Friday, September 15, 2006

Why Don't They Just Talk to Each Other

I can't count the number of times I've heard, "Why don't they just talk to each other" as a criticism of romance novels where the focus is on interpersonal conflict rather than some external disaster that throws people together. I've always liked those stories, because they seem more realistic to me. People just don't talk to each other, sad but true, and so misunderstandings happen all the time.

A few days ago, I heard a variation on the theme. A close writing buddy of mine says, "Remember how I said..." then continues with a snippet from her own writing. "Then why did I write this:" and it's a character thinking about how he doesn't quite trust this woman so won't tell her everything.

Here's my answer:

Because it's true to the character and the situation. Sure, if everyone was honest with everyone, life would be a better place, but really that's not reality, even fictional reality. You go with your gut, you go with what you know, and even if someone tells you the truth, if the apparent facts contradict, you're more likely to go with the "facts."

I was reading a science site recently,, and it had an article about how people really do decide what someone is like at the first impression, no matter how brief (People Judge in the Blink of an Eye: Click Here). Anyway, this ties into the topic because I think people make a lot of assumptions, rightly or wrongly, and even the bald truth can be hard pressed to overcome those impressions. To make things more complex, since both people involved in an exchange do the same thing, the truth is lost in a morass of impression and assumption.

According to the article, it's a defense mechanism left over from earlier times. So when you see a big man coming down the street toward you and you're a young woman, your senses go on alert. Doesn't matter if he doesn't care that you exist, you've identified him as a danger.

I think it's that aspect the romance novels tie into. Now I'm not saying they all do so well. Sure, you can have a book where the characters are given every opportunity to explain and choose not to for no good reason, but those shouldn't be used to judge the subgenre.

What if something or someone would be put at risk by the information? What if trust was something that had been repeatedly condemned or squashed? What if the crucial information was someone else's story to tell?

There are a lot of reasons we keep secrets, valid reasons. Some are matters of trust, either how much we trust the other person or how much someone else trusts us to keep their secret. Some are to avoid embarrassment, to protect a job, a spouse, even a pet. Some are inconveniences where if the truth is known something will have to change. I'm sure there are billions of reasons why two people would not be totally honest and that's ignoring all the reasons related to inaccurate first impressions. Each and every reason is valid fodder for a writer, especially one exploring a romantic relationship.

Romance is about love and trust, but all that doesn't come in a vacuum or at the first glance. A romance novel (or romance thread in another genre novel) is about the time before that love and trust is earned, that time when two people are still exploring this strange and unique (to them at least) emotion that has sprung between them. Would you be completely honest on your first date? Would you be comfortable if your date started spilling family secrets, explaining how long he or she wet the bed or sucked their thumbs?

Somehow I didn't think so ;).

We don't live in a world that rewards honesty. Look around you and there are billions of examples where people get ahead, get away with something, or even find something wonderful because they were less than completely honest. Honesty is scary both for the giver and the receiver. It's giving something of yourself away and taking responsibility for something of someone else. The whole social trend about the "three little words" comes because of vulnerability. In this world, people who are vulnerable get kicked. Not always, but enough times to train us to hold a little back.

Yes, that's a depressing view of the world, but I think an accurate one.

And here comes my theme on romances (didn't even realize it would come down to this). The reason these romances, the ones where misunderstanding or miscommunication forms the heart (pun intended ;)) of the conflict, work so well for me is not so much that they never talk to each other and explain away the problems but that they do eventually work their way through to communication and success despite the misunderstandings.

Whether it's how much to pay for dry cleaning or who is supposed to call whom, misunderstandings fill our lives. To teach through fiction that, if you try hard enough, any misunderstanding can be overcome is a wondrous thing. It gives me hope and encourages me to take the risk and make myself vulnerable in the hopes that things get better with the air clear and any misunderstandings resolved.

So yeah, why don't they just talk to each other? Well, maybe they, and we, should :).


Random Walk Writer said...

Minor quibble: "you're more likely to go with the facts." If they ain't true, they ain't facts. They're perceptions, ideas, beliefs . . .

I know you're not currently reading nonfiction, but you might enjoy Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. More of that snap judgement stuff. (Why, yes, I do prefer that "e" in there!)

Glad I provided you with so much fodder. :P

Margaret said...

Hey! You came clean...outed yourself so to speak ;).

And yeah, I should have put quotes around it. Okay, I'll go make that change. They are perceived as facts.

And the "e"? CHOP IT OUT.

Mama Rose said...

My quibble with the "Big Mis" romance, as they're called, isn't that a miscommunication exists. It's that in the ones where it doesn't work, the motivations for keeping the characters from talking don't ring true to me. Or they seem contrived, made for author convenience, rather than coming out of the characters' realities. The kinds of things you mentioned as motivations work for me because they do reflect reality. But I've read some where the character won't talk because they're "scared" of things that don't make sense because the author doesn't show the other person acting in a way that would cause that person to be "scared". Or there's nothing shown in the original character's background that would cause them to be "scared" in this situation. So, it's usually poor setups for the situation and poor motivations that wreck this scenario for me rather than that it's a bad scenario, in and of itself. FWIW


Margaret said...

Hi Linda,

I'd agree with that. Like any books, there are ones that are well done and ones that are poorly done. I'm certainly not saying all miscommunication-based romance novels or romance threads are well done. I've had ones where I read for pure comedic value it was done so poorly ;).