Have you ever watched legal scenes in a movie or read them in a book and wondered how accurate they were? I’m thrilled to welcome Yvette Cano, a freelance writer who has law as one of her specialties. Yvette, who received her law degree from South Texas College of Law, has shared her top five tips for writing legal scenes in fiction. She notes several common mistakes, and I’m sure you’ve seen examples of these in books and on screen. Now I’ll let Yvette present her case! I’m watching a movie with my husband, and it’s a scene in the courtroom. “That would never happen. That’s ridiculous.” My poor husband has to sit through this with any legal situation. I can’t help it. I love those movies and books, but are they realistic? Absolutely not. As a writer, how can you create realistic legal scenes? Here are some tips for writing them.
The Emotional Outburst
“Order in the court!” Lawyers, judges, witnesses, defendants, and even jurors have jumped over the barrier, screaming and yelling. The courtroom is in an uproar and the judge is banging his gavel. It makes for a great, emotional setting. I’m yelling from my couch. Let’s break it down: Defendants or jurors would be immediately removed, locked up or fined. The judge is in control and there is always a bailiff. So as soon as someone jumps over the barrier or stands up to scream, the judge will order the bailiff to remove the person. We all want our witnesses to scream, cry and confess on the witness stand. It’s exciting. Hardly ever happens.
They are prepared thoroughly before, and told to remain professional. If a person does get emotional, which might happen, it is immediately shut down by the judge. The judge will intervene, tell the person to manage their temper or emotions, and then strike the outburst from the record. If it’s not on the record, it didn’t happen. When I finally had my first court appearance, I spent so much time on my theatrical points of view. I was prepared to walk around the courtroom emotionally charged. I was going to win over the jury and judge. My client would rejoice. Applause in the court. Nope, that didn’t happen. It is not professional for any lawyer to have an emotional outburst. The courtroom is typically the judge’s domain, not the lawyers. The ethical sanctions in place would be tremendous.
All lawyers have a code of honor that they have to abide by. Forget moving around the courtroom as well. I remember one of my first times in a courtroom, and everyone was so polite. In order to approach the witness stand or judge, you have to ask permission and have a good reason. Well, there goes my theatrical walk around the courtroom. And there are audiences in a court, but nobody applauds anymore. As for the judge, I’ve actually never really seen one bang the gavel. Some courts don’t even have gavels. It makes for great emotional scenes, but it is not very realistic. If you are going to put in the emotional outburst, prepare for the consequences. Have the person be thrown out by the bailiff. Or the lawyer sanctioned. If you want to write the theatrical points of view, leave it for the lawyer’s summation. Add in the “May I approach the bench?” language.
Surprise Witnesses And Evidence
“The defense calls the plaintiff’s secret lover to the stand.” Gasps from the courtroom. The plaintiff’s attorney starts screaming. How many times did I think this was going to happen, and I’d save the day again? Surprise witnesses and evidence hardly ever find their way into the courtroom, and if they do, the other side will be given plenty of time out of the courtroom to research. There’s this little thing called discovery. A long, not dramatic nor sexy process. It is actually quite boring and that’s why it never finds itself into many legal scenes. It’s pages of questions that are asked by one side, and have to be answered by the other side. Lawyers really know each argument that will be brought up in court so there are no surprises. Every piece of evidence in court goes through discovery first. No shocking movie type moment. If there happens to be an unusually last-minute epiphany, then the side who didn’t know about the witness or evidence will ask for time to cross-examine. The judge will always allow time so there is no trial by ambush or will simply not allow the witness/evidence. Be ready to write in the long nights of coffee and research. Reading pages of discovery or answering hundreds of questions.
I had dreams that when I got into a courtroom that I’d scream “Objection!”, defending my client’s best interest. Just like I had seen in the movies, and also hardly ever happens. Yet, this is what makes a good dramatic story. The yelling of objections, badgering the witness, and talking over the other lawyer. In reality, once “objection” has been said, that lawyer needs to have a reason. The lawyer can’t just scream objection without any substantial claim. Some of the more common objections are relevance and hearsay. Once the objection is out there, nothing else can be said until the judge rules on it. There isn’t a yelling match between lawyers, talking over each other. Again, the judge must rule on it by saying overruled or sustained before anything proceeds. If anyone continues to talk after the objection, it will be struck from the record and they could face ethical sanctions or be in contempt of court. If your character is a good lawyer, they need to remain professional and know what to say and when to say it is important.
Venue And Jurisdiction
Not very glamorous, is it? Yet, it’s little details like this that will make a great writer. If your character is in a civil suit, are they liable or guilty? Can a criminal lawsuit be dropped by the victim? Which court are they in? All these circumstances make a difference in setting the scene. So first, is it a criminal or civil case? There are differences between the two. The biggest difference is that a civil lawsuit can take up to a year to be ready for trial. Whereas, a criminal case needs to be speedy and fair trial per the 6th Amendment. Venue is finding out what is the proper place in which to file the lawsuit. Is it a county or city? Think of venue as the geographical location of the court. Jurisdiction is when the court has authority over the subject matter of the case. Is it a state or federal subject matter? Then, there are specific courts for the situation. Taxes in tax court. Divorce in family court. A criminal is not tried in the same place that someone is defending their parking tickets unless it is a very small town with only one judge. In that situation, a lawyer would shop around to do what is best for their client. It’s complicated and not very alluring to find the correct descriptions, but makes a huge difference if you know what you are talking about.
You are writing a great courtroom scene when your characters then settle the disagreement out of court. No emotional outbursts or cheers for the good guy winning the case. Not what you pictured? The reality is that many civil lawsuits settle out of court before trial, and most criminal cases end with a plea bargain. I know I was expecting that lucrative and intriguing court life. I bought the dress suits and heels to go with it, but they hardly ever saw the inside of the courtroom. Many states require an alternative form of resolution before even setting a date for trial. It saves a lot of money with court costs and lawyer fees. So if you skip the court scene, know that your writing will be realistic and lawyers everywhere will be silently clapping for you.
Some advice if you are going to write a legal scene and have no clue, consult with an attorney, especially one in the state or country where your book takes place. Laws vary depending on where you are. Do the research as well. Learn about the rules of evidence, hearsay, witnesses, etc. You don’t have to read the huge law books and become a law guru, but getting the language correct helps. Taking this level of attention will carry into your writing and make your legal scene more believable. I rest my case. Have you ever written a legal scene in your fiction project? How did you research it? What types of law mistakes have you seen in books and on screen? Let us know in the comments.
More About Yvette
Yvette Cano is a freelance writer for hire, specializing in law, human resources, and hospitality. She believes words matter so choose yours wisely. She works closely with clients to provide engaging content that converts viewers into customers. When she isn’t writing, she is talking to her dogs, Gigi and Tex, since they really are the best listeners. Find her on:
Stacy Juba, the founder of Shortcuts for Writers, is a freelance editor and online course creator who teaches authors how to simplify the self-editing process and fit their writing goals into a busy life. Her books include the Storybook Valley chick lit series and the Hockey Rivals young adult sports novels.
Sign up for her free, on-demand masterclass, How to Create Your Editing Game Plan and Fast-Track Your Book: 3 Costly Mistakes to Avoid.