Here’s a puzzle. Is there a hidden box of insights that would help me write Court Room scenes for a movie (or novel)?
At the moment I have them written as scenes where the prosecution and defence are given a series of monologues to set up their respective claims. These monologues have a series of character or plot related interjections by the judge and the opposing lawyer/solicitor.
I got to thinking about what I had written so far and the following questions came to mind.
Is there any value in just copying the form and structure from other books or movies? What sources would be best? Is there a material difference between American and English (British/Australian) systems?
Does the writer rely on the skill of the actors to be compelling, or do you hope the editor and the director can film it so reactions and cutaways will punctuate the monologues, or do you write a lot of interjections? If you use interjections does that increase the drama? Is the evidence being adequately revealed?
Not enough exposition - that is what a courtroom scene really is about? Too much? Too much dialogue? Not enough written reactions? Too many? Is the writer telling the director how to block the drama? Is there drama? What is at stake as the defence and prosecution reveal their positions and mask their hidden agendas? How does the other side react? Is there enough material from the character development in the story so far so that a mere glance or raised eyebrow could suffice instead of dialogue? So on and so on.
So many questions are raised.
You get the drift. Any ideas?
If you haven’t already, watch the show “Law and Order,” for American courtroom scenes, at least.
As for dialog, that’s what courtroom scenes rely on, if you ask me. There’s not a whole lot of action - just a whole lot of talking.
Oops, double post, sorry.
Actually I’m just trying to bump my post count, for reasons unknown…
Massive differences, both in applicable laws and procedure of the courts and justice system in general.
Not wanting to sound glib, but if you’re unaware that these huge differences exist, and you’re trying to be realistic, I strongly suggest you heavily research the British system before attempting to write it. Transplanting US court procedure into an English court would be a blunder similar to writing an American lawyer wearing robe and wig.
If you want to ease into that research (of the British system), perhaps the most entertaining way would be to watch old episodes of “Rumpole of the Bailey.” John Mortimer, who created the character and the series, was highly successful as barrister and as dramatist. He knows how the system works, and watching Leo McKern (as Rumpole) is one of the few defensible reasons for watching TV at all.
Ooh, good call. I was trying to think of examples that weren’t over-fictionalised for dramatic purposes (i.e., not bloody DEED) and came up blank. But yes, RUMPOLE is an excellent choice.
Yes of course - Rumpole. Excellent suggestion.
I also had a chance to see Billy Connolly in The Man Who Sued God. Well worth a look.
bbc.co.uk/films/2003/08/01/t … view.shtml
Thanks for these excellent suggestions.
I have some courtroom scenes coming up in my revamped novel, and it seems to me that it’s pretty tough to make them compelling because it is a lot of talking and (in real life, not reel life) there’s a lot of boring procedure to wade through.
However, as dramatists we can avoid all that. The best courtroom scenes, it seems to me, are dramatic reveals after suspense has built up. The point of the Perry Mason courtroom scenes, after all, was for the moment the real perpetrator broke down on the stand and confessed all.
I have come to the conclusion that one problem with courtroom scenes is that all the most important points are muffled by the procedures and imposed politeness. Lives are in the balance, terrible tragedies are described, and yet the whole thing has this bureaucratic glaze that needs to be scraped away for people to “get” it.
The “bureaucratic glaze.” Perfect. That’s exactly the problem with courtroom scenes in real life as well. My Lady of the House occasionally must, in her role as social worker/therapist, take part in such rituals.
She typically meets briefly with lawyers who explain what must be brought out in court, waits in an anteroom for three or four hours, then testifies for an hour – without being allowed to refer to notes – concerning a point not brought up in earlier discussions – about what one of her three dozen clients may have said at a session four months earlier.
The lawyers go home, the judge vanishes into whatever mist s/he arose from, and the client goes to jail/loses custody of the child/is told to come back a month later.
Then LOTH comes home, and we open a bottle of wine and empty it. The underlying stories are tense, searing, heart-wrenching, and I can never use a one of them in fiction.
