I just completed the part of the book that I had been dreading, but now, because of the work that I have put into it, I greatly cherish. I have just finished writing a courtroom scene for my novel. I knew that there were many ways this could go belly towards the sunshine, so I think I put in more prepatory effort for this one than other scenes I might had been more comfortable writing. Some obvious concerns were validated, but a few surprises awaited for me.
Know The Law
My novel is set in Cuba in the 1940s during the Batista era, and this invites all sorts of troubles. I cannot write a dictatorial tribunal as one might write To Kill A Mockingbird. Not only would Cubans have different laws, but the authoritarian regimes have a vastly different set of ways about them. I had to change everything so many times I almost gave up on the scene, but these changes were in the name of getting things right. To say a writer needs to know the law is only part of it. He must know the legal code, but also the adversarial process, the judge, the punishments potentially faced, and even what the courtroom itself is like.
Use Details Prudently
This might be the case with any scene, but I found it particularly sticky with a courtroom scene. There are details that are necessary, but boring. There are details that are exciting, but unnecessary. Remember, it’s not just arguing and cross-examining in the courthouse itself. There is also the interview of witnesses and the evidence gathering aspect. This was a minefield of bad writing waiting to take my legs off if I were not careful. I had to go through the ways of emptying a brake fluid resivior, and I bored myself even writing it. But you can’t spring evidence on the reader like you can the court. Also, the pre-trial interviews often sound too much like the in court cross-examination. You could be repeating yourself. We all need readers to help us proof out materials, but here I would use them even before book is done. Your details must be needful and exciting.
Balance Your Legal Jargon
Like all scenes, your legal scenes need to be authentic and understandable. Also, they need to keep the narrator’s voice consistently as it had been used before and will be employed after. Our American courts use plenty of Latin phrases, so how much more do you think there are in a Spanish speaking court? Keep the legalese at ease. But it needs an appropriate use to seem authentic. From here the writer runs into a bad spot trying to make the situation clear without breaking the narrator’s voice be explaining everything like a Dick & Jane reader. I think the best remedy to this problem is sing the show me, don’t tell me model we all know and love.
Avoid The Obvious
It may be clear even before the scene that the verdict will be either guilty or not guilty. That is not the problem. Even if anyone can see for a mile coming that the defendant will get off, don’t allow legal flow to become so transparent that your conclusion becomes ho-hum. In my scene, the lawyer looked at the evidence and flipped the state’s expert witness, but still I feel as if my lawyer’s case in not only interesting and understandable, but also not obvious beforehand to most readers. If the reader knows it before the lawyer says it, it needs reworking.
Make Pace Everything
A legal scene needs to move. You can get bogged down with stuff, or you can move quicker than what the reader needs to know can be written. To keep the interest of the reader, you need a quick pace, which does not avail itself to many details, but many details is what you need in a any good legal scene. Did I accomplish this in my own courtroom scene? I don’t know. I think I did. I hope I did. But like any other scene, it will be worked and reworked. That is the clear upside of being a writer – you don’t have to get it perfect on the first draft. Knowing that also encouraged me to start and finish this tough part of my novel.