Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Good communication is the secret to a successful relationship. Why? Because it prevents drama and solves problems before hard feelings manifest as conflict – that’s why it has absolutely no place in your story.
Well, we’ve wrapped things up quicker than usual, but that’s no crime. Let me know in the comments whether you think characters are more interesting when their communication is strained, or whether… What? You’re not convinced? Okay, we can do this the hard way.
Clarity is for snow globes
That’s the thesis, then: poor communication breeds conflict, and conflict leads to amazing stories. Of course, there are plenty of ways to create conflict without involving confusion or misunderstanding – why should you have characters talking at cross-purposes rather than having them disagree on a specific point, or writing in a plot event that sets them at odds?
The answer is that having characters misunderstand each other opens up unique dramatic paths, giving you access to particular emotional responses from your reader. So, how do you begin writing characters who are talking at cross-purposes? More than that, how do you do it well, since writing confusing situations can threaten to alienate the reader? When you put it like that, I guess we do still have a lot to cover.
I’ll start by expanding on what I mean by ‘talking at cross-purposes’. Talking at cross-purposes means that two characters are engaged in a discussion where one or both of them is misunderstanding the other. Either specific details or their core suppositions are at odds, but this isn’t clear to both parties.
Talking at cross-purposes can take many forms, although the simplest version is a basic mishearing. Many of you will be familiar with the following exchange:
“Can I take this chair?”
“Sorry, wait, I thought you said ‘Is this chair taken?’ It’s free, you can have it.”
“Oh, ha, thanks!”
In that example, the concept that sets the speakers off at cross-purposes is the initial question. A more complex version might be where two people are talking about ‘Jane’, with one meaning Jane Eriksson and the other meaning Jane Blumenthal. Harmless enough initially, until one character informs another that Jane had a terrible fall last night, and is currently in hospital. Easy enough to clarify, of course, until the other character calls the wrong Jane’s estranged brother to commiserate.
Jane’s brother jumps behind the wheel, filled with grief and regret – in fact, he’s so distracted that he runs a red light and gets shunted off the road by a truck. Now he’s in a coma, and our initial character is getting scared: what if someone realizes what happened? Why, she’d be engulfed in scandal, right as she’s running for office on the narrowest of leads…
The story practically writes itself, but that’s the joy of a misunderstanding – it’s a fracture in the characters’ lives that expands unpredictably until things are way worse than when they started.A simple misunderstanding can be the seed of immense conflict.Click To Tweet
We’re still on the small stuff, though – often, miscommunication has a deeper purpose. Many key moments in great works are based around conversations where one party is discussing a seemingly prosaic topic, while another is deriving deeper meaning. Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a great example – Kevin’s mother fears he may be troubled, even evil, but doesn’t feel able to broach the topic directly with her husband. Instead, she begins with tangential topics, testing the waters and trying to see if her husband might be open to hearing her fears. When he reacts dismissively or negatively, he believes he is addressing minor concerns, but to her, he’s confirming that she is not safe to have the discussion she really wants to have.
Shriver uses miscommunication masterfully, making it so that Kevin – the subject of all his protagonist’s unspoken fears – ends up the only person with whom she can have completely honest interactions. Clearly, talking at cross-purposes is common enough in literature and life, but why is that? Well, because it’s really useful.
The merits of unclear speech
Having characters talking at cross-purposes is a useful literary device, but one many authors don’t think of when writing. Understanding the plot as they do, and wanting the reader to feel the same, it can seem counter-intuitive to have characters misunderstand each other or communicate in an unclear manner.
This is certainly a hurdle to clear in your writing, but one that’s well worth it for the twin emotional pay-offs of frustration and pride.
Harnessing the power of frustration
So why would you want to frustrate the reader? Well, there’s frustration and there’s frustration. By that, I mean there’s frustration with the book or story (which is bad) and frustration with the characters or events (which is great). If a reader is frustrated with the characters, it means they care about their decisions and the attendant outcomes – that’s an active reader, and someone who’s getting a huge amount out of your story.
