Advice from the Archives: It’s Just A Big Misunderstanding…

We’re back with more brilliant advice to help you get the best out of your stories! This week we have a great post from SYTYCW 2014 on coincidences, contrivance & misunderstandings – enjoy!

Coincidence, contrivance, misunderstandings

Avoiding the pitfalls of contrivance, coincidence and misunderstandings in a story usually comes down to the characters’ conflicts – how internal or external they are – and development. If the premise of a story is contrived, a reader may find it hard to believe in the characters and their journey. And relying on a coincidence or misunderstanding can be an easy fix to disguise what is missing in a character’s development. So how can it be avoided?

If the premise of the story seems too convenient or too forced, it may not be quite believable enough to the reader. And in this situation, what will keep them reading the story? Strengthening a character’s internal conflict could make it easier for the reader to understand the characters’ motivations and develop sympathy for the character so that they itch to turn the pages!

How to avoid sounding contrived? If the characters’ emotional conflicts are unconvincing, and what’s keeping them apart is unclear and a bit weak, the best step is usually to go back and explore their conflicts more. Think about what is really keeping them apart. Is it an external event – something neither of them can control? If so, the question arises that once this is resolved, what’s to stop them growing closer? The answer is usually, nothing. In which case there is often no tension and no deeper character development for the reader to enjoy.

So really think about the best way to bring the characters together that is believable and enjoyable. For example, when writing forced proximity between your characters, try to develop fresh new ideas for how they are flung together in a situation! Ask yourself what would you do in that situation? Then try absolutely every other option and if you reach a stage where there are no alternatives, then you have your believable set up!

Often, misunderstandings are used as a primary conflict between a hero and heroine, but try to avoid creating a conflict that could be solved if only the characters would just have an honest conversation. If the hero and heroine are staying apart because of a misunderstanding, the conflict between them isn’t based on strong underlying emotions, which can be very frustrating for the reader as they can’t identify with the characters.

It is usually the case that if a hero and heroine’s conflicts are external then their issues are more likely to be resolved with a simple conversation – rather than them actually overcoming their internal emotional barriers. And what is to keep them apart once they have that chat and address those external issues? If the conflict is based on a misunderstanding, there are no real obstacles for the characters to overcome and so nothing can keep them apart. This can create a very weak and unsatisfying ending for the reader.

To avoid leaving the reader dissatisfied by the hero and heroine’s easy resolution, dig deep and build the layers of their emotional conflicts – think about what in their internal conflict is actually keeping them apart and how are they going to overcome it?

How to avoid using a misunderstanding between characters? Plan the story carefully and ensure that the characters conflicts can’t just be resolved with a conversation. Really send them on a journey of discovery as they learn about themselves and overcome the emotional – not external – obstacles.

A coincidence is usually employed a when the conflict isn’t strong enough or developed enough to drive the story forward. This can be annoying for the reader and often leads to a very unsatisfying resolution. But, avoiding coincidences can help to strengthen a story.

For example, if a hero and heroine meet up again because they choose to rather than just running into each other, this can be much more powerful and have a bigger impact on the reader. Really dig deep to discover what is driving your characters. Focus on their internal conflicts rather than relying on a coincidence to bring them together or drive them apart. If they make these decisions themselves, rather than fate playing a part, the payoff can be more satisfying as the reader has seen the character development through the story.

How to avoid using a coincidence to drive the story? If a coincidence has been used, try going back and rethinking about how to achieve the ending through deeper character development and layering the emotional conflict.


1. Focus on creating a convincing set up.
2. Ensure it takes more than a conversation to overcome the obstacles.
3. Use internal conflict to drive the story, rather than a coincidence.

Have any of you had to deal with these common pitfalls in your writing? If so, how did you deal with it? And do you feel your story is stronger now?

6 replies on “Advice from the Archives: It’s Just A Big Misunderstanding…”

Sure. I’ve dealt with such pitfalls. Here’s what I’ve done:

After receiving editor imput on my SYTYCW 2014 entry, I started to deal with my story’s “troubled/contrived” areas by going back to basics. That is, I reevaluated the reason(s)why my h/h were doing–or needed to do–x,y,z.

Then I brought those things, accordingly, to the page, fleshed them out, cut, and smoothed where needed. I believe that the material is better for having done so.

The notes that I received on that entry also helped to guide me in a particular way–i.e., focusing on a convincing setup, by limiting certain exposition within the first chapter, providing further explanation for why other particulars within were they way they were, and introducing other scenes that would enhance the opening.

Such changes/addition then needed to spread–for the better–through the manuscript.

I have also always tried to use internal conflict, rather than coincidence, to drive my work. “Coincidence” can be good, but it tends to be flat, one sided, and can quickly run dry.

However, internal conflict tends to have a unique vividness. It contains (can contain) the ingredience for being three-dimentional–something that can always help a story.

In one of my other works, a misunderstanding is a key ingredient. Yet, by incorporating a deeper meaning (explanation) for that misunderstanding–through exposition, action, and having the heroine swept up in a journey that enables her to “discover” the reasons for the misunderstanding–I believe the work is better on the whole.

I’m currently working on my first attempt at novel writing, so I’m learning as I go.
For me, creating characters with strong, believable backstories and giving both the H&H contrasting and complementary strengths and weaknesses is the starting point for developing internal conflicts. When I drop my characters into the initial situation, they are forced to react and to examine their personal beliefs and values. An external event may bring them together, but it’s the internal conflicts of each character that keep them apart. The H&H have to realize that their old belief patterns are holding them back from their HEA. This forces them to re-examine their beliefs, and evolve enough to overcome their inner conflicts.
Romance is a character driven genre, and having those built in conflicts creates a natural tension between the H&H. It’s human nature to resist change, and characters in novels are no different. As I plot how the story moves forward, my characters have to hit certain milestones which emphasize their conflicting emotions and thereby initiate change. These changes start out small, and as the plot escalates, and the characters are increasingly invested, change becomes more difficult. The culmination, of course, is whether the H&H will risk all for their HEA and face their challenges together.
…at least that’s the plan.

Kate – at least you have a well thought out plan. This is where I struggle. I jot down important facts and traits, physical and mental/emotional, but the stories just come to me. I can plan all I want and they take off on their own. The characters have their own personalities and outlines, and sometimes they surprise me, but that is the fun of writing. It’s a journey to me just like reading a book. I write because I love to do it. Writing is my stress relief, my passion, other than family and animals and the ocean. Lol. I have written dozens of stories since I was a young girl. I don’t have trouble with the story telling, just the “fitting it into a category romance” that seems to be my challenge. I can write. I’ve been published, but I want to write category romance. I want to make people sigh and laugh, and I want to do it with Harlequin. It’s been my ultimate goal for more years than I can remember…at least that’s my plan 🙂

Hi Chrissie,
I hope you don’t mind, but I posted my reply in the Harlequin community thread, so as not to take up too much space here.

All such staunch advice and so simple we should all remember to watch for these pitfalls, but alas, we sometimes find our characters in just such a situation. I do try to put myself in the place of the heroine and the hero when in their POVs, look inside their emotions. Sometimes, I fail to do that but I can usually catch the problems in the editing process. I learn with each new book I write, and I read everything you editors offer up for us which helps tenfold. Thanks! 🙂

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