Five Tips for Writing a Compelling Legal Thriller
- Courtroom Scenes Are Inherently Dramatic. A courtroom can provide a perfect locale for drama and tension. Events take place in a confined space. Authors can “play to the jury” while playing with readers’ expectations, allowing the suspense to build. Judges can be depicted as people who seek to achieve justice and level the playing field or as close-minded sticklers who put following their narrow perception of “rules” above the search for the truth. Authors who try to write courtroom scenes based solely on what they have seen on television or in movies will miss the mark, however. Fictional lawyers yell at one another or argue with a judge’s ruling, and intense cross-examination causes fictional witnesses to admit things they did not intend to admit. In a real courtroom, lawyers can be held in contempt of court if they argue with the judge or opposing counsel. Real witnesses rarely concede under cross-examination that they’ve been lying; they testify about what they have convinced themselves to be the “truth,” even if it is contrary to what actually happened. Authors can use this to their advantage. Take The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, for example. Captain Queeg is convinced that what he is testifying to on the stand is the truth, yet both his demeanor and actions divulge the fact that nothing he is saying is believable. The best legal thrillers artfully reveal the disconnect between what a witness says, what that witness believes, and what really occurred.
- Trials Are a Great Plot Device for Thrillers. It is often said that mysteries involve solving a crime and figuring out “whodunit.” On the other hand, thriller readers know who did it or who is likely to do it, but the protagonist has a limited amount of time to figure things out and stop the villain before he or she prevails. That’s why courtrooms provide such great plot devices. Protagonists must succeed before trials end because criminal defendants who are acquitted cannot be retried, due to the double jeopardy rule. The outcome of a trial—for example, a criminal conviction—also can serve as the jumping-off point for a terrific plot line, as in Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.
- A Courthouse Is Full of Interesting Characters. Every legal thriller benefits from a compelling story and interesting characters. Courthouses are filled with a panoply of both. Not only are there judges, lawyers, and jurors, but there are also a myriad of others who can be used as foils, confidantes, eccentrics, or comic relief. There’s the bailiff who polices the courtroom and who has “seen it all.” There’s the sheriff’s investigator who can be chasing down the truth or going off on a wild tangent. There are the reporters who cover the proceedings, the witnesses who testify and their families, and the courtroom observers who watch and comment. And, of course, there’s the paralegal who can become the protagonist and uncover the truth, like Erin Brockovich did.
- You Don’t Need a Courtroom Scene to Write a Compelling Legal Thriller. Though courtroom scenes are inherently dramatic, can be great plot devices, and boast interesting characters, authors of legal thrillers can conjure up compelling stories without having to depict trials. They can have two characters discuss what happened in court, expressing differing viewpoints about the possible outcome of a trial and what each outcome might portend. They can have their protagonist ruminate over what he or she should have said or done in the courtroom. Or, they can omit references to courtrooms completely, as in Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Published in 1844, Dumas’s novel is regarded by many as one of the first legal thrillers. Yet, in it, the Count does not take his nemesis to court. Rather, he seeks his revenge by combining an artful legal maneuver with high finance—drafting letters of credit to deal with his adversary.
- Lawyers Don’t Have to Be the Protagonist or Antagonist. A lawyer can be a flawed protagonist, as in Michael Connolly’s The Lincoln Lawyer or Barry Reed’s The Verdict. A lawyer can be a paragon of virtue, as in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. Yet a legal thriller can succeed without having a lawyer front and center, as in Grisham’s The Runaway Jury, in which the villain is a jury consultant and the protagonists are a juror and his girlfriend. Great legal thrillers capture the reader’s attention because a pressing legal issue or legal dilemma is at their core, because there is inherent tension between what the law allows, what the law forbids, and how ordinary people act in light of that dichotomy according to their individual moral compasses, and because the law is full of gray areas upon which an author can paint colorful prose and craft a story that is both compelling and memorable.