So how do you establish this beneficial type of frustration? Well, you start small, as with our Jane/Jane misunderstanding. Humans are incredibly sensitive to watching others in the throes of a misunderstanding – we have an innate urge to jump in and fix things, and being unable to do so is excruciating.
This is true even of minor misunderstandings. In fact, that may be where it’s most applicable, since the reader knows they could set everyone straight with a sentence or two. As the situation worsens, and the initial error bears bitter fruit, the reader will look back on the first misunderstanding with a form of grief. They’re imagining exactly how things could have gone differently, they’re wistful for how things ‘could have been’ – a reaction that assumes, as its base, that your story is how things actually went. Suspension of disbelief at its finest.
This type of frustration powers any kind of satisfying ending – if things go right, it’s what the reader’s been hoping for since the start; if things go wrong, they know that a tiny change could have fixed everything. One of our most famous tragedies, King Lear, utilizes this very mechanic. Lear’s misunderstanding of his daughter’s refusal to flatter him brings disaster to his family and kingdom, and in the end, he realizes this just as the reader is lamenting the same fact. It’s talking at cross-purposes on a grand scale – the misunderstanding stems from little more than a whim and ends in death after death.
Inviting reader pride
Okay, frustration is useful, fine, but why would characters talking at cross-purposes make a reader feel pride? Simply, because they know more than anyone else. Character A knows their own interpretation, as does Character B, but the reader knows both, and knows where they got confused. As Lear mourns his daughter, the reader mourns with him, but they’re also thinking ‘told you so’.
Not only that, but when the characters finally figure things out, and lament how stupid they’ve been, they’re also tacitly congratulating the reader. ‘Oh, how stupid we’ve been’ translates to ‘Oh, how smart you are’. Everyone likes to hear that, even from fictional characters.
This is a great device for ensuring the reader is comfortable with a complex story, or even for slipping something past them. You’ve created the misunderstanding – you’ve made it apparent to the reader – and that means you’re in control. Want to get the reader on-side before a big reveal or complicated plan? Build their confidence with some cross-purposes discussion, making them feel like an insider so they’re more receptive to new or unfamiliar information. Is there a hidden context to the conversation that you don’t want to reveal until later? Throw in a minor misunderstanding to occupy the reader’s critical faculties.Character misunderstandings make your reader feel smart – the perfect time to trick them.Click To Tweet
Of course, these are just the immediate, emotional effects of a scene where characters are talking at cross-purposes. They’re a reason to take a regular piece of dialogue and twist it so the characters are miscommunicating, or choose to have a disagreement arise because of misunderstanding rather than contention, but both those ideas paint cross-purpose discussion as window-dressing, a beneficial detail to consider, but something to add late in the drafting process. In fact, it’s far more versatile than that, and it may even have a place in your story plotting.
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a great example of a book that uses talking at cross-purposes to address themes and explore its characters.
In an early scene, Cathy discusses her love for Heathcliff with a third party (who, in the extract, is relating the story from her own point of view). Cathy is unaware that Heathcliff is nearby, and capable of overhearing her words.
“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”
Ere this speech ended I became sensible of Heathcliff’s presence. Having noticed a slight movement, I turned my head, and saw him rise from the bench, and steal out noiselessly. He had listened till he heard Catherine say it would degrade her to marry him, and then he stayed to hear no further. My companion, sitting on the ground, was prevented by the back of the settle from [noticing] his presence or departure…
“My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable…”
In this extract, Heathcliff believes he has been rejected, whereas Cathy speaks with the implicit understanding that she is incapable of even considering such a course of action.
The cross-purposes here are incredibly subtle, basically boiling down to the ways in which each character regards their bond (and how they believe the other character feels about it). What’s more relevant is that each character’s perception is born out of their personality and their assumptions about the world. The tragedy that follows isn’t just compelling, it’s rooted in the characters, and thus in the core of the story.A character’s assumptions tell the reader who they are, especially when they’re wrong.Click To Tweet
The reader is asked to reflect on what could have been, but then to wonder if anything could actually have changed – was this a misunderstanding, or the unavoidable outcome of who these people are? If Heathcliff had stayed longer, would his understanding have really changed so drastically, or do Cathy’s initial words so accurately skewer his deepest insecurities that there’s no repairing what’s broken?
