How Writing a Novel is Like Trying a Lawsuit

I’m a big fan of the television
show Dancing with the Stars. This
past season, singer Andy Grammer was one of the celebrity dancers. After Andy
unsuccessfully attempted the fast Jive, co-host Erin Andrews asked him what
went wrong. Andy answered, “Dancing is hard!” My immediate thought was, “So is

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out
something as basic as the plot. At what point does your story start? How does it end?  Hmmm…should the word be laying or lying? What
about that comma? Whenever I get into a tangled knot, I slip into what I call my “trying
a lawsuit” mode. There are a lot of similarities between writing a novel and
trying a lawsuit. Maybe that’s why so many lawyers, like me, become writers.


For starters, novels are based on
conflict. Who wants to read a book where there are no problems to solve, no
arguments to settle, and everyone is happy? Like the novel, a lawsuit’s essence
is conflict. Without a conflict between the plaintiff and the defendant, there’s no
reason to file the lawsuit. Sane people don’t suffer through the emotional and
financial expense of filing a lawsuit just to tell everyone their life is grand.  

An esteemed colleague, who taught
seminars on trial practice, described a trial as “simply telling your client’s
story.” The lawyer presents the client’s story to the finder of fact (a judge
or a jury) with testimony and exhibits. Ethics and rules of evidence control
how the story is told. Novels have their own rules—the most important are those pertaining to structure and
genre. Mysteries, thrillers, suspense, and romance each have specific requirements for their genre. For example, a romance must end with a HEA
(happily ever after); otherwise, it’s not a romance, no matter how romantic the

The witnesses in a lawsuit are like
the characters in a novel. They move the story forward.  Their words must be credible, but natural. One
of the arts of trial work is preparing a witness to testify. Not too much, not
too little, but just right. The
witnesses must express themselves truthfully and authentically. Otherwise, the
witness sounds rehearsed and like a mouthpiece for the attorney. Juries can
spot unnatural testimony as easily as novel readers can spot stilted dialogue.

In my novel, No Brakes: On the Wing, I had to make sure the uneducated bicycle
messenger didn’t speak like the prosecutor, and the prosecutor didn’t speak
like the gang member, and none of them spoke like me.  As I wrote, sometimes a character would whisper
into my ear, “I would never talk like
that!” It was downright spooky.

Lawsuits require research—the law,
the procedure, and the subject matter of the lawsuit. Why did the light fall from the ceiling of the bus and conk the plaintiff on the head? Who’s at
fault? How do I prove it? While I wrote my novel, I learned the fundamentals of
fiction-writing. I also learned about bicycle messengers, autopsies, gangs,
handguns, and flashbang bra holsters. So much fun!

A novel’s opening chapter has several
functions—it introduces the plot, the setting, the characters, the tone, and
the conflict. Lawyers do the same in their opening statements.  

Trials have the judges or juries who
render the verdict after hearing the case. Novels have readers who render their
verdicts after finishing (or not!) the novel. Without exception, lawyers and
writers want favorable verdicts.  

Whenever I’m stuck while writing, I
ask myself, “What would I do if this were a lawsuit?” The answer is usually,
“Do some research.” 

Today  I am learning about snowplows, lividity, and  hypothermia.

This is me when I finally untangle a novel knot. 

Life is grand!