Image: Matthew Loffhagen
John Grisham may be one of the wealthiest writers alive today. He’s spent almost every one of the past twenty-five years with a book in the bestseller charts, and for a long time his was the only voice garnering attention in the growing world of legal fiction.
Those days, however, have come to an end. Legal fiction is no longer a niche subgenre dominated solely by one man – on the contrary, it’s a swiftly blossoming genre that has attracted swathes of new talent over the past decade. It’s a great time to get involved.
But what is legal fiction? Well, it’s an offshoot of the broader mystery genre and is characterized by an attorney protagonist, a courtroom climax, and a unique approach to the classic whodunnit formula.
The best works of legal fiction are riveting, educational, and intelligent thrill-rides; but the worst are dull, convoluted jumbles of poorly researched legal mumbo-jumbo. Thankfully, we’ve amassed some golden rules to help guide you through the dos and don’ts of legal fiction. Let’s get this court in session.
Do your research
This should be obvious, but it’s still absolutely worth spelling out. You can’t write good legal fiction if you don’t know your civil cases from your criminal cases or your jurors from your gavels. And yes, your research will be geographically dependent; if your novel is set in North America, you’ll need to know US law. If it’s set in Jamaica, or the UK, or Iran, then yep, you guessed it, you’ll need to know Jamaican, British, or Iranian law. There’s simply no getting around it.
And before you ask, no, watching Law & Order doesn’t count as research. Instead, turn to professionally approved resources (like textbooks) and go to an actual courthouse and see if there are any trials you can sit in on. Many are open to the public.You can research legal fiction in more ways than you might think.Click To Tweet
Strike a balance
Writing legal fiction is, more than anything else, a careful balancing act. You want to be authentic and authoritative as a writer in terms of how you’re handling legal material – i.e. you want to seem like you know what you’re talking about – but, at the same time, you want to tell an engaging story.
Still, achieving this balance probably won’t be an even split; deft handling of legal knowledge won’t save a badly written book with a dull plot full of unengaging characters. Be a writer first, and a lawyer (or law expert) second. This means you should think far more about craft than you should about law. Worry first about making an engaging, vulnerable, and fallible protagonist, then about interrogating your witnesses, and save the legalese for last.
Think outside the (jury) box
You can’t work in legal fiction without being aware of the shadows of writers who’ve made fortunes from the genre: John Grisham, sure, but also Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson, and Scott Turow. Many writers who dominate the genre were first lawyers, and most of them are middle-aged white Americans. As such, they approach the genre from a particular perspective, itself informed by their professional and cultural backgrounds.
Trying to battle these titans on their own turf is inviting disaster. Instead, some of the best-selling new legal fiction today goes further afield. This means geographic, gender, class, and ethnic diversity; it means morally gray fiction and unreliable clients or narrators; it means attorney protagonists who don’t know what they’re doing or who frequently mess up; it means plots centered around uniquely modern-day crimes related to, say, environmental decline, biotechnology, big tech, or Russian hacking; it means rolling plots that may never end up in the courtroom at all.
The best legal fiction is sharp, witty, sometimes funny, and always engaging. It keeps the reader guessing, only to reveal its true form at the book’s end. This is one area in which legal fiction tends to differ from your standard whodunnit: legal fiction, unlike traditional mystery fiction, tends to withhold information from the reader to dramatically reveal in a climactic court scene.Legal fiction has close ties with both mystery and crime fiction.Click To Tweet
After all, lawyers tend to be pretty smart (they certainly have to go through a lot of school!), and good legal fiction knows to pit smart lawyers against equally smart criminals. Such meetings of minds should flash with cutting dialogue and sudden plot twists, and nothing should be taken for granted.
Go beyond the courtroom
Too often, legal novels bounce between the protagonist’s office, their hotel room, and the courtroom, with very little geographic or tonal variation. This is no good; the old clichés of attorneys staying late at the office only to retire to a seedy hotel room to snatch a few hours rest are just that: clichés. It’s time to break free and cover some new ground.
But I mean this in more than just a geographic sense. Much of the best legal fiction being produced today doesn’t limit its focus to the personal dramas of the attorney protagonist and their clients. Instead, they’re bringing real-life legal or ethical questions into the foreground, or else are touching on far broader themes: morality, cultural shifts, urban degradation, racism, love, death, etc.Legal fiction is a genre crying out for diverse perspectives.Click To Tweet
A great example of such a book is Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things, which tells the story of a white supremacist couple who disallow a black nurse from caring for their newborn baby. When the baby goes into cardiac arrest, the nurse hesitates before rushing in and, due to her indecision, the baby dies. The court case that follows is a grim, difficult, but enlightening and level-headed look into themes of race and prejudice in contemporary America.
Write to persuade
Like a good lawyer, you as a writer of legal fiction need to know how to present a case persuasively. You need to know when to employ each of Aristotle’s modes of persuasion – ethos, pathos, and logos – to win over the toughest jury of all: your readers. Thankfully, we wrote an article on using pathos in your fiction, just to help you out.
In legal fiction, it’s important to keep your readers guessing, ensure your case seems as complicated and opaque as you’re saying it is (there’s nothing worse than a courtroom umming and ahhing over an incredibly obvious, hackneyed case), and humanize everyone involved. If your attorney protagonist is a prosecutor, the defense has to be convincing – the client has to have a solid cover story, power on their side, and a defense lawyer who’s at least as good as your protagonist. If you can make your reader doubt that your leading lawyer is in the right, you’re doing a great job.
Persuasive writing is a huge part of writing compelling legal fiction.Click To Tweet
It’s likely you’ve not thought explicitly about writing to persuade since school (unless, of course, you work in advertising). Thankfully, getting better at persuasive writing is mostly about paying attention: during adverts, for example, or when reading book blurbs, corporate copy, political speeches, or, if you can find them, court transcripts.
I rest my case
It’s no secret that legal fiction can be a difficult thing to navigate – law, after all, is something that practitioners must study for years before they’re qualified. However, with some inside knowledge, a willingness to put the research in, and a focus on craft over facts, you’ll be stunning courtrooms in no time. Best of luck!
Who are your favorite writers of legal fiction? What great tips do you think we’ve missed out? Let me know in the comments, and find out more about this topic with How To Write A Crime Novel Worth Reading and Avoid A Boring Thriller With This One Simple Trick.