Court cases are great for drama in books, but tight courtroom order and regulations make courtroom scenes difficult to write well. You can avoid the flat feel of courtroom scenes by using the element of surprise or humour. A better plan is to put courtroom scenes only where your story needs a dramatic turning point; often, a court case with information revealed as a surprise can quickly push your story from the middle to the climax. Regardless of where you put your courtroom scenes, keep them short and don't overuse them.
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Visit at least one courtroom while court is in session. Observe the proceedings. Take notes on the structure of the court proceedings, which court officers are present, and how the room is laid out. Try to attend a court case similar to the one you are writing about.
Read great fictional courtroom scenes, like those in "To Kill a Mockingbird;" anything by Erle Stanley Gardner (the creator of Perry Mason) or anything by John Grisham. Watch the courtroom scenes in movies, but with a critical eye. Look for things that would seem inappropriate in the actual courtroom you visited. Make a note of them.
Interview a lawyer who deals in court cases similar to the one in your story. Give him a short synopsis of your story and ask how he would handle the case in your book.
Pull out the notes you wrote while watching courtroom scenes in movies. Ask your lawyer whether the scene or action seems appropriate to her. If she uses terminology you don't understand, ask for definitions.
Ask this lawyer to recommend good trial transcripts you can read for guidance and ideas. If he sends you to the courthouse for the transcript, ask whom you need to speak with to quickly find the transcript.
Review the transcript and your notes. Even if you don't normally outline stories, roughly outline how you want your scene to go.
Write a court transcript for your scene, and make notes where you need other action to fall. If the transcript is more than eight double-spaced pages long, consider shortening it.
Review your characters and their previous actions in the story. Make certain the dialogue in your transcript fits each character well. Keep in mind that during trial, lawyers only ask questions that they know the answers to -- or those questions they believe they know the answers to. Review all questions in your transcript.
Make certain every line in your transcript moves your story -- and your lawyer's case -- forward. Pay special attention to your lawyers' opening and closing statements, on both sides. Lawyers tell stories. In the opening and closing statements, they are free to build the narrative to say what they like. The conflict between defence and prosecution in those statements can ramp up your scene tension.
Write your courtroom scene, using the transcript you've prepared as a guideline. Try to keep your character exchanges short, and avoid chunks of exposition. Gradually expose your court case and its surprises, with action rising to a climax at the end of the scene.
Writing the Scene
Tips and warnings
- Lawyers tell stories. Because of this, it might be helpful to look at your courtroom scene as a mini-story, with its own beginning and end, and its own rising and falling action.
- Keep your courtroom scene as short as possible, while including all necessary information.
- Tightly control your courtroom scene's pacing, and pay close attention to where the action rises and falls.
- If you can't find a lawyer to interview, try interviewing a police officer who regularly deals with court cases like the one in your story, or a court officer, such as a judge, bailiff or court transcriptionist.
- Do not write a courtroom scene merely because you feel your book should have one; due to their static nature, you should avoid them unless they really build story tension.
- Do not take up too much of your lawyer's time while interviewing him. They are busy people who understand the value of time.
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