet or they’ll de-friend them . Those that can man or woman up (and yes it’s far more often the latter in Romance) and actually talk about what’s bothering them won’t do it no matter the medium available.

    I can see technology as causing more misunderstandings. Just imagine the trouble poor texting skills and auto correct can cause. Or what about those poor schmoes that have failed to update their relationship status on Facebook and their new gal or guy thinks it means they’re still playing the field. Or how about that conniving Other Woman who has just happened to friend you is posting cryptic remarks and photos created to make you suspicious.

    Really, there’s always an excuse for the immature to jump to conclusions and make a run for it and the passive aggressive to make a big drawn out Big Misunderstanding.

    As pointed out, there are cases where the Big Mis works. If a viable consequences is danger or harm if a confrontation takes place then non confrontation can make sense. Or if as said it’s dealt with as a character flaw, where the person is unable to deal with confrontation and they hopefully grow out of it instead of the other person chasing them down and kowtowing to their bull.

  7. Emily says:

    Preach it, sister. I hate the Big Mis anyway. Too often it’s just contrived conflict. But for contemporary romances, the lack of social conventions that might restrict certain conversations, plus the various methods of communication available (phone, twitter, text, FB, etc.), make a lengthy Big Mis totally illogical.

  8. CarolineAAR says:

    Jenna, this was hilarious. I have been a huge X-Files fan for forever, and it was a major series in-joke that the characters would have to lose reception at critical plot moments because otherwise whatever crisis was about to happen could be prevented.

    I particularly agree that the sort of person who turns her nose up in a snit and won’t even discuss the problem is a loose cannon to be married to. What a brat.

    But beyond “not answering the phone,” there’s “not reading the texts,” “not checking Facebook,” and of course “refusing to do all of these with any and all mutual friends.” Which, in addition to being immature, is just starting to get silly.

  9. erika says:

    Hmm, but not everyone uses technology. I don’t mind a big mis however if it drags out a big mis can be a big dud.

  10. Eliza says:

    I don’t see it necessarily as a technology issue either. It’s a people issue of folks jumping to wrong conclusions: they always have and always will, IMO. I don’t see why book characters should be any better (or perfect) at communicating than living people. Watch the news. It’s more a matter of how well (or not) the author writes and handles a misunderstanding as far as I’m concerned. OTOH, I really really dislike how the word “trope” is so often used in book discussions. Oh well, different strokes…

  11. Joane says:

    I usually don’t like thew Big Mis. It sounds as a little bit of laziness on the author’s part. A novel has to have a conflict, an inner conflict or something outside the couple, a conflict that must be solved before the HEA. But I prefer a real conflict than a silly one.

  12. Eve Gaal says:

    Dear Jenna,
    I don’t know if you were talking about my new novel when you mentioned the poor guy going all the way to Hawaii to find his true love but just in case, I thought I’d clear up any confusion–The big misunderstanding is the foundation for the lack of communication so prevalent in so many relationships. I felt it was important to show how important communication is and made it a point in my story. On the surface the cell phones are not charged which is obviously possible but the deeper meaning is simply that communication is crucial if you want your love to last. There is plenty of inner turmoil going on and outer conflict. Anyway, sorry if it troubled you.

    • AARJenna says:

      Eve – unless you write under a pen name, I was not referencing your novel in my post. I agree whole-heartedly that good communication is essential to a good relationship, and a lack of communication is a huge obstacle to lasting love and even romance. And as I said in my post, I also know that Big Misunderstandings do happen frequently because we are all human and can jump to the wrong conclusions. The point I was attempting to make is that i find it frustrating when writers allow a Big Mis to continue even when one of the main players is trying to communicate with the other, but the wronged party refuses to engage. Specifically, I find it bothersome when, as in my examples, the hero is trying desperately to talk to – communicate with – the heroine to clear up a Big Mis but she won’t engage. She ignores his calls. I find that behaviour immature and can’t manage to muster any sympathy for her in such a case.

      I do agree that there a legitimate reasons a couple may not be able to clear up a Big Mis, and a story that utilizes such a reason (as in the example suggested in the thread above by Maggie B) works fine for me. And a couple who has to overcome their inability to effectively communicate with each other can be very moving. If you’ve seen the movie “Hope Springs,” I find that to be an excellent example of communication problems being a huge obstacle to lasting love. But when a writer employs unreasonable methods to push the Big Mis – i.e. heroines who ignore cell calls – I can’t get on board.

  13. Eve Gaal says:

    Thanks Jenna for the clarification. I think I have seen Hope Springs and I do think it’s a great example. I hope someday you’ll enjoy reading my fun book about communication-Penniless Hearts. Adieu.

  14. NBLibGirl says:

    Hear, hear! I really dislike books in which the “major conflict” is something that could easily be dispensed with by a simple conversation, technology notwithstanding. I can handle a bit of emotional immaturity if the book is YA or we are talking about teen-aged characters but it’s usually a deal breaker for me when authors force it on adult characters.

  15. Michelle says:

    Yes, yes, yes!!!! I wish I had a nickle for every book that I have been tempted to throw against the wall over this type of contrived storyline! Yikes, I can’t stand it. As someone who is very direct in my communication with others – I find this tactic extremely annoying. I have many times given up on a book that drug this type of scenario out for nearly half the book…

  16. Haley says:

    The book I just finished had one of these. I do find myself thinking when I read a contemporary “where are the cell phones?” Everyone I know has a phone on them 90% off the time yet, I assume out of convenience, romance characters never do. In Half Moon Hill, the lead guy sees the heroine talking to another guy at a party, and leaves. The saving grace was that it wasn’t just “how dare she talk to him? They must be in love!’, he had concerns the whole book about whether he fit into her life and that tableau reinforced it.

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