This romance pet peeve falls under the bigger heading of False Conflict. Some of my other pet peeves belong here, too, like forced separation, and the worst sorts of love triangles.
But this is a particularly egregious sin in any story: creating conflict that would be easily resolved if your characters would just talk to each other.
Note here that I don’t mean situations where there are good, character-driven reasons why there’s a lack of communication. Because if there’s a reason not to tell the truth or to deliberately mislead the other character then that’s the conflict. The misconception arises from the conflict and then creates more conflict. That’s a perfect way to escalate the stakes in a story.
The problem I have is when lies/miscommunication/etc. are not properly motivated. For example, the cliche scene when one of the protagonists sees the other with a possible love interest and gets jealous/angry/withdrawn and refuses to talk to the other one. But, of course, it turns out to be just a friend, or a sibling, or something else innocuous, and if they’d just asked, there would be no conflict. If the failure to communicate becomes the only source of conflict, that’s false conflict.
I tried to set up something like this in my book A Theft of Magic, where it would look (on the surface) like that cliche form of false conflict, but would actually be motivated by deeper issues with both characters. Those deeper problems would then come out when they talked about the misconception. Heroine Sorcha sees hero Ronan interacting with another woman named Evie, and Sorcha recognizes that there is deep feeling and caring between them. She isn’t sure if they’re old lovers or best friends, but she is certain that they love each other. Up until that point, Sorcha had believed Ronan to be a total loner, with no close relationships. She’d justified his lack of emotional involvement with her (Sorcha) by telling herself he just didn’t understand how to express those emotions. But then she sees him with Evie and knows that’s a lie. He is capable of loving. He just might not love Sorcha.
A few scenes later, they talk about his relationship with Evie, and he explains that they’re as close as brother and sister. Sorcha tells him what she’s feeling and what she wants, and he can’t give her what she wants. In a false conflict situation, the revelation that Evie and Ronan weren’t lovers would have resolved the conflict. In this situation, it just makes things worse.
I don’t know how well I succeeded–I’ve had readers respond by saying they didn’t like it–but that was my intention, anyway.
Contrast that with a book I recently DNF (Did Not Finish). The hero and heroine slept together as teenagers and their fathers found out and had the boy sent away. Girl believes she’s been abandoned, boy believes girl sent him away. Girl, at least, has no idea where boy is and no way of contacting him. Boy could have contacted her at any time to resolve the problem. When boy comes back, they both refuse to talk about what happened for almost half of the book, and of course as soon as they talk about it, they immediately fall back into bed/love/etc.
But wait–there’s more!
Girl is betrothed to someone else. Rather than tell the other person immediately that she’s getting back together with her previous lover, she puts it off, despite having many, many opportunities. The author realized what she was doing, because within the text she keeps making up excuses for why the girl doesn’t say anything. But they are so obviously just excuses that it was at that point that I put the book down and stopped reading. I could see what was going to happen–lots of misunderstandings, anger, etc., based on the girl not breaking off the engagement, and I just didn’t care that much. The conflict wasn’t real.
If you’re a writer, make sure your conflict is properly motivated. If you’re a reader, you may now understand why you just couldn’t get into a particular story. False conflict is never fun, but especially not when a story would have lasted about five pages without it.
Do you have a favorite (or least favorite!) example of a failure to communicate creating false conflict in a story? Let me know in the comments. (And no, I won’t tell you which one I’m talking about in my example. It’s a very common trope).