Archives for November 2016


Health Insurance and Legalese as Plot Conflicts

contract health insurance and legalese plot conflict

blah blah blah blah

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.


A Happy Thanksgiving Writing Prompt

Happy Thanksgiving Writing PromptIf you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, you probably aren’t used to people asking you what you’re thankful for every single November. If you do celebrate Thanksgiving, you’re probably sick of it. But if you step outside the holiday mentality (and put the mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and Black Friday ads down for a moment), I’m sure you can see how turning that question into a “Happy Thanksgiving Writing Prompt” could be useful.

No? Just me then.

What You’re Thankful for: A Happy Thanksgiving Writing Prompt

I’ve been looking back at old articles like “Quick Questions for Fixing Character Behavior,” “Acting Out: Character Motivation and Behavior,” and “Who’s Driving This Plot?” because I was sure I already talked about what the character wants (it’s pretty central to most plots). I still can’t quite believe I skipped it totally, but while all those characterization articles dance around the topic, none of them confronts it directly.

So here’s a little intro…

What Characters Want

What a character wants shows you what the character values: peace in the household, rowdy parties, expensive jewelry, fine coffee, time to read, or a special thimble (you never know…). What a character values can direct motivation as well as build characterization.

What Characters Want to Have (But Don’t – Yet)

What a character wants to have is the character’s desires and goals – the things, people, or experiences that motivate that character (If you think about Black Friday and Cyber Monday, this idea goes well with the Thanksgiving holiday.).

For some books, the kindling of this desire to achieve a specific goal acts as the inciting incident. For other books, the object of desire is lost and has to be recovered.

“Etc., etc., etc.”

What Characters Want to Keep

These are things, status, relationships, and so on that the character already has and values. In Thanksgiving parlance, it’s what the character is thankful for (whether or not the character actually thinks about it in concrete terms). It’s also, very commonly, stuff a character will fight to keep.

Turning What the Character Is Thankful for into a Writing Prompt

There are infinite ways to turn what a character wants into a writing prompt (seriously, that’s all stories – ever.). For this case, the focus will be 1. using a character’s desire for something to drive the plot and 2. using what the character values to determine character actions throughout the story.

  1. Make up a character / Pick a character you already have.
  2. List what the character is thankful for (what he/she/it already has).
  3. List what the character wants but doesn’t have yet.
  4. Prioritize the lists by importance. What can the character let go? What would the character kill for? What would the character die for?
  5. Pick one of the more important items on the list and make it the goal of the plot (Getting it back, achieving it, protecting it, etc.).
  6. Use the list of values to judge the options the character is given as you write/plot: Not only whether the action will help the character reach those goals but also whether someone who values those goals/people/relationships would take that action under those circumstances.

Although more formalized or ritualized than regular writing habits, this writing prompt process provides the basics of brainstorming both plot and characterization. So if you’re having trouble linking those two together, this could be a handy exercise.

And who knows? Maybe, all those “What Are You Thankful For?” homework assignments will come in handy after all because of my great writing prompt. (Or maybe not… I’m gonna go with not.)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


When Realism Attempts Backfire

wrong level of realism

Like robots, if something’s close to real but off, it’s more disturbing than imagery that doesn’t try to be that close (like animation).

We want our stories to feel real. We try to research enough to get the big details right, and sometimes, we try go further. We try to salt the entire story with traditions and jargon and research that makes it seem even more real. And there’s nothing wrong with that – except when we’re writing about something we know nothing about. When we try to write about a skill set, place, or culture that we know very little about, detailed realism attempts backfire. Big time.

Writing about Skill Sets You Know Nothing About

Take hacking for example. It’s pretty common to have an elite hacker as a character in a mystery or action story. Someone with the skill set to break through stuff with high levels of security (like banks or governments). It’s a seriously popular trope for authors and screenwriters to use. But how much does the average writer really know about hacking?

Not a lot.

As a matter of fact, I’d hazard to guess that the majority of authors don’t know any more about hacking than they’ve learned from your basic action film. Which is seriously not a lot. And it’s probably not that realistic. Eddie Izzard’s computer encore puts it better than I could:

“Breaking into the Pentagon computer… Double-click on ‘Yes.’ Oh, password protected. 20 billion possible chances… uh, ‘Jeff.'”

Yeah. That’s about the impression most of us have of elite hacking.

Maybe, it’s just me, but I feel like if everything you’ve learned about a skill came from a fiction movie, then you probably shouldn’t try to write extreme realism about that subject. If you want to try, you’re welcome to. Just don’t expect it to be easy. That’s an immerse-yourself-in-the-research type of challenge because you almost have to learn to code before the jargon makes sense to you (in fact, you may actually have to learn to code before the jargon begins to make sense to you).

Personally, the only way I’d be willing to chance that level of realism is if I had an actual hacker (or more than 1) to talk to and check with to make sure that I was being accurate. Talking to a person who knows and can explain it to you is the most efficient research for that level of realism after doing it yourself (IMHO).

Writing about Places You’ve Never Been

That sounds pretty hard to do from the get-go. That is, IF all the nitty gritty details of the place are vital to your plot. If the location plays a very small role in the story, doesn’t need such minute details, or plays more of a passing role (you only need a few vital details but not much more), then it’s not an insurmountable task (actually, it’s pretty normal).

Of course, if the location isn’t that important, then why not move it? (Mostly being a smart aleck)

No, I don’t want to say that you can only write stories set in places you’ve been. That’s like saying that you can only write about things you’ve experienced personally (and you all know how I feel about that – if not, click the link).