Does anybody remember the TV series Crown Court of the 1970’s ?
I was truanting from school and watched it through the day time. Spread over several days of prosecution defence summary and judgement I think it was solely studio/court room based. No outside scenes, but I could be wrong.
Like the Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits it took the limits of budget and studio and produced something which you respect. As opposed to films which trumpet their budget and stars but deliver nothing but tedium and plots designed by committee.
I have very vague memories of CROWN COURT, yeah, but I was so young when I watched that I can’t vouch for its accuracy
Well, well - seems Legal TV is going to start repeating it: tinyurl.com/ytjqff
I was truanting from kindergarten or nursery school.
Lieing makes you slim.
Earlier this week I heard Ben Kingsley reminiscing about his time in the role of Prosecuting Counsel. He claimed he never lost a case.
(I am of course far too young to remember… )
too young!!! gerrrorrrfff wid y`
When I’m home sick during the day, my weakness is the Small Claims Courts shows, the Judge Joe Brown types.
I love Judge Joe Brown!
This is gripping stuff; defective puppies from breeders, boats bought off eBay which sink, landladies who store their ceramic flamingo collection in the tenant’s closet, and of course, the classic, “I thought the cell phone was a gift.”
In the UK we get Judge Judy from the USA. She seems to specialise in morons. I find the show boring, it needs pepping up.
I propose lie detectors and an interrogation section prior to making the claim or defence in court. Being called a liar and being shown the pseudo proof of a lie detector would be good.
After that mild torture, electric shocks, chinese burns, school humiliation, that sort of thing. Very entertaining after a night in the pub.
I’ve got two movie suggestions and two book suggestions for courtroom setups and character exposition:
“12 Angry Men,” the Sidney Lumet movie, takes place in a jury room, but the way the characters evolve through the dialog is downright fascinating.
“Philadelphia,” the movie starring Tom Hanks, has its key scenes in a courtroom with a homophobic lawyer representing a gay client.
In the books realm, “Caine Mutiny,” the Herman Wouk novel, has a classic court martial scene that is a great example of bringing out character. The techniques could probably translate easily to either the U.S. or the British civilian law system.
Finally, Jonathan Harr’s “A Civil Action” is a book about a civil lawsuit against a chemical company. It’s a true story. And I’ve read that some law schools put it on their optional reading lists as a vivid example of the litigation steps in a complicated lawsuit.
Robert Blade, Jacksonville, Florida
To this list I would add Anatomy of a Murder, both book and movie tackle the challenge of a difficult murder case from the perspective of a defense attorney who is finding things out at the same time as the reader does; very effective technique.
And of course, the epitome of dramatic courtroom scenes, Al Pacino in And Justice for All.
I know this is an old thread, but, for future reference, as a a writer and a trial lawyer, here’s what I’d recommend …
I’d avoid the "Judge Judy"s like the plague. They really do deal with some idiots! And sometimes, with all due respect, the Hon. Judy Scheindlin makes a legally insupportable decision. Nevertheless, her autobiography is a hoot!
Rumpole’s great! For U.S. material (and UK and US are very different in their procedural gloss), try “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “A Civil Action” is recommended reading in a lot of law schools these days, but one of my Evidence profs also showed us “My Cousin Vinnie.” (Laugh and learn, was her philosophy, God bless her!)
Trials are open to the public - anyone who wants to write about the courtroom may want to sit in the gallery sometime. Some lawyers would be more than glad to talk to you, too.
For the participants - parties, judges, lawyers, other witnesses - it’s all tremendously dramatic, and often pretty scary. It’s because what happens in court really counts. The sense of your characters’ urgency will help guide you well as you write about their trial.
Best idea is to witness for yourself and work from there. One thing I have noticed is “Court Room Scenes” are more like Sport highlight films in that they focus on the important events but don’t drag on by including all the boring stuff. I have seen that in movies and novels as well. You can’t have every single thing going on being described because it may seem to drag out. Better to present it more like “highlights” so the flow stays pretty fast paced.