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In Defense of the Miscommunication Trope in Romance

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Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

If you want to get a romance reader’s dander up, ask them how they feel about surprise pregnancies in romance. Then, from your defensive crouch, ask them about the “miscommunication trope.” You’ll probably hear some variation of these responses: They could have solved everything with one honest conversation! Miscommunication is so artificial! I wish they had real conflict! These two made wild assumptions about each other and never actually talked! Miscommunication is so overused! It’s so unrealistic!

People are certainly allowed to like and dislike whichever romance tropes they want. As if I could stop them! But I do want to stand up for this particular punching bag. Like any romance trope, I only dislike it until I see it done well. And here’s the funny thing: when miscommunication is done really well, readers might not even clock it. Because it isn’t used as a trope, that boils down to a singular instance of miscommunication. Let’s have a deeper look.

Bad Romance

I’m not interested in knocking any particular romance book, but there is one I have in mind when it comes to badly done miscommunication. I wanted to throw this book at the wall. And I think this kind of book is what people have in mind when they deride the miscommunication trope. It’s the instance of one critical piece of information that was not delivered. This can also manifest as a falsehood being delivered or a lack of communication leading to a wrong assumption. And the protagonists never think to verify this one point of fact that would solve everything.

I’ll make up a silly example. Imagine we have a celebrity romance, and the celebrity tells their love interest to meet them at a particular hotel. But Celebrity forgets to tell Love Interest the assumed name they’ve checked in under. So Love Interest gets to the hotel and asks the desk clerk what room Celebrity is staying in. They’re told Celebrity isn’t staying there, and Love Interest leaves. (Celebrity’s publicist, by the way, has Celebrity’s cell phone to prevent irresponsible posting on social media.) Now, Love Interest and Celebrity assume they’ve both been flaked on, and a breakup ensues. 

The above scenario is admittedly extremely annoying. Couldn’t Celebrity go low profile and wait at the hotel bar? Is Love Interest really giving up so easily? These kinds of questions plague readers when we’re meant to believe two people are meant for each other yet can’t navigate one small hurdle.

Miscommunication Done Well

Seven Days in June by Tia Williams Book Cover

I’m happy to name a book I think did the miscommunication trope very well. It’s Seven Days in June. This book follows the second chance romance of Genevieve (aka Eva) and Shane, who had a brief, intense relationship in high school and reconnect 15 years later. Eva and Shane are both writers and have been incorporating each other into their books in the intervening years — ugh, the longing!!!

Part of the tension between them centers on the facts of what drove them apart in high school. Eva feels abandoned by Shane. Slight spoilers ahead. In truth, Shane didn’t abandon Eva; he was forced apart from her. She spent 15 years feeling that abandonment, writing about it.

One could ask, she never thought to reach out and get the whole story when she knew he was out there as a successful writer? He didn’t offer it in all those years? But here’s why it works: when the truth comes to light, it doesn’t actually change things that much. In fact, the two of them needed to do some healing and growing in those lost years, so the timing was better for them the second time around. This romance really worked for me, and the miscommunication had the appropriate weight because their whole relationship wasn’t hanging on it.

Sneaky Miscommunication

cover of Before I Let Go by Kennedy Ryan

Here’s an example of miscommunication that really tickles me. Before I Let Go is another second chance romance between divorced couple Yasmen and Josiah. They are still in each other’s orbit because of their children and their business. Just as they think they’re about to get back into the swing of dating new people, they find that the spark between them has not been extinguished.

When you read reviews of this book on Goodreads, you may notice how many people say, finally! A romance without a big miscommunication. These are two grown-ups who can handle things maturely! And to that, I say: these two people communicated so badly that they got DIVORCED even though deep down they still loved each other and wanted to be together! That is like prime-time miscommunication!

What makes this one sneaky is that there isn’t the typical single miscommunication, that one keystone fact that would bridge the gap between them. Each person had to come to terms with their role in the dissolution of their marriage and figure out how to communicate these findings to their partner. Whereas the archetype of the miscommunication trope can feel artificial, this complex process was utterly, heartwrenchingly realistic, and beautiful to witness.

The Reality of It All

The longer I am in my current romantic relationship, the more I think that miscommunication is perfectly realistic. It’s extremely easy to make assumptions about other people, whether you know them well or not. Truly honest conversations are tough to initiate. And the fact that two people can come away from the same conversation or experience with very different views on the events makes miscommunication inevitable. Even if you’re committed to communication and even if you’re normally good at it! So, despite the trope being mishandled in certain books, I’m very open to it. After all, I’ve experienced plenty of miscommunication firsthand, but I’ve never once fake-dated anyone. So I know what looks more artificial from where I’m standing.