Courtroom Drama: A Nursery for Novelists

I plead guilty to spending hours this summer following the Casey Anthony televised trial. Because I no longer work outside the home, it was easy for me to be sucked in by the coverage. The personalities and the motivations of the players intrigued me. It is obvious why so many lawyers turn their hand to writing novels and so many aspire to join the ranks of John Grisham and Scott Turow.  When I was living in Illinois, every aspiring author with a day job in my Rockford writers’ group hoped to do what Terry Brooks of Sterling, Illinois did.  After his third Shannara novel, he quit practicing law in 1985 and moved to Seattle to write more books. Writing part-time, it took him seven years to finish The Sword of Shannara. I’m sure you can think of many more novel-writing attorneys. They are educated to write well and to speak well.  In the practice of law they encounter firsthand a carnival of characters, motivations, plots, conspiracies, scams, and complex relationships to people a library of novels.  Lawyers have witnessed the darker side of the human psyche.

The drama of the courtroom is ready-made for mystery, surprises, plot twists, and the range of human emotions.  Mystery, suspense are inherent in criminal cases. Did the accused do it or not? Is there reasonable doubt or only a reason to doubt being planted in the jury? Successful writers have always used the built-in tension and suspense of the courtroom. Harper Lee used it in To Kill a Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird - film adaptation starring Gregory Peck

Court Scene: Atticus Finch Defends Tom Robinson in film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck

Who can forget the courtroom scenes in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  Think of the courtroom scene in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible . You can think of other unforgettable courtroom scenes from other plays and novels. (Inherit the Wind, anyone?)  Many writers derive plot ideas from court cases.  The theatre of the courtroom is a nursery to grow budding novelists.

Legal celebrities Nancy Grace and Marsha Clark have transferred their skills to novel-writing. Curious to know how well they perform as novelists, I read sample chapters of their books online. I thought Nancy’s glib tongue would transfer well to the written page, but it did not. Her prose hobbles and I would not finish reading her novels. Marsha Clark (the O.J. Simpson defense attorney) shows skill in crafting a pleasing sentence. Her book’s prose and introductory paragraphs did not have an amateurish ring. It read like she knew what she was doing and how to set up a dramatic scene. I probably could finish her book.


2 responses to this post.

  1. I am always delighted that you and I seem to be on so many similar wavelengths Olivia. I just watched Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” for the umpteenth time- hey it’s streaming on Netflix FINALLY! It just might be my favorite film.

    The courtroom drama is just that: theatre with a capital T. A few thoughts- history and the law have been closely connected since the Renaissance. Many of the so called “polyhistors” were also jurists and it is interesting to note that both are deeply forensic: following traces and clues to reconstruct past events. I was fascinated by this fact fact. The Casey A. trial is mythic- it’s MEDEA really! And how perfect that she was so young and nubile, so cool and seemingly craven. She embodied an archetype we all love to hate. The press really played up her sexuality, her apparent lack of feelings (reptilian?)- she was devouring mother and terrible femme fatale rolled into one.

    Nancy Grace drives me crazy- for a long time now I’ve wanted to write an article about her as “old-school pornographer of Grand Guignol”. Her hyperbolic righteousness reminds me of a Sinclair Lewis character– in a bad hairdo. She relishes every morbid detail of gore, horror and perversion- especially those involving children. The “effect” of this is an instant “feeling” in the audience of repulsion and fascination! Many can’t look away- horror and arousal are closely allied in the body… they are chemical responses to stimuli rooted in fear and/or desire.

    I’m not saying that a lot of people are “turned on” by hearing about child murder- but there is a sort of “hook” that seems to sink into the physical body of the viewer that compels them to keep watching– there is an appetite for vicarious experiences of extreme violence. Perhaps this is why tabloid TV it is so much like pulp fiction- courtroom TV does to us what a violent novel (or movie does)– gets the heart racing. And there is always a safety valve as we can close the book or turn off the screen- or can we?

    Finally— I really would like to do some more poking around on Google Books and see how various theorists (whether literary scholars or anthropologists) discuss the construction of self in the courtroom. Let’s face it- IT’S ALL ABOUT PERFORMANCE. Keep up the good work!


    • Thanks, Jason, for adding your provocative comments. I had to look up Grand Guignol theatre. Interest in horror and the macabre is not new–part of the dark side, the horrorific Greek tragedies, as you point out. Casey as Medea struck me as an apt summation. I agree that the construction of self, whether that of the two opposing attorneys or that of the defendant, centers around performance. They are performing and they have a captive audience–the judge, the jury and the spectators in court. The attorneys are also directors, coaching the defendant and key witnesses how to act, how to project, how to look, what to wear, how to do their hair. Props help like powerpoint presentations, flip charts, dried up shrunken gloves, etc. to create effects.

      I’ve never seen Witness for the Prosecution. I must download it tonight and let you know what I think. A few nights ago I watched Heavenly Creatures. directed by Peter Jackson in 1994 before he produced Lord of the Rings. Based on the actual true story of two teenage girls in New Zealand murdering one of the girl’s mother in 1954, it made me hope that Casey Anthony would do want these two girls did after they served five years in prison. One got an education, changed her name and moved to England where she taught special education until she retired and now teaches children to ride ponies. The other changed her name to Anne Perry and started to write crime and mystery novels, settling in Scotland. Miss A. should do the same and see what she can do useful with the rest of her life. But if she’s all about performance, she’ll pose for Hustlermagazine and try to get a movie contract.


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