Guest post: conflict through misunderstanding

My writers critique group here in Chicago recently released an anthology, Over the Edge Again: An Edgy Writers Anthology.

In this essay, Z Jeffries shares the story behind his story in the anthology, “Sport.”


I was eight years old when I was given Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. For those reading who don’t know, it is a very violent, very adult comic book. I didn’t read it at that age, thank God. I totally saw some inappropriate art on those pages before I probably should have, but I didn’t read it until I was in my early teens. I was still too young to have read it then.

I also vividly remember watching the film Lord of the Flies when I was too young. It turned my stomach and made me cry, but I couldn’t look away.

I think most of us have stories like this: consuming media before it was appropriate. There is a suddenness in experiencing something through storytelling and/or art before our mind understands the context. The jarring feeling of consuming media about sex or violence before we’re ready comes with a high. Sure, forbidden acts give a jolt of adrenaline, but being faced with concepts foreign to us creates a misunderstanding. I believe this type of misunderstanding is a universal concept most people experience growing up.

There’s an old theatre anecdote that I love to apply to my writing. Two actors are in a scene on a dinner date. The director (or teacher) asks the actors where they are. One actor thinks they’re in a fine dining restaurant, the other says they’re in a fast-food joint. The actors are in conflict through misunderstanding, and that conflict affected the scene. That conflict made this an anecdote that has now been passed along.

Conflict is key to fiction, that’s a basic principle. I’m sure there are obscure exceptions, but conflict is paramount to a good story. If all characters are in agreement, there’s no tension, no stakes, no story. But while it’s fun to read about opposing characters butting heads, I believe one of the most underrated forms of conflict is misunderstanding. Sure, fight scenes and clever wordplay can entertain, but misunderstanding can make a reader too afraid for the main character to even continue reading.

Here’s another scenario for the theatrical scene — both actors are in a fine dining restaurant, only for one, it’s the fanciest restaurant they’ve ever been to, while for the other, it’s a sad place that reminds them of an ex. They’re in the same location, but each character has a context that creates a conflict through misunderstanding. Is this a fancy place or one that is sad and full of memories? That question affects the scene — are they celebrating or sadly reminiscing?

And isn’t that almost always true of settings in real life: the context of our experiences colors our perception of the world around us. We carry our context with us into each scene, creating our own reality by how we perceive it.

I feel disingenuous when my characters share context about their surroundings. I feel like someone’s perspective has been lost if they both exist in the same setting with the same context.

Writing younger characters allows another fun way to skew perspective: ignorance. Everything a person knows was learned and there was a time before that person had learned it. So it’s fun for young characters to be incorrect, to misunderstand the meanings of words, to misinterpret the context of a situation.

A gap of knowledge in which the reader or audience understands something a character does not is known as dramatic irony. It’s useful for creating tension (oh no, don’t go in there, favorite character of mine!) as well as creating sympathy (it’s not their fault, they didn’t know any better!). With younger characters, most books are filled with dramatic irony.

In my short story “Sport,” the point-of-view character is young and prone to misunderstanding. I had a chance to really play with an unreliable narrator. John Harris isn’t lying, incapacitated, or mentally ill, common types of unreliable narrators. John Harris just doesn’t understand the adult situation his family is in, in a very similar way to the pictures in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns I didn’t understand.

Hopefully, understanding what John Harris does not will give the reader an emotionally impactful experience. I wonder if anyone who knows of Frank Miller’s work might have gasped a little reading the opening line to this blog, might have had a tiny one-sentence-worth of an emotionally impactful experience.

In “Sport,” John Harris, this innocent boy, worries about the fate of fictional heroes, while it’s the reader who knows John Harris’s world is crumbling around him. The burden of this boy’s reality is borne by the reader, gasping as this kid reads his comic books.

2 thoughts on “Guest post: conflict through misunderstanding

  1. Pingback: 2021 publishing roundup – update | Sue Burke

  2. Pingback: 2021 publishing roundup – update – Semiosis

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