Writing Realistic Courtroom Scenes

Jody Lebel
Published on: April 2013
Readers love courtroom scenes because they generate natural conflict that swirls around and feeds off of human drama. As writers we know the devil is in the details but a lot of novels suffer from unrealistic or naïve depictions of courtroom procedures. To make a story ring true, the author must understand the structure of the court system, who the players are and what motivates the parties to act as they do.

Like all scenes, your legal scenes need to be authentic and understandable but they also need to be enjoyable. Boring case law quotes and pre-trial legalese will put the reader to sleep. Insert the human element in your scene. Draw on the emotions of the parties involved rather than get bogged down in precise courtroom protocol. Humor works well in courtroom scenes but it has to apply to the situation. Just before the poor guy is about to get life in prison isn't the time to crack a joke. A scene where the scorned wife is in the gal-lery tossing remarks to the new girlfriend might work, as long as the man they're bickering over isn't a dangerous felon. Humor used this way breaks the tension and sometimes you need to give the reader a breather, especially after a particularly tense scene. Don't make your character a clown, and never anger the judge unless it's intentional on the part of the attorney as part of your story.
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It may be clear even before the scene ends what the verdict will be. That doesn't make it boring writing. Look at all you have to work with besides "guilty or not guilty"; the emotions of the family, the frustration of the attorney who is not able to pull off a not guilty verdict, the told-you-so smug look on the prosecutor's face. The defendants are in court on the worst day of their lives. Some of them may never taste freedom again. Some of them deserve it. Some of them don't. Heady stuff to write about.

1) Visit a courtroom. If you are contemplating writing a courtroom scene, it is almost a must to go to a courthouse and look around. Courtrooms are open to the public. Sit in the gallery and watch the lawyers, the witnesses, and judges interact. Watch the other members of the gallery. Listen to the sounds of the paper ruffling, the chains clinking, and the wives crying. Take a note pad with you as I'm sure you will come away with ideas for your WIP.

2) Big crime, big tension. Chose a serious crime for your characters to juggle. Make it a homicide, serious assault or something that puts the community at risk. It's not impossible to write a good courtroom scene about a man accused of writing some bad checks, but it won't have the same reader appeal and ratchet up the tension like a guy who planted a bomb in the school yard.

3) Inner and outer conflict. The lawyers are people, too. A defense attorney whose brother who was wrongly convicted may tend to blur ethical lines. A prosecutor whose wife was killed by a drunk driver may press harder than need be in DUI cases. Internal struggles and conflicts are just as important as the case being tried as far as reader enjoyment is concerned. Heck, the judge could have a cheating spouse and have a difficult time not bringing the hammer down on someone in a like situation.

4) A sense of uncertainty. Cases have deadlines, witnesses can't be found or they recant their testimony. One minute everything is going along well and the next it all falls apart and the defendant is potentially looking at serious time. Don't make it smooth going. Keep the tension high. Make the consequences dire.

5) Leave out the boring stuff. There is a lot of procedural minutia you can gloss over or leave out altogether. Focus on the important marks you have to hit to make the trial progress from beginning to end, but ease up on the boring nuances of courtroom procedure. You don't need case law cites or reasons for objections (unless it's important to the story of course), or pretrial motions. Use details prudently and your legal jargon sparingly.

6) Focus on the human side. Legal writing is all about tension and emotion; fear and anger. Family lives are changing. Jason Ruiz is most likely going to prison today. See that sweet little girl in the front row with candy-cane hair bows? That's her daddy. Somewhere in the gallery is a grieving mother, an angry brother, or a woman scared that if Jason goes to prison he's going to send some of his friends after her for revenge. Other characters worth exploring include police officers, victims and witnesses. Tap into that resource. 7) Make the courtroom one of your characters. Detail the shabbiness of the courtroom . It's just right for the latest batch of inmates in orange jumpsuits being shackled to their worn chairs. Consider the same courtroom measured against the high-dollar defense attorney and his polished nails. Some people in the gallery will squirm on the hard benches. Others will look bored. One might start to snooze. Does the air conditioning work today? Is that the bailiff on his knees taping down a large rip in the rug? And something smells really bad in the back row.

8) Don't mix your voices. The judge will speak in a certain manner, confident and authoritative. The attorneys will speak to their clients with a different tone than they do to the judge and with an even different tone and manner when they address each other as opponents. The defendant in your story has to stay in character for his background and education. You can't have ghetto slang coming from a college professor or from the police officer on the witness stand. The reader should be able to tell who's talking without a tag for the most part.

9) A sense of loss. People other than the defendant in your story have things to lose also. Something is always at stake; reputation, money, integrity, or respect. You get to play with these people. Make them sweat. The high-powered attorney doesn't always have to win.

10) Be accurate. If you don't know the answer to a question about the courtroom, the Internet is a valuable source of information. Most writers would be hesitant to ask an attorney or judge unless you knew them personally, but many attorneys have websites where you can write in a question. Just explain that you are a writer, not a potential future client, so they can decide what kind of time they want to give you.<
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