As the year ends, and many of us are faced with choosing our insurance for the following year, I am reminded of just how stupidly complicated and full of jargon the health insurance industry truly is. Last year, I spent several weeks explaining parts of it to a coworker (deductible, out-of-pocket max, etc.) because if you haven’t had any training in it, it really is like a different language – one that could have a major impact on your life. Or your character’s life – that’s why health insurance and legalese work as plot conflicts.
Complicating a Plot with Legalese
What Is Legalese?
I’m sure you’ve heard the term before, but just in case you haven’t, here’s an example we can all relate to: the terms & conditions that pop up on your computer that you can’t understand even if you try to read them (and that we all accept because it’s the only way to use the programs).
These contracts are written in what I like to call “Legalese,” a language designed to say as little as possible in the largest number of words (It’s almost as if, like Dickens, the authors are being paid by the word.). You see, being specific can cause legal responsibility (Anything but that!). To avoid that, brochures and agreements are deliberately vague about what they will offer (sorry, “may” offer) so that they can change it if they feel like it. They are, however, very specific when it involves repercussions for the other party (us).
To make matters worse, they also tend to pepper the paragraphs with large amounts of jargon, abbreviations, and uncommonly used words. Just in case your eyes weren’t already glazed over from the excessive amounts of passive voice, constant redefining (A.K.A. hedging) and awkward phrases:
- “…either of which is referred to…”
- “…prevent or unreasonably delay…”
- “…does not constitute a grant or waiver of any rights…”
- “…including but not limited to…”
Simultaneously confusing, boring, and annoying, right? That’s Legalese. It’s English designed to be unnecessarily difficult for the average person on the street.
Using Insurance, Tax, & Other Legalese as Plot Conflicts
Insurance policies, taxes, contracts – they all involve documents that are hard to negotiate without formal training. That leaves them open to several possibilities as far as plot conflicts:
- Decisions & deadlines: If the character doesn’t have the knowledge to interpret for him/herself, then finding a way to figure it out and make a decision by the deadline could be a major task (or a coin flip, depending on how the character deals with pressure).
- Deliberate trickery: The antagonist or protagonist uses his/her knowledge of Legalese to pull a fast one on someone else.
- Loopholes/Oversights: Knowledge of the topic lets a character find a gap in the trap of the contract. On the other hand, ignorance of the topic could keep the character from finding it.
- Mistakes/Typos: If you mis-spell a homophone or name (or anything else), and both parties sign it, then the typo is actually what they agreed to (whether they knew it or not). If the typo ends up being gibberish, no problem. If it ends up being the name of a competitor (who snuck into the office to arrange the “typo”), then, the main character is in big trouble. Or if the secretary accidentally switched the names of the employer and employee, the employee might luck out.
- Legality: Even beyond Legalese, there might be legal hoops to jump through. It might have to be notarized, turned in by a specific date, signed in blue ink, or even typed in triplicate. More bureaucracy = added conflict.
- Emotional Response: When something is important, but you can’t understand it, how do you feel? More importantly, how do you react? Angry outbursts? Tears? Drinking? Giving up? There are plenty of ways for characters to get themselves (or others) into trouble because of their reactions to the task.
For the most part, I would expect these types of issues to provide the conflict for a scene rather than the whole story. On the other hand, they could very well set off the chain of events that leads to the main problem. It’s the falling marble that knocks over hundreds of dominoes.
The best part is that since we all have to deal with the headache of health insurance or legalese at some point in our lives, reading about a character struggling with it creates instant empathy and a dash of realism.
I like plot conflicts that multitask, don’t you? It almost makes me feel slightly more cheerful about reading through all that legalese.