My argument is that if you don’t know about a place well enough to know what’s realistic for that place, and you don’t want to research it deeply enough to have 100% (at least 98%) accurate details, then go for believable realism. Go for the level of realism used in most movies and books. Don’t try to make it super realistic.

Or, if the story really demands the extra realism, get off your butt and do the needed research/talk to someone who knows/hire someone to research for you.

Writing about a Culture You Don’t Know Well

Ok, there’s not much point in going into detail with this. You already got the recurring theme of either do the research or don’t go for gritty research. There’s not a lot to add with this topic (or any other area of setting that might require research). Except, oh, yeah, there is one thing:

Doing this one wrong can make people think you’re a bigot.

It’s a delicate balance. If you go for serious realism, and you’re wrong in the wrong way, it can very easily be taken as prejudice. Yes, a lot of things can be taken as prejudice, especially nowadays when we are so politically correct, and people are ready and eager to point out offenses online. Even gritty realism that is accurate can cause an outcry.

But if you don’t bother to do the research, you don’t have it to back you up. “I was too lazy to research” isn’t much of a defense.

Write the Level of Realism You’re Willing to Work for

That’s the final message.

Few people experience more than 1, maybe 2 careers and a handful of places. And even vacationing doesn’t give someone the same depth of knowledge as living somewhere. The same for visiting a job or researching it instead of actually working it.

You can’t know everything, and you don’t have to.

I know some crowds really push realism – let’s face it, not all types of writing get the same amount of respect. But trying to write at a level of realism beyond what you know (by experience, research, or both) isn’t going to impress anyone. Especially not the people who tout realism.

That’s when realism attempts backfire. And when that happens, nobody likes the result. Not even the author (especially not the author).

I’d rather write something people like – something I like. Wouldn’t you?



The Either Or Mentality as a Plot Device

Yes No Either or Mentality Plot Device

Good. Bad. Black. White.

From the typical image of your future as a fork in the road to dating options or even politics (Sorry. Too soon.), humans have a very strong tendency to lock themselves into an either or mindset. Either I can do this, or I can do that. While that’s generally a habit I’d recommend avoiding in real life (when possible), its popularity means that using the either or mentality as a plot device can add conflict and realism in one fell swoop.

Adding Conflict & Realism with the Either Or Mentality

Provide Two Obvious Options

The trick to adding conflict realistically with the either or mindset is to make sure that there are only two obvious options. If there’s a glaringly obvious third choice that Ricky isn’t even thinking about, then it’s hard to empathize when Ricky’s agonizing over the other two options.

Of course, when you’re used to thinking outside the box (or outside the either or mindset), then narrowing the options down to 2 may seem like a gargantuan task. And you may not be wrong. Trying to direct someone’s focus through writing is a bit of a crap shoot at any time.

But, don’t worry, the other tactics will help.

Characterization, Characterization, Characterization

Make the character’s point of view and voice strong, and the character’s focus will pull the reader’s focus along like a spotlight on a stage. Especially in a limited voice or first person where we only know what the character knows – and occasionally not all of that.

That means that the two options you’re focusing on have to be the only ones the character’s aware of. Even a half-mentioned possibility 4 chapters back can detract from that, so you have to make sure that any hints about an additional option have to be fragmented enough that the reader can forgive the character for not putting it together until the last minute. Or after it’s too late.

Pacing & Sense of Urgency

It’s a bit startling to realize that over a year in on this writing blog, and I haven’t talked about pacing or sense of urgency before (I’ll have to fix that.). But since both titles are pretty literal, I’m confident any of you who aren’t already familiar with them will catch on pretty quickly (in fact, you probably already have).

In short, the tactics that give a sense of urgency are what make you feel like the problem is important and needs to be solved now. Pacing is how quickly the scene moves, and it plays a big role in creating a sense of urgency.

Faster pacing combined with a strong sense of urgency can pull the reader through the scene too quickly to second guess the number of options. If characterization is a spotlight pulling your attention, pacing and sense of urgency put that spotlight in front of a racing rollercoaster, yanking you through so fast you don’t dare look away from the light for fear you’ll miss something.

The ticking clock of the decision’s deadline combined with the importance of the decision are part of what rouses people’s emotions to lock them into the either or mentality in the first place, so keeping that sense of urgency will help you with the characterization and add realism, as well.

After all, making a choice between two options isn’t much of a plot conflict if the decision isn’t important or on a time limit.

Outside Forces

Another way to narrow down the options to two is to put outside forces into play. In this scenario, when given a choice of A or B, the character desperately tries C, D, E, F, etc. but is foiled at every turn.

An unexpected storm wipes out one way of escape, someone misunderstands the instructions or panics and does exactly what they weren’t supposed to do (like put down the portcullis and jam it, locking everyone inside the dangerously haunted castle), the enemy already foresaw that plan and took steps to prevent it, and so on.

The outside forces can be forces of nature, supernatural forces, societal pressure, acts of enemy aggression – basically anything you can think of from the list of character vs. ___ . The hard part is to orchestrate it all so that it doesn’t feel contrived. That takes quite a bit of work, and smart enemies and plotting against your characters can definitely help.

If you put these techniques together, odds are good you can lock your character into an either or mentality without having readers raise too much of a stink. Of course, then you have to figure out how to get the character out of it again, but that’s a problem for later.

For now, you’re ready to get started. What either or mentality will you use to derail your character’s plans?