So how do you work them? Well, I’m still feeling my way through this but let me pass along what I’m thinking.
First, establish your character’s mindset. If your protagonist has a poor physical self-image, start with that. Make it clear how your character feels about whatever issue is going to be misunderstood.
Second, know the mindset of the other person. If this is situation based, make sure you know all sides of the scenario. You don’t need to show the reader the other side of the misunderstood person or situation at the time it occurs, though. Some pretty good stories use the revelation of the misunderstanding to resolve the plot thread or story. But you need to have both sides clear in your head.
Third is the set up. Set the stage for the scene. Since you know the characters and you know the situation, see if you can signal what’s going to happen. Leave little breadcrumbs that will alert an attentive reader to what’s to come or that will seem clear in retrospect. Build anticipation. This works really well with 3rd person, multiple POV stories.
Forth is the crisis point*. This is the moment of the misunderstanding. If you know your character and shown their mindset, if you know the mindset of the other person, the misunderstanding will seem completely reasonable. That is the key. The misunderstanding must be completely understandable. So to speak. If you are revealing the truth of the situation to the reader at the crisis point, this is where you can start building the pressure of irony. Make sure you’re doing so deliberately.
Fifth is where the character is living with the consequences of the misunderstanding. Every action they take after that crisis point is built on bad information. This can be a very long sequence, leading to ultimate tragedy or it can be short, as in a comedy. The point is the misunderstanding raises the tension of every scene after it. If the misunderstanding happens early in, say, a novel and is not resolved until the end of the book, make sure that you are reminding the reader. This is especially important if the reader isn’t explicitly told what the misunderstanding is. You want to keep the tension going and you don’t want you resolution to come out of nowhere.
Last is the resolution of the misunderstanding. It does not have to be revealed to the character but it does need to be clear to the reader what the misunderstanding was. This is your moment of catharsis, for the reader and for the character as well, perhaps.
The reason this was on my mind was something came up in IM gaming the other night. Two characters, very much infatuated with each other, broke up. The Player Character has a love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with their appearance. A number of revelations about the Player Characters was made and the other character rejected the Player Character. The misunderstanding was that the Player Character assumed they were being rejected because of their heritage (they are mixed race). That wasn’t the reason but it reinforced the character’s world view of themselves as ugly and tainted.
That got me thinking how powerful a misunderstanding can be and how hard it can be to pull off believably. Shakespeare and heck, the Greeks and Romans (Plautus especially), have been using misunderstandings for comedy and tragedy. I was aware of it, of course. But there were so few that felt reasonable to me. Especially misunderstandings in movies.
Now in comedy, part of the fun is supposed to be knowing the character is misled. But it’s amazing how many time I just felt that the main character was an idiot, not just in comedies but in romantic dramas as well. It occurred to me that the setup was lacking. In the IM gaming, the character’s poor self-image had been long establish, so naturally they interpreted all rejection based on their perceived character flaw.
Now, as usual, I have to see if I can actually apply my overly-simplistic revelation to my own work J
*I don’t mean this in a plot structure way. This is where the character is tested and misunderstands what’s being said or what the truth of their situation is.