All good misunderstandings emerge from who a character is, and the ways in which characters misunderstand each other show how their core beliefs and basic personalities clash. Talking at cross-purposes is a microcosm of larger conflicts, and shows the reader how characters’ core beliefs differ. Even as talking at cross-purposes isolates characters from one another, it opens them up to the reader. Nail it, and your reader will feel that they understand a character better than anyone else, real or fictional.
How to write good miscommunication
A while ago, I talked about how to write multiple antagonists in a story. One key piece of advice was that it’s a good idea to give your antagonists goals which differ from, but interfere with, those of the protagonist. If Hero and Villain both want treasure, that’s a dull story. If Hero wants treasure and Villain wants to blow up the planet where that treasure can be found, the characters start to come alive, and each is free to pursue their own organic goals rather than follow a single track to artificial conflict.
This logic can also be applied to miscommunication, and has a similar effect of fleshing out characters and allowing them to form as individuals. When one character has the ‘right’ idea and another is confused, that scene might be interesting, but when both characters are confused, or where there’s no single correct interpretation, a story really comes alive.
Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog has an early incident in which a local doctor runs up against a rancher. The doctor is drunk, and attempts to engage the rancher in conversation, singing the virtues of his son as he does so. The rancher, however, is offended by the drunk’s presence, and throws out barbs which the doctor is initially incapable of understanding.
What makes this scene so effective is that the reader has already been introduced to the doctor, his failures in life, and his worries for his son. Likewise, they know a little of the rancher, especially his tastes and disposition. They know that these two men can’t do each other any good, and that the doctor’s boasting about his son is intended to compensate for worries he has about the boy’s social life. What’s interesting here is that the rancher intends to hurt and upset the doctor, but perhaps not to the extent he does (the doctor commits suicide much later, though the narrative establishes the interaction as a root cause).
The doctor misunderstands the rancher’s nature and his willingness to be accosted, but the rancher misunderstands the doctor’s humanity, and refuses to see his behaviour through any lens but the inconvenience it causes him. When the doctor tries to impress the rancher by quoting Greek, he actually irritates the proud and intelligent man, who takes the gesture as a challenge.
One man believes he’s having a conversation, while the other views it as combat. Imagine, instead, a scene where the doctor is deliberately trying to embarrass or irritate the rancher, or a scene where it’s the specifics of what the doctor says that irritate (rather than his presence). Each could be written coherently, but they’d lack that frustration and pride that would really make them pop – the reader would recognize the conflict, but without the thought of ‘if only one of you really understood the other’ that makes it a tragedy.
This is the realization of a psychological theory sometimes called the ‘perfect world’ hypothesis. The theory states that the easier it is to imagine how events might have turned out better, the more frustrating we find the fact that they didn’t. Imagine, for example, two women. Both intend to catch a bus, both sleep in by half an hour and are then delayed another half an hour by traffic, and both miss their bus. The only difference between them is that the second woman finds out that her bus was delayed by fifty-five minutes, meaning she was only five minutes late to catch it. Both women are in the same situation, and yet we’d expect the second woman to be more frustrated, since far fewer things would need to have happened differently for her to have caught it – waking up five minutes early, or having been slightly less delayed by other drivers, would have made all the difference.
Writers can apply this theory to their writing by ensuring that the misunderstanding behind two characters talking at cross-purposes is as small as possible. The more easily they could have gotten along, the more (engagingly) agonizing it will be for the reader that they didn’t. In our Jane/Jane scenario, maybe the two characters come close to an understanding – one of them mentions a fact that’s incongruous for the ‘Jane’ the other character is thinking of, but their meals arrive, breaking up the discussion, and when they resume, the issue is forgotten.
