In this post, Writers Write looks at writing courtroom fiction.
As a gonzo journalist and writer, I’ve spent a lot of time in court: watching the background of other cases, or sneaking into the library before an appearance.
Legal fiction is a popular genre. Writing it can be hard (unless you’ve seen what can happen in court).
What’s Courtroom Fiction?
Courtroom fiction is a type of procedural story where the main characters spend a lot of time in a courtroom. The characters include witnesses, the accused, lawyers, judges, and juries.
It can be horror, thriller, romance, or crime. Some fiction is supernatural (Devil’s Advocate), while others are far from it (Twelve Angry Men).
Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban isn’t all legal fiction, but had scenes from Harry’s trial.
Writing Courtroom Fiction
- Study Real Cases
Every story has to be realistic, though doesn’t have to be about reality. Case history is important. Notable cases can show you how things could play out in true situations.
Grisham wrote The Firm after hearing comments about a dodgy law firm. His imagination did the rest.
World Courts and USCourts.gov are good references. Legal professionals study these, and you should too.
- Use Dialogue For Creating Plots & Situations
Much of what happens in court is pure dialogue.
It can be hallway conversations, or cross-examination between witnesses and lawyers. Testimonies, from experts, also occur in court.
Dialogue writing is understanding action and reaction between subjects. For writers, you have to immerse yourself, and listen.
Court transcriptions can help develop the idea of how people speak. Writers can attend open courts. Recordings of notable cases are available, too, on sites like YouTube.
Dialogue is great for leading plots, and creating situations.
Can you tell when someone is lying, or when they’re not? Do you know when someone is hiding their anger (or not telling everything)? Include body language when you write. It’s all important.
- Learn About Law (Around Your Plot)
Court and legal fiction doesn’t exist without laws, and their use.
Statements are argued in court, and then compared to laws. Cases aren’t just guilty-or-not-guilty: there is always evidence, investigation, interrogation, and debate.
Know procedure and law, and know where you can bend it for your plot.
If you’ve thought of an idea (or twist), ask a legal expert first. Ask early, and not 40 000 words into a story that wouldn’t work that way.
You’re going to ask a lot of legal experts. You’re probably even going to ask a few reformed criminals.
- Learn About Legal Processes
Legal processes (and laws) are not the same in every country.
Certain countries rely on juries, while some do not. Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose is a great example of a courtroom drama (that’s entirely about the jury, not the court itself).
Pelican Brief took place in court. Grisham has a law background, which has formed much of his writing style.
Study particular laws in your story’s setting.
- Love Your Lawyer (For Finer Research)
Let an expert read your work, and point out its inaccuracies. You, the writer, should have it checked. It’s about doing good research.
Fiela’s Child played with complicated legal situations. Matthee was known for extensive archive, library, and firsthand research. She either knew, or she would find out.
Most writers aren’t legal experts, but universities and law firms are. Call someone and make an appointment if you aren’t sure.
- Make It A Good Story First
Remember that courtroom fiction is still writing. The rules of writing good fiction still apply to you. Writing advice (from John Grisham) for legal fiction counts.
Write and edit courtroom fiction like you would anything else, but add some more steps. Courtroom fiction needs special beta readers, who understand where writers might mess up.
Don’t think you’ll never make mistakes. Accept your mistakes before you’ve made them, and ask a reader with practical legal experience.
Can you tell a great legal story? Make it a good story, too, and don’t get stuck on the ‘legal’ framework.
The Last Word
In this post, Writers Write explored courtroom fiction.
By Alex J. Coyne. Alex is a writer, proofreader, and regular card player. His features about cards, bridge, and card playing have appeared in Great Bridge Links, Gifts for Card Players, Bridge Canada Magazine, and Caribbean Compass. Get in touch at alexcoyneofficial.com.
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