You’ve thought about writing a courtroom scene or a legal thriller. But maybe you don’t know how courts really work or how to use legal jargon. You’re not sure what evidence can or can’t be used in court, or how it should all play out. So, you let a great story idea drop away out of ignorance and fear.
First, and most importantly, don’t be scared! Non-lawyers are often afraid of tackling a legal storyline. But courtrooms are a natural setting for great drama. If your story idea takes your characters into court or jail or a lawyer’s office, follow it. Don’t let the complexity and mystery of the law scare you off from a potentially great courtroom scene or legal storyline.
Just as you might need to learn about police procedures or forensics to write about those topics, so too should you learn something about criminal law when your characters take that step.
Here are four simple ways to gain the background knowledge and confidence necessary to write a great legal storyline, or even a complete legal thriller.
1. Watch TV and Movies – Watching great legal drama on TV and in movies is a good place to start. I think Law & Order (the original) is on somewhere, sometime, every single day. A couple movies I would recommend for starters would be A Few Good Men and My Cousin Vinny. They are generally more accurate than a lot of others.
TV and movies like these can help you get a basic feel for legal procedures and terms. This can be a great way to see how criminal law is fictionalized in an authentic way.
However, I must give you an important word of caution: Pretty much every legal drama gets things wrong. Even the best TV shows, movies and books let accuracy take a backseat to drama. That’s why these are a good place to start, but they shouldn’t be your only source of legal knowledge.
2. Read the Paper – A somewhat more accurate place to get information about criminal law is in the news. Follow interesting real-life trials. Read true crime books. Watch true crime stories on TV. The Investigation Discovery channel (or ID) is a great source for those kinds of shows.
Again, however, be warned. These sources may leave a lot out of information for the sake of a good read or compelling TV. I know a prosecutor whose case was profiled on one of those shows. Before the show aired, critical DNA results came back, and the prosecutor updated the producer. Despite this, the show left the impression that the results were still unknown.
I guess the lesson is, don’t believe everything you read in the papers or see on TV.
3. Go to Court – If you want to get a taste of how legal proceedings really happen, go to court and see for yourself. Criminal trials are public. Simply go to your local courthouse and watch a real criminal trial. You can ask security or the court clerk if they know of any interesting criminal trials in session.
This is certainly an accurate source of information, but it may be the most time-consuming and inefficient way to learn. Real trials tend to move slowly, and they are filled with objections, motions, and procedural matters that would never be included in a fictional story.
Nevertheless, I think everyone who thinks of writing a legal storyline should check out part of a real trial, at least once. I’ll never forget the letdown I felt the first time I watched a real trial. No yelling lawyers, no “gotcha” moments, no confessions from the witness stand, and no pounding gavels. Even though we know that’s reality, it can be eye-opening to see it in person.
4. Talk to a Criminal Lawyer – A real-life criminal attorney is going to be your best source of information by far. They can give you a general understanding of the area of law you’re interested in. They can give you background information and tell you as much, or as little, detail as you want. They can focus on the law and procedures that would apply to your story or character.
Do you want to know the procedures of how certain evidence would be presented? Or would it even be allowed? Do you want to know the difference between murder and manslaughter? Do you want to know whether the crime your character committed would qualify him or her for the death penalty? If it did, would a prosecutor realistically seek the death penalty in such a case?
An attorney can help you understand, and correctly use, legal terms. They can help you brainstorm ideas or read your draft for accuracy. They can answer your specific questions.
The difficulty here is if you don’t know a criminal lawyer personally, it can be hard to find someone willing to take the time to talk to you about your project (without charging you a fortune). It can also be hard to find someone who can explain things in a way that’s easy for non-lawyers to understand.
That’s why I decided to offer legal consulting services to writers and filmmakers. After we have worked together, writers have the confidence and knowledge that their work is authentic and credible. That confidence can go a long way when it comes time to sell a project.
The bottom line is, if you’re thinking of tackling a legal storyline, go for it. Like any other topic, it may take some research and effort, but it will be worth it. Even if you’re not quite ready to take that plunge, I’ve created a few resources that I hope will be helpful for anyone interested in one day taking their characters into the courtroom – check them out below.
Blythe Leszkay is an experienced and successful criminal attorney, criminal law professor, and consultant to writers and filmmakers. She handles legal technical matters, so clients are free to focus on their creative genius.
Get a free Writer’s Guide: Top 7 Mistakes Made by Writers of Crime, Mystery and Legal Drama at www.criminallawconsulting.com/free-writers-guide.html.
Enter for a chance to win a signed, hardcover edition of “Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn't Commit,” by Kerry Max Cook at www.criminallawconsulting.com/giveaway.html. The deadline to enter is February 15, 2012. If you have a published book you would like considered for a future giveaway, contact Blythe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blythe is developing a resource page for information on criminal law concepts, which you can peruse at www.criminallawconsulting.com/resources.html. She regularly posts about all things criminal on her blog at www.criminallawconsulting.com/blog.html.