This is something Shriver does frequently in We Need to Talk About Kevin; there are many events which seem to prove the protagonist’s opinion of Kevin, and yet she is never quite able to put them to her husband in a way that changes his opinion. For all the complexity of Brontë’s writing, it’s also the case in that Wuthering Heights extract – however deeply the reader thinks about it later, that moment makes it feel like everything would have been fine if Heathcliff had just hung around a moment longer, or if Cathy had known he was there.Writing great miscommunication means informing your reader before it happens.Click To Tweet
This is one secret to writing good miscommunication, but it’s also important that the reader understands what both characters are thinking. For the reader to feel the pride of understanding what no-one else does, they need to have the whole picture. This is done brilliantly in The Power of the Dog, where the reader spends a great deal of time getting to know the doctor, learning his personal history and deepest worries so they can appreciate his perspective when he meets the rancher.
It might be that you only want to reveal that a misunderstanding has occurred later in the story, and that’s fine, so long as the reader gets the full picture at that point. There are many ways to clue the reader in, from having the narrator explain to having the characters give their own account of the misunderstanding via dialogue. Sometimes, of course, the reader will pick up on both sides without needing help from the author – just be sure to test this with beta readers.
Talking at cross-purposes could improve your story
Beginning conflict can be one of the hardest parts of crafting a plot, but miscommunication is a tool worthy of your consideration. Talking at cross-purposes is a way to set up a disagreement or problem that draws the reader in and prevents a clear application of blame.
With a disagreement, or even an event, there’s a clear reason ‘why’ something happened. Deftly written miscommunication keeps things open – Wuthering Heights offers no clear answer as to ‘why’ Heathcliff and Cathy are separated, forcing the reader to think about the story, and the characters, and conclude that it is the confluence of many events. This is something they recognize from real life – multiple causes meeting in a single, unintended effect – and enhances the realism of the story.
In truth, many real-life examples of conflict emerge from misunderstandings. Frequently, people will even use the same word to discuss different concepts: patriotism, honesty, love, feminism, racism; they each mean different things to different people. If one person uses ‘feminism’ to mean ‘gender equality’ and the other uses it to mean ‘the hatred of men’, they begin a discussion talking at cross-purposes, and conflict naturally arises.
If you can get characters at loggerheads based on mutually exclusive definitions of a term or idea, with neither able to understand what the other person means when they use it, readers won’t be able to get enough of the problems that follow. Just remember, the reader has to understand where both characters are coming from, even if they don’t agree with either of them.
To practice writing a discussion at cross-purposes rather than a direct disagreement, just pen a scene wherein Character A applies a label to Character B, and the two characters have different understandings of what that label means. For example:
- ‘Racist’: Character A means ‘Ignorant of important information or context relating to race or race relations’, whereas Character B understands ‘Directly hateful to a person based on their race’.
Possible scene: A TV pundit challenges a comedian on a joke they’ve told. The pundit is arguing that the joke came from a place of ignorance, while the comedian is arguing that they didn’t intend to hurt or upset anyone by telling it.
- ‘Unqualified’: Character A means ‘Lacking the specific qualifications necessary to be appointed to a role’, whereas Character B understands ‘Incapable of doing the specified task’.
Possible scene: Two friends discuss whether one of them should try to become a literary agent. The first is trying to make the second understand that authors may need to see some kind of qualification to hire her, but to the second this sounds like her friend thinks she’ll have trouble doing the job.
- ‘Stupid’: Character A means ‘Having recently committed a stupid act’, whereas Character B understands ‘Inherently lacking in intelligence’.
Possible scene: A teacher chides a student for answering a simple question incorrectly, but the student takes it as an assessment of their academic potential.
- ‘Patriotic’: Character A means ‘Xenophobic and ethnocentric’, whereas Character B understands ‘Culturally proud and supportive of the well-being of their countrymen’.
Possible scene: Two student housemates meet each other. One describes himself as a patriot, and the other reacts with disgust.
Having characters talk at cross-purposes is a great way to begin organic, realistic conflict, and instantly grabs the reader in a way more direct disagreement often fails to. Add it to your writer’s toolbox and you won’t be sorry.
Once you’ve written out a scene with characters talking at cross-purposes in an engaging way, why not share it in the comments?
Or, for more on writing dialogue, check out 6 Insanely Good Dialogue Tips From Your Future Literary Agent, Is Your Dialogue Just Characters Talking? and When Can You Include Accent And Dialect In Your Dialogue?