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Author Talk: January 12, 2012

Some thoughts on
“The Unwritten Rules of the Legal Thriller”
by William Landay

I have been asked for a few words from on high about “the unwritten rules of the legal thriller.” I would be delighted to boil down these rules to a few pithy, authoritative commandments and deliver them in a handy numbered list, like Moses or Tyler Durden. It would be helpful to have the damn things spelled out, finally. But honestly I can think of only one rule for the legal thriller, which is that there are no rules for the legal thriller. There are also no rules for the non-legal thriller, the non-thriller, or any other type of novel. It sounds pedantic, but it’s true: “rules” in this context is an optimist’s word for clichés. If a writer hears of such a “rule,” he should break it right away. It’s the only way to produce original, surprising work. Readers, after all, know the “rules” too.

This will be especially disappointing to lawyers, who take a semi-professional interest in the legal thriller and who are sticklers for rules to begin with. I hate to disappoint this audience especially, since I used to be a lawyer myself and I share their weakness for rulemaking. So here, at least, are some general principles. If you want to call them rules, well, that’s your business.

A first principle of legal-storytelling, to me, is that story is more important than facts. A writer, however knowledgeable about the legal world, cannot feel bound by the truth. John le Carré put this point succinctly in an interview once: “It is better to be credible than authentic.” In other words, it does not matter how things are actually done by real lawyers in the real world. You should feel free to fictionalize  --- to improve upon reality --- in order to produce a good story, so long as you can do it persuasively. You will find that your fictions are often more convincing, more “true,” than the truth.

There are many famous examples of this sort of embroidering. Spies never spoke of moles and honeytraps and lamplighters until le Carré invented those terms. Mobsters never “went to the mattresses” until Mario Puzo used that phrase in THE GODFATHER. In each case, actual spies and mobsters soon took up the jargon of their fictional counterparts. Realism was more real than reality. What could reality do but follow along?

Law in particular needs this sort of dramatizing. Any working lawyer knows that in reality the daily practice of law is not the stuff of novels. Cases drag on for years. There is too much paperwork, too much technical procedure, too little drama. All those dull parts have to be edited out. On the other hand, you can easily go too far, as most lawyers-turned-writers do. The action-movie clichés of some legal thrillers --- the fistfights and car chases and gymnastic sex and so on --- obviously don’t ring true. The trick is to invent just enough, to find the drama in what lawyers actually do. That is not as hard as it sounds. You simply have to recall that, in our lawyered-up society, most of the dramatic crises people face --- violence, injury, lust, separation, abuse of power, heartbreak of every kind --- find their way into the courtroom.

And when they do, what then? You have your premise, a legal case that finds its way to trial. How to describe that trial?

To me, the key is that it is not about the trial, not really. Yes, trials are inherently dramatic. They are built on conflict and confrontation. Naturally, storytellers are drawn to them. But it is always the underlying human struggle --- a murder, a divorce, a custody battle, a theft --- that is the real source of drama. The trial itself is just the setting, the stage. All the strategy, all the insider-y atmosphere of the courtroom, the cutting-edge legal issues, all the lawyers’ business is secondary to the people involved. Character comes first. If the reader doesn’t care about the characters, she won’t care about the trial either. The entire exercise will feel sterile. It will be just another episode of "Law & Order" --- and who, really, ever lost a moment of sleep over "Law & Order"?

So there you have it, the iron laws of the legal thriller. Now go forth and break them.