The legal system abounds with conflict, quirky characters, mystery, and moral ambiguity. This is why writers tend to draw often and steadily from this familiar well, says author Robert Rotstein. This week’s guest blogger, Rotstein spells out why writers, many of them lawyers, find inspiration at the courthouse.
Happy Reading! And until next time, read like someone is burning the books.
Natural Born Writers, Ready Made Stories:
Writing and the Law
By Robert Rotstein
Stories about the legal system abound and have for centuries. There are novels, some of them classic works of literature, like Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd the Sailor, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, and Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. There are great movies, like 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, Philadelphia, and A Few Good Men. And there are the long-running TV shows: Perry Mason, L.A. Law, Law & Order, The Good Wife.
Not only do authors write about the law, but many lawyers have become authors. Henry Fielding, Wallace Stevens, and Franz Kafka had legal backgrounds, as do thriller writers Grisham, Turow, Steve Berry, and Lisa Scottoline, among many others. I’ve written two legal novels and still practice law full time.
If you accept the stereotypes, writers and lawyers are nothing alike. Attorneys are supposedly combative, social, linear thinkers. Writers are imaginative, introspective loners. So why are fiction writers fascinated with the legal system? And why have so many lawyers become successful writers? I believe it’s because lawsuits are real-life dramas.
The most basic piece of advice that aspiring writers hear at workshops in seminars is that the story has to create conflict. Lawsuits are all about conflict. The legal system is set up that way—it’s an adversarial system, and where there are adversaries, there are stories. Take the most basic slip-and-fall lawsuit. The plaintiff says he fell on a banana peel in the supermarket-produce section. The store manager says they’d swept the area two minutes earlier. A video from the security camera shows a shadowy, unidentified figure, taking something out of her pocket and dropping it in the area where the slip and fall occurred. Even with those sparse facts, you have the germ of a story. In a sense, lawyers are trained to become storytellers. (And I don’t mean to add the misguided stereotype that attorneys make things up; often, there really are two sides to the story.) Conversely, the law provides raw material for the writer, automatically creating conflict. Lawsuits also create mystery, because the facts are almost always ambiguous—an automatic whodunit.
There’s another reason why writers are drawn to the law and lawyers are drawn to writing—as author-lawyer Daco Auffenorde has pointed out, lawsuits have a classic three-act structure. http://www.usatoday.com/story/happyeverafter/2014/04/22/daco-romance-authors-lawyers/8013569/. The attorney files a complaint and learns about the witnesses (characters) (Act I); conducts depositions and fact investigations, where confrontation occurs (Act II); and resolves the conflict at a trial (Act III). In a sense, trial lawyers live out a drama each time they handle a case. And authors of legal drama have a ready-made structure just waiting to be molded into a novel.
While it’s not the most pleasant part of the job, attorneys also have to become conspiracy theorists. They make judgments about their own client, about the other side, and about the third-party witnesses. Lawyers must ask questions like, “Who’s lying?”
“Who’s self-motivated?” “Who’s ethical?” “Is he nervous?” “Will the jury think her arrogant?” In other words, the lawyer, like the writer, engages in character studies, and the legal system provides ready-made characters for the writer. In my own recent novel, Reckless Disregard, my lead character, attorney Parker Stern, represents a video-game designer known to the world only as Poniard, who’s becomes a defendant in a libel action after accusing a movie mogul of kidnapping an actress twenty-five years prior. Poniard will only communicate with Parker through e-mail, which makes the attorney’s usual “character study” of his client impossible. And this inability to evaluate his own client leads Parker into great danger.
Lastly, our adversarial system of justice assumes that there’s a right side and a wrong side, and where there’s “right and wrong,” there’s a moral judgment to be made. Writers thrive on raising moral questions. Melville’s Billy Budd shows how earthly justice and divine morality sometimes conflict. To Kill A Mockingbird explores personal courage in the face of violent racism. The never-ending lawsuit in Dickens’s Bleak House casts an unjust legal system as the novel’s antagonist.
So lawsuits have all the attributes of a good story—conflict, characters, mystery, and moral ambiguity. That’s why the legal system has provided grist for fiction and why so many lawyers are equipped to become authors.
At least, that’s this lawyer’s story.
If you would like to read more about Robert Rotstein’s books please click here.
Robert Rotstein is a writer and attorney who’s represented many celebrities and all the major motion picture studios. He’s the author of Reckless Disregard (Seventh Street Books, June 3, 2014) about Parker Stern, an L.A.-based attorney, who takes on a dangerous case for a mysterious video game designer against a powerful movie mogul. Reckless Disregard has received starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist. His debut novel, Corrupt Practices (Seventh Street Books), was published in 2013.
Visit his website at robertrotstein.com
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