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How to Write a Gripping Legal Thriller


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The legal thriller is a subgenre of fiction that is categorized within the Thrillers and Suspense genre and has a main focus on the legal system. These stories typically incorporate courtroom scenes, accounts of crimes, and protagonists who play a key role in the courtroom. Although many legal thrillers have a lawyer as their protagonist—often a defense attorney, district attorney, or litigator—they can also be told from a less common point of view, such as a juror, judge, or even a defendant. Most legal thrillers will incorporate scenes of cross-examinations, especially those that result in a surprising twist, and the anticipated uncertainty of the verdict.

Legal thrillers can be quite technical, and as they typically adhere to a particular formula that aligns with courtroom proceedings, there are several rules to keep in mind when writing this type of story to ensure believability and complex character creation. As with any genre of fiction, there are rules to be followed across the board, but with legal thrillers, there are some specifics that pertain to this subgenre that would not be replicated in other forms of fiction.

Do your research

It's always a good idea to research any topic you're writing about, but especially so if you don't have a full understanding of legal proceedings. With legal thrillers, research is more important than ever. There can be a lot of plausibility aspects when it comes to what goes on in the courtroom, what lawyers are allowed to do and say, how a trial unfolds, and the law in general. The most successful legal thrillers have typically been written by authors who have a background in the criminal defense world. This means they have a thorough understanding about the legal system, court system, the law, law firms, and how they all work together as a story unfolds. Even writers with a background in law will need to do research, as there are so many specifics that will come up with each individual story. Ensuring credibility and accuracy is essential in a legal thriller.

Some recommended areas of focus for your research are:

  • Correct use of terminology and vocabulary
  • The inner workings and hierarchy within law firms
  • Timeframes and process, depending on the court system in the story (i.e. Supreme Court vs. District Court, etc.)
  • Specific laws that pertain to the case in your story, as well as to the setting
  • Historical laws that may or may not have been adopted at the time the story is set in.
  • Stories of true cases that can offer inspiration

Write complex and believable characters

Characters that are part of the legal system can make for very interesting protagonists and antagonists, especially lawyers. Attorneys have the potential to be colorful characters, and questions of morality frequently come into play, which can help to make these characters complex and compelling. Although the story of a legal thriller can often be boiled down to "good vs. bad," there is a lot of moral gray area, and this is essential for character development. A strictly by-the-books, virtuous star does not make for the most interesting protagonist, and also does not make for a very believable person in any scenario. When attorneys mess up on the page, it makes them more believable as imperfect human beings. It also helps to stir up conflict that they must resolve later in the story, adding dimension to characters and increasing tension.

Give your main characters full lives

Outside of the courtroom, characters need to have full lives so the reader will find them relatable. An interesting backstory can also help to bring a character to life and give context for their actions in the story. The legal case and the personal life of a protagonist can work hand in hand as we see how one impacts the other. For instance, if the character is very preoccupied with the trial, it can have a negative impact on their relationships at home. Similarly, if they are experiencing challenges in their personal life, it might impact the quality of their work in the courtroom.

Note that while you should give your character a full backstory, you need to decide how much of that story is necessary to incorporate. For example, if you get into too many details regarding one character's romantic endeavors, the reader might lose track of the main plot.

Create compelling secondary characters

Secondary characters are extremely important in any thriller. While they may not need to be as fully developed as the protagonist, the reader should have an understanding about who they are and what makes them tick. They can also shed light onto the main character within their interactions and in turn create a fuller and more believable protagonist. Incorporating many different people into a legal thriller will make it feel like a real world. We often understand the world through our relationships, so they are essential to any story, no matter the subject.

Consider all viewpoints within the legal setting

In a courtroom, in addition to the attorneys, judge, and jury, there are also plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses, court reporters, and even more depending on the trial or proceeding. All of these people can have their own point of view and their own information about what has occurred. Use these different viewpoints to deepen the story, the mystery, the conflict, and how it all impacts the protagonist and the outcome of the case.

Don't get bogged down in technical details

While it is important to incorporate many points of view and include relevant details, especially those for foreshadowing, it can be easy to get bogged down in explanations that don't further the story. An author should always know more than what occurs on the page, so have the information in your head and at your disposal, but only include the details that drive the story forward. For example, if great attention is paid to a man in a car, then that man should be important to the outcome, not included for no apparent reason. In other words, too many details might bore the reader and discourage them from continuing if they don't seem important.

Remember the "3 Cs"

Thrillers are known for fast pacing and suspense, and in order to maintain that pacing, they follow particular formulas. In a legal thriller, that formula is the "3 Cs."

  1. Contract (or promise) to the reader: This is something that is promised to be resolved by the end of the book. It's crucial to keep each "promise," no matter how small. As mentioned above, it's important to avoid getting bogged down in details that are extraneous to the story.
  2. Clock that's ticking: Adding the pressure of time creates higher stakes in any story. In a legal thriller, there is always a clock ticking that will prompt tension and conflicts. In addition to other conflict in the story, the clock itself becomes an automatic conflict as well.
  3. Crucible (or challenges to the main character): There should always be challenges and obstacles for characters to overcome in any story. In a legal thriller, these challenges will place the main character into a difficult situation that ultimately changes them as a person.

Simplify complex legal jargon

While your readers may be interested in reading stories in a legal setting, they don't want to read a legal research textbook. It's important to add the correct legal jargon but try your best to simplify it so that that the average reader without a law degree can follow along. The best legal thrillers are easy enough for most high-school graduates to read.

Stress is an important driver

Being a lawyer is a stressful job, and you can use that aspect to drive your plot forward. Whether it's stress inside or out of the courtroom, make sure the reader shares the stressful experience with the characters. You can also focus on how stressful legal matters can be for other parties in the court case. Show what's on the line for the defendant if they lose the case. Highlight how the judge must make difficult decisions. Also, focus on how different plot points will affect other characters in your story.

Even if you aren't going to spell out what your character is experiencing, use other literary devices to emphasize the pressure they are under. For example, a judge's hesitation to make a decision may affect other aspects of their life. An attorney may struggle with knowing their client is guilty. Use these situations to drive your plot forward and keep the reader intrigued.

In addition to following these rules and using these devices, remember to read a few legal thrillers so you can take note of their formula, see how other authors address the technical details and get inspired. Then, you'll be on your way to creating a masterful and thrilling piece of legal fiction!

Header image by gorodenkoff.

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