First, a disclaimer: This isn’t about all misunderstandings, it’s about in a specific context – the misunderstanding can be resolved in literally seconds if only the characters would speak to each other. This isn’t a broad generalization. Now to the witty stuff:
Oh, but they are so easy to use! Just have one character misinterpret something another character said, and voila, enough plot and drama to fill a chapter!
And then rinse and repeat. I’ve seen this far, far too much, usually on television. I’ve seen a fifty episode drama that pretty much was a third character lying to one of the main characters every five episodes, thus causing the main couple to break apart for a few days, then actually speak to one another, discover it was all a lie and a misunderstanding, and get back together. Rinse and repeat until the prescribed number of episodes is over.
That isn’t an exaggeration. I’ve watched a few in the past, and stopped for the following reason: the only, the entire, the crux, the plot, etc., is only a series of events of the main man and woman misunderstanding each other, stop communicating for days on end, and eventually they speak to each other and realize that they never had a problem to begin with. It’s almost always a lie or misunderstanding, but the main characters absolutely never ask one another what the truth is right away. Honestly, if they would just speak to one another from the beginning, that 50 episode series, at 40 minutes a piece, could be cut down to 5 hours, total.
It’s overdone. It’s annoying to read or watch people not speak to one another to perpetuate a lie that the audience was explicitly given information of the moment it happened. It’s frustrating to see manipulative people wind good people around their fingers, assuming that they are too stupid to communicate.
Yes, sometimes real people have communication issues. But to have misunderstanding after misunderstanding, perpetuated by non-communication, as the major source of conflict, can be infuriating.
However, I should point out that this is very case-specific. I know that misunderstanding can be used very, very well. A child believing their parent was killed by a certain person, and growing up for revenge, only to find out that it was a misunderstanding, can be done well. It’s over-used, I’ve seen it a few times, but the key is that the audience doesn’t know.
In fact, the majority of this hinges on the frustration given to the audience when they know something that the characters don’t. An obscenely obvious truth, that would only take the characters a couple second to clear up, and yet hours, episodes, weeks go by without them speaking to one another due to a separate person’s lies. That’s entirely different. We know, our goal in watching is to see the two people speak and make up, and them move on to another plot.
And then, of all things, to have the next story involve yet another misunderstanding… I give up.
Just be very, very careful with using misunderstandings. They are allowable when the audience understands why they aren’t cleared up. They are fine when the audience doesn’t know. They are fine when the problem existed before the misunderstanding that caused it to escalate. But because I’ve seen it abused so heavily, you should be careful when using it around me. I’ve been burned. I imagine several others have as well.
581 words far better spent on the endeavors of a novel.