Communication comes in all shapes and sizes, and no matter how we try to convey a truthful message, things can go wrong. Your characters may misunderstand each other’s intent — in fact, that’s one of the most common tropes when it comes to communication. Who doesn’t know a love story that was threatened by a simple misunderstanding?
But while it can be useful to have two characters unintentionally misunderstand each other, the real fun scenes happen when one character purposely misleads another. Communication and misdirection are two perfect tools for that. If you have trouble figuring out what makes a good unreliable narrator or how to write a compelling lie, this blog reveals what to keep in mind while you write or edit.
First we’ll discuss communication from a psychologic perspective, and towards the end, I’ll talk about an example to study the details of communication as a plot device in-depth. If you are uncomfortable with ABBA, 70’s outfits and glitter, consider this a warning.
Information Processing Theory
To fully understand how communication works and how your characters can use it to their advantage, we need to dig into the scientific part. The Information Processing Theory on communication shows the absolute basics of communication. It can be applied to research ranging from psychology to IT to cancer research. And it’s a perfect tool to help understand how characters interact, too.
The basics of all communication, by Claude Shannon (1948).
When Character A wants to convey a message to character B, they have a particular goal in mind. This can be positive or negative. It can be a scheming advisor directing a queen’s decisions, or your main character aiming to convince their friend to join them on an epic adventure.
The message Character A sends is filtered through their personal values, understanding of the world, and their estimation of how Character B will interpret the message. Character A might have to be careful with their words so as not to offend Character B, or manipulate B by using a very distinct phrase. Books with kidnapped spies often use this trope; the captured spy signals something is wrong by using a somewhat frequently used word they agreed upon beforehand. Alternatively, the spy could say something innocent that is out of character to indicate something is wrong. For example, if you ever catch Pine saying something terrible about pugs, you know they’re actually in trouble.
Communication goes beyond dialogue and texts. The message Character A sends might be a hand-written coded message or a text sent from one cell to the recipient’s. Or perhaps it’s more symbolic, such as discovering your main character’s village has been attacked, or a horse head in your character’s bed. Anything that gives you or your characters information can be a message. Sometimes, the lack of a message may be most telling of all.
While the message is being conveyed, it’s liable to get interfered with. This can be the music at a festival that’s way too loud as usual, the Secret Service intercepted the message, or a messenger pigeon getting struck by lightning. Some archaeologists even argue that people from the past are communicating through the items they left us.
Returning to the example of Pine suddenly saying something hateful about pugs, having your characters respond in out-of-character ways can be a message of sorts. If you want to come up with an out-of-the-box idea to send a message, the trick is to figure out a message that the intended recipient will notice. When the message needs to be a secret to others, use a word or item that only Character B will be able to put into context. This can be a childhood trinket, a catchphrase uttered in private, an inside joke, or anything else you can use.
Heath Ledger sent a message by burning all that money. But did his intended audience understand it?
When the information reaches Character B – whether Character B is the intended recipient or not – they interpret the information based on their own values and knowledge. Do they know who sent the message in the first place? Does the character understand what the message is about? When the characters’ values and knowledge don’t line up, it’s the perfect recipe for a misunderstanding.
Communication hinges on understanding. When two characters don’t discuss something from the same basic principles and values, they will never reach a conclusion. In a way, they are not discussing the same things – not until they talk it out and get to the bottom of the misunderstanding. And as a writer, you can use that. Have the warmongering general face off against the crown prince who believes in diplomacy. This pits two characters against each other and provides a conflict without a clear-cut resolution. Either both or one of them will be disappointed by the outcome, which opens the door to resentment and feeling overlooked. An unsuspecting suitor may insult a queen who is looking for a princess to marry, unaware that the queen is playing for her own team.
But, for the love of all romance books and subplots ever, be careful about having your characters not communicate at all. It is a very common trope, and recently, not a very liked one. Good relationships, whether romantic or platonic, need good communication.
Framing the narrative
The way a story is communicated tells a lot about its intended purpose. This is very much clear from history: the victor gets to write it. The story of the losing side is often ignored.
By focusing on a particular angle, you can spin a story in your favor. A war-loving general may concentrate on the differences between his people and those he wants to attack, or keep reminding people of an attack that was connected to his enemy. When their lackeys repeat the general’s message, for example on tv, in the newspapers, in speeches and interviews, the message sticks. And no message is stickier than one coated with emotions and based on the values of those people that your character wants to convince.
For example, when the Viking started to attack monasteries in England, a description was written about how vile monsters came from the North to punish the non-believers in medieval England. The monsters were accompanied by famine, lightning strikes, and fiery dragons in the sky.
This wasn’t meant as slander against the Vikings — although the descriptions stuck over the years. The message was intended for the Christians of Wessex and Mercia, who did not follow God’s will. The appearance of the Vikings was framed as the message God sent to teach them all a lesson.
Much in that same way, your villain may try to frame your advancing hero’s conquests as attacks against the Empire. When your story is about conflicting cultures, stories about the ‘others’ may be exaggerated or framed in a bad light, no matter the intentions.
When communication breaks down
So far, we’ve talked about what happens when communication is successful. But what if Character B doesn’t understand the message? Or what happens when it doesn’t arrive or gets tampered with?
A message that’s not understood correctly, which is often the case for prophecies or false leads in detective novels, can push a character in the wrong direction. They might make the wrong decisions when it comes to ruling their own lands, or fight for the wrong cause.
