Friday, May 7, 2010

Arguing Both Sides of a Case:The Challenges of Constructing a Legal Thriller

© Douglas Corleone 2010 all rights reserved

A few years ago, I left the practice of law because I found the profession too stressful. I left the dark streets of New York for the bright sands of Hawaii, intent on taking life easy. I was determined, as many are, to make a career of my favorite hobby - writing.

But what to write? Well, I realized it was the novels of authors like John Grisham, Scott Turow, and Steve Martini that led me to law school in the first place. I’d studied law, practiced for several years in New York City, read and dissected every legal thriller I ever came across, and loved the genre, so the choice seemed clear. So from my 23rd floor lanai overlooking Waikiki Beach, I set out to write my first legal thriller, which would become my debut novel, ONE MAN’S PARADISE (Minotaur, April 2010).

That’s when I first realized writing a courtroom drama wasn’t nearly as easy as Grisham makes it seem. This time I wasn’t just preparing a defense; I was preparing a prosecution, too. And not only that - I was also deciding which objections would be sustained, which would be overruled. In other words, in addition to playing District Attorney and Defense Lawyer, I was playing Judge, too. But I couldn’t do any of that before taking the first step - planning a near perfect crime. Near perfect, because I had to leave clues for the police and my investigators to find. Yes, I was playing Criminal, too.

As difficult as it is preparing a case for trial, it’s even more daunting having to argue both sides of a case. Any lawyer will tell you that they’d much rather go up against a talented adversary than an inept one. See, having a talented adversary, you can better predict their moves. Getting pit against a dullard, well, who knows what’s going to happen? And who knows what a jury will do? The twelve men and women seated in the box just might feel sorry for your foe. And if you do too good a job beating up on your sympathetic adversary, the jury just might turn on you. And your client.

As the writer of a legal thriller, you must set the tone of the trial. There is no sitting back and simply reacting to what the other side does. You are the other side. At a glance, this might seem beneficial. But once you’ve thought it through, you’ll undoubtedly recognize the dilemma. See, lawyers don’t like to lose. Not even in fiction.

So once you’ve developed these characters you care for - this down-on-his-luck-defense lawyer, this overly-ambitious yet well-meaning prosecutor - you want them both to succeed. It pains you when they screw up. But three-quarters into the novel you realize, one of these guys fighting tooth-and-nail for what they believe in ultimately has to lose.

One of your guys (or girls) has to take one for the team, has to throw the fight. And that’s not easy for any lawyer, let alone a fictitious one that is a proud product of your mind, to do. But the reader wants an outcome. A mistrial just won’t do. Justice must be served, but don’t be fooled. Justice is not the goal of any attorney I’ve ever come up against. In the law, it’s not how you play the game, but whether you win or lose.

That’s not to mention all the work that needs to be done. Each of your lawyers must act as a respectable attorney would. Each side must prepare a case, draft and defend motions, read legal precedents, comfort his client or aid a victim’s grieving family. Each side must eventually step into that fictitious courtroom, confident of a win but prepared to lose. Whether the reader will “hear” opening statements in part or in their entirety, it doesn’t matter; opening statements must be prepared. Witness lists must be exchanged and each witness subjected to direct and cross examination. And remember, as a writer of legal thrillers, you must play the role of each witness, too. You must know your motivations, must know when to lie and when to tell the truth. It can be a dizzying experience.

The best advice for constructing a legal thriller may well be to outline the entire book before sitting down to write, but I fear a courtroom drama written that way will not ring true. After all, trials are anything but predictable. I’d rather take my shot at a roulette wheel in Vegas than a courtroom in Manhattan any day of the week.

So my advice is to let the trial play itself out on the page. Know which witnesses you are going to call, but give them leeway as to what they will say. Let them surprise you. That way, they will surprise your readers, too.

As for the jury’s final verdict, well, your guess is as good as mine. But do keep mind that juries don’t always get it right. Seldom do juries ever get the whole truth.

In writing your legal thriller, I say, toss away all notions of justice and fair play, and let your two lawyers have at it. Let them passionately argue their respective cases day and night in your mind. Let it get personal. Because, for lawyers, it often does.

And at the conclusion of the hard-fought trial, after the verdict is read, the prosecutor and defense lawyer don’t need to shake hands. In fact, as soon as you type “the end” on your manuscript, immediately begin a new one. And while the fire is still raging, the bad blood still boiling, let the two have at it again. Let them tear each other to pieces.

About the book:
ONE MAN'S PARADISE, winner of the 2009 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award, was released on Tuesday, April 27, 2010, by St. Martin's Press. The story centers around disgraced criminal defense attorney Kevin Corvelli, who flees Manhattan for Honolulu, only to learn that Paradise can be every bit as lethal as the City that Never Sleeps. At its heart, ONE MAN'S PARADISE is a riveting tale of failure resulting from professional apathy, and the ultimate search for redemption.

About the author:

My website can be found at


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Douglas - wonderful article, with intriguing points to consider. I loved seeing inside your ex-lawyer's brain, it was fascinating! Sorry this is so late, it's been a crazy busy weekend with grandkids and lots of outside time. Until today. When it started snowing this morning. (ACK. We've had eighties, now this. CRAZY)

Unknown said...

Thanks Aaron! Nothing wrong with some outside time. Even here in Hawaii, I feel as though I never get enough. Sorry to hear about the snow! But I'm glad that it gave you a chance to read my post, and I'm thrilled that you enjoyed it. ~Doug

s.w. vaughn said...

Congratulations! I couldn't imagine being able to write a legal thriller (not an advisable thing to attempt for anyone without a degree) but I do enjoy Grisham's novels - so I must check out yours!

(And I may be just a teensy bit jealous of your living in Hawaii... :-)

Unknown said...

Thanks s.w. vaughn! I hope you enjoy the novel.

Unknown said...

Well, at least as a writer, you don't prepare for trial, get ready to deliver the opening statement that you prepared and revised 40 times... only for the damn case to settle! LOL. Doug, I've read your writing and a few Grisham books. You're better, and you make it seem even easier. And you find a way to skillfully combine suspense and humor. Look up to Grisham no longer, for his talent that is. Maybe for his bank account, but not for his writing ability in the genre of courtroom drama. Nice blog post. I can't even imagine how you do it...