Home « Forum « Author Hangout

Forum: Author Hangout

Trial scene

Switch Blayde

I have to write a chapter about a trial. The kid's father was the accountant and accused of embezzling from the company's pension fund. The trouble is, I'm stuck. I have no idea how to write a trial scene.

Any suggestions?

Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

look at trial scenes in other stories to get an idea, or spend some time in the local court and see how they are handled

Switch Blayde

@Ernest Bywater

or spend some time in the local court and see how they are handled


That would put the reader to sleep. LOL

Dominions Son

@Switch Blayde

Any suggestions?


Consult a lawyer.

Dominions Son

@Ernest Bywater

or spend some time in the local court and see how they are handled


There are huge differences in how citation(ticket), misdemeanor and felony cases are handled. Depending on where Switch is, felony cases might not be an everyday thing.

Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde


That would put the reader to sleep. LOL


not necessarily, a lot will depend on how you handle it. In the early part of Odd Man in College I've a trial scene and I think I handled it well. A bit of humour, a bit of drama, keep it short, don't go through all the fine detail etc. I did the same in the trial scenes inMack, Interesting Times, Rob Remembers, Michaels Mansion, Photographic Problems and in Grammar which is nearly all a trial scene. The hearing scenes in Finding Home and Rough Diamond are very close to trial scenes as well. I don't think any of those scenes were boring, and I've had no emails saying they were.

Switch Blayde

I watched "To Kill a Mockingbird" just now. It gave me some ideas. The problem is I don't know how an embezzlement trial would go.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

I don't know how an embezzlement trial would go.


It'd focus on the money activities, but do you need to go into detail on them? If not skim what you can.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Ernest Bywater

but do you need to go into detail


He was framed. I need him to be found guilty and then later cleared.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
richardshagrin

I assume your story needs the trial for dramatic impact. If not, most white color crime is plea bargained based on recovering some or all of the money. It is more important to the testifying (or not) witnesses that the money or at least some of it gets returned. The prosecutor doesn't care, a conviction with probation is the same on his record as one with life in prison.

There only needs to be a trial if the person charged really didn't do it and has no money to repay. Then he or she has a real problem as they can't afford a competent, experienced lawyer, and they are probably going to jail for a long time, no matter what the trial is like. Its expensive for the system to have to try any case. If you don't plea bargain the courts tend to throw the book at you to encourage the others to cooperate.

I recommend glossing over the details and get directly to the sentencing which likely is the important part for your story. Others have pointed out except for the defendant at risk, watching legal proceedings are like watching paint dry, or grass grow. In the winter time. Like elephants making love there is a lot of trumpeting around at a high level and it takes 22 months to give birth to anything. Nearly everyone is paid by the hour. There is little incentive to get things done quickly.

Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

I need him to be found guilty and then later cleared.


Well, you don't need to show all the detail of the case, just tell about the days of evidence given by numerous people, then have the judge deliver his verdict along the lines of: "Mister X the evidence presented shows you were responsible for the verification and approval of the transaction listed where the moneys were not justified in payment and therefore guilty ..."

Later you have some evidence arise that proves many or all of the documents were never seen by him or handled by him - ie evidence of forgeries or many fingerprints on them but not his, or documents arrived and processed on days he wasn't there. That comes up in an appeal or case review which leads to further investigation and later acquittal.

Switch Blayde

@richardshagrin

I assume your story needs the trial for dramatic impact. If not, most white color crime is plea bargained based on recovering some or all of the money.


The accusation, trial, and conviction are paramount to the plot's climax.

The problem is, I'm converting a short story to a novel or novella. In the short story, the crime wasn't even mentioned, nor whether he was really innocent or not. Only that he was convicted. The problem I'm having is coming up with sub-plots to expand it to the size of a novel and still make it interesting. As of right now, I'm failing.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

As of right now, I'm failing.


A failed or refused personal relationship with another member of staff who goes on to get involved with a client or supplier upset because of his exact records caused them an issue of some sort - failed overcharge or something. There's a chapter or two while the key events happen, then another when they get together and plan his demise. And a later chapter when they have a breaking up and one informs the cops about the other.

awnlee jawking

@richardshagrin


white color crime is plea bargained


I'm sure most readers will understand what you're saying but for the remainder I would assume you mean white collar crime.

AJ

Dominions Son

@richardshagrin

If not, most white color crime is plea bargained based on recovering some or all of the money.


In the US, it's not just white collar crime. More than 90% of all criminal cases end in plea bargains.

awnlee jawking

@Switch Blayde


That would put the reader to sleep.


I did some detailed groundwork for a story where police procedural aspects played a significant part (I don't just write sci fi!). The overwhelming recommendation was to write what would be entertaining rather than accurate because real police procedures are boring as hell. For that reason nobody ever describes them accurately.

The same appears to be true for courtroom dramas: from literature through TV to movies, accuracy is sacrificed for the purposes of entertainment. You could do worse than find a courtroom scene you found entertaining and rework it to fit your story.

AJ

Switch Blayde

@awnlee jawking

accuracy is sacrificed for the purposes of entertainment.


Yeah, I like that.

The scene could be more about the interaction of the people in the courtroom than the proceedings. If i screw up the proceedings part, so what?

Thanks.

Replies:   docholladay
docholladay
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


The scene could be more about the interaction of the people in the courtroom than the proceedings.


Remember the story is about a person so the interactions between the characters are critical. The rest regardless of setting is just background information to setup the scene. I admit the background material can be critical at times however.

edited to add: Just think of how many people you interact with on any given day. Some you pay a heck of a lot of attention to and remember clearly, others you know they are there but you probably won't remember the actual interactions if any.

Grant

@awnlee jawking

The same appears to be true for courtroom dramas: from literature through TV to movies, accuracy is sacrificed for the purposes of entertainment.

I remember years back when ER was on the TV, and they had a show on the show.
They worked as much as possible to get the technical aspects of the medical scenes as accurate as possible, but if out of several takes the best scene was one where the actors got some medical aspect wrong they'd still go with it.
The drama was more important than accuracy.

Jay Cantrell
Updated:

I used courtrooms in a couple of stories.

I found actual trial transcripts (pretty dry reading but it helps with flow and procedure).

Then I "fictionalized" them, combining several cases and their evidence into a single trial.

Transcripts can be located pretty easily online or through a subscription service.

I also recommend finding novels by honest-to-God attorneys turn author (Grisham, Connally) to get a feel for pacing.

Good luck,

Jay C.

Switch Blayde

I have a question for you all as readers.

When I was on the jury of a criminal trial, witnesses were brought in one at a time. They weren't allowed to hear each other's testimonies. But in movies, