So, the problem is that I can't make conflicts based on a misunderstanding that wouldn't resolve in five paragraphs. My chars are too smart for that, I'm too smart for that (and also have all the time in the world). It's not like I wouldn't come up with a solution to the consequences, however, the fact that I can't create this type of conflict is bothering me to no end.

How can I make a long-lasting misunderstanding to build my conflict on? Think about conflicts like X goes after Y because Y stole the MacGuffin from its containment unit, not knowing that it would mean the end of this world as I knew it, but Y thinks that X is just greedy. Note: this would work out if it wouldn't be for those meddling main characters!

Also, using my questions as an example is right out, please.

  • "For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost." As long as you're not making it those stupid high school-esque dramas, or those irritating romance cliches of irritating miscommunication; "He should know what I'm talking about, even if I never expressly say it!" All that does is make me throw the book against the wall.
    – Fayth85
    Commented Jul 1, 2018 at 2:58
  • 3
    Is there a reason a key conflict is the result of a miscommunication? That's usually a) the excuse for a light farce about ridiculous people or b) the centerpiece of a tragedy whose entire theme is miscommunication. Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 15:05
  • 1
    Isn't it more interesting if the conflict is based on a genuine disagreement where both sides have good points?
    – user30522
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 21:40
  • "Also, using my questions as an example is right out, please." What does this mean? Commented Jul 29, 2021 at 16:50

2 Answers 2


In order to have a misunderstanding which does not get resolved despite there being high stakes, you need characters who don't communicate properly.

So you need some reason why your characters can't or won't share all the information they have with each other. Possible reasons are:

  • Lack of trust. The characters perceive each other as rivals, so they do not believe each other or are reluctant to give each other information which could give the other one an advantage.
  • Characters fail to apply Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence". Alice makes a big mistake. Bob can't believe that it was an accident and assumes that Alice turned traitor.
  • Having something to hide. If Alice gives Bob the information he needs, then Bob will also learn something which Alice would prefer to keep a secret.
  • Asserting dominance. Knowledge is power, and not sharing knowledge can be a demonstration of power. Giving responses like "You don't need to know that, just do what I say", "I will tell you soon enough" or "You probably wouldn't understand anyway" can be amusing and lets one assert dominance over others by degrading them to simple peons who mindlessly execute orders they don't understand.
  • Being unaware of information asymmetry. Alice is sure Bob knows a certain important fact about the MacGuffin. But Bob is actually completely oblivious to that fact.
  • Miscommunication. Alice sends Bob a cryptic message. Alice is sure Bob will interpret it in one way, but Bob interprets it in a different way. This might be because of information asymmetry, different cultural backgrounds or different ideology.
  • Communication is simply physically impossible. There is just no opportunity for the two characters to exchange information.

Create a pile of enough of these and you get a mess of miscommunication which can end in disaster despite everyone having only the best of intentions.

Now you might wonder: "When my smart characters realize that there is a miscommunication and it is going to end badly, why don't they resolve it immediately?" This is where character flaws become helpful storytelling tools:

  • Pride. Alice doesn't want to admit that she made a communication mistake.
  • Anger. Bob considers Alice responsible for the miscommunication. He intentionally lets the problem escalate so Alice finally learns that bad things happen when she doesn't communicate properly.
  • Laziness. Alice realizes that Bob doesn't understand what's going on, but considers it a waste of her precious time to tell him.
  • Megalomania. Bob wants to prove that he can accomplish something worthwhile without Alice's support. He can in fact even pull it off when Alice actively tries to stop him. Bob wants to teach Alice and everyone else that he is not to be underestimated.
  • 1
    Miscommunication I wouldn't mind reading about. +1
    – Fayth85
    Commented Jul 1, 2018 at 2:53

One character cannot explain their actions to the other without admitting a terrible crime, or without endangering the other.

You can put even friends on the opposite side of a chasm; for example a reporter and a politician, or army general. A CEO and his son.

This would be quite similar to (but different from) blackmail; only the secretive partner is basically blackmailing herself: She cannot let her secret be revealed, even at the cost of her friendship / partnership / marriage.

Clark Kent cannot reveal himself to Lois without making her a hostage target of the worst criminals on Earth. Even when he did, she ended up dead, right? He had to travel back in time to prevent himself from the reveal. Or something like that.

Going more to the dark side, one of your characters has a secret she is covering up: An affair, or a crime (from corporate espionage to murder), and the misunderstanding between her and her friend/lover/spouse springs from this secret.

No plausible explanation --> No resolution --> everlasting misunderstanding.

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