One example from history is how the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Because it was unclear when East Berliners could apply for a stamp to cross the border into West Berlin, the spokesman had to clarify when this would be possible. But he didn’t know the answer. Put on the spot, he decided it was possible from that very moment. What ensued was chaos at the checkpoints. That night people celebrated in the streets and broke down the wall with sledgehammers. All because of a bureaucratic oversight when writing the speech: information concerning the original plan was glossed over by speechwriters.
Intentional miscommunication comes from a desire. Character A wants something and needs Character B to get it. For example, Character A could send a fake message to the queen, thereby making war inevitable. The queen then has to figure out that the message was false before she will stop the war.
Another example is the famous Red Herring. Those don’t just refer to the readers who are put on the wrong track. Detectives are often misled by evidence that indicates one thing, but later turns out to be unrelated or interpreted wrong. Once that becomes clear, the detective closes in on the real perpetrator.
Uncovering communication gone wrong
After discovering that a message has been tampered with, your characters may need a moment to realize what happened. Perhaps Character A has betrayed them, or they made a grievous mistake based on the wrong information. Uncovering that your character has been betrayed can sway them to change their behavior.
Will your character reverse their decision? Or see a way to take advantage and turn it into a ploy to capture Character A? Or have their plans and ambitions changed, and are they now better off ignoring the message?
Put in another way: what does your character want to do with this information? How does the message impact their values and knowledge?
How does communication help with misdirection?
Every misdirection is some type of lie. There is more than one way to tell a lie, and more than one way to tell the truth. To illustrate what I mean, let’s take it to the glorious musical that I have seen 16 times in total. It’s the perfect example to show how communication can serve as a plot device, to the point it is the premise, inciting incident, and dramatic reveal.
Mamma Mia tells the story of Sophie and her search for her biological father. Her mother, Donna, said her father left after Donna found out he was engaged to another. After finding her mother’s diary from that time, she tracks down three potential fathers — and invites them to her wedding.
Promo picture of Mamma Mia! The musical.
Here they go!
Even before the story starts, there are lies at work. Sophie wants to know her father, while Donna hides that she doesn’t know which of the three is Sophie’s father. The movie starts off with Sophie sending a literal message to Sam, Bill, and Harry, to invite them to the wedding. And of course, all three replied they would be there, hoping to see Donna again after twenty years.
When they arrive on the Greek island, Sophie doesn’t feel the click she hopes for when standing face to face with the three men, so she confessed that she sent the invites. A half-truth, because they did get invited to a wedding. Only the name on the bottom of the invitation was a lie, which made it so convincing.
Donna runs into the three men where Sophie left them. She immediately recognizes all three and asks why they’re on the island, and they lie to keep their promise to Sophie. Meanwhile, the dads have no idea one of them might be the father.
This complicated situation is quickly turning into a web of lies that only pulls tighter around the characters. At this point, every named character is either lying to someone, being lied to, or both.
Communication beneath the lies
But what is most interesting is what these lies are all about. What message is being sent through them?
Sophie never knew her father. She asked Donna about it, communicating her longing to know about him, but Donna sent her own message: I don’t want to talk about him. It still hurts.
The three possible fathers interpreted the invitation as a message from Donna, perhaps even that Donna wanted to talk and rekindle their relationship. And by coming to the wedding, they indicate a desire to see Donna again, if not more. Technically, this all happens before the movie even starts.
During the second part of the movie, we see how the lies affect the characters and their interpersonal relationships. During Sophie’s bachelor party, the fathers all end up talking to Sophie, and one by one, they figure out why she invited them. All three say that they will walk her down the aisle, and all disappear before she can respond.
The pressure of the lies continues to haunt Sophie through the night, and having no one to turn to, she faints.
Donna and Sophie about to fight before the wedding.
Of course, Mamma Mia wouldn’t be complete without a few subplots! There is plenty of time for a forbidden romance in between the songs, drama, and dancing. In this case, a message is sent and received, but the recipient, Pepper, chooses to ignore its content. He manages to seduce Tanya and is reluctant to let her forget about their night of passion. In response, she tells him exactly why she’s no longer interested: “Does your mother know that you’re out?”
Philip Michael and Christine Baranski.
Another fantastic moment happens when Bill and Harry meet on Bill’s boat for breakfast. They talk about the previous night, still unaware of how there are three possible fathers. While Harry talks about this whole new side of him that he never knew before, Bill thinks he is rambling about coming out. At the same time, when Bill opens up about taking on a girl in his life, Harry infers that he’s talking about his romantic encounter from the night before. Because they are unaware of what the other knows, the misunderstanding takes place. And more importantly, before they can figure it out, their conversation gets interrupted by said romantic encounter.
The Big Reveal
After talking to one of her potential fathers, Sophie rushes back home. Donna asks what’s wrong, and in reply, Sophie asks her mother to give her away. Sophie realizes that Donna has always been there for her in every way. Though she misses a father figure in her life, her mother has always been there for her.
When Donna walks Sophie down the aisle, all seems well as the fathers all sit quietly — until Donna interrupts the ceremony to admit to Sophie her father is present. Sophie admits that she knows and invited them. Everything is talked out, and the service proceeds as planned, the air cleared.
After all, the truths come out and the fathers jump in, and as a result, Sophie calls off the wedding. Turns out, she’s been lying to herself all that time as well. She realizes what she really wants and that a marriage won’t solve her problems and insecurities. And so, in the end, the message to the audience is that love conquers all, and it’s best to not keep huge secrets hidden from those you love.
In closing, a message from the writer
And speaking of messages, the Red Pen Pals have plenty more for you! Sign up for our newsletter to follow up on what we do and to get a monthly overview of the newest blog entries. Want more updates? You can find Pine and me on Twitter. Visit my website to get an idea of my services as an editor if you need help figuring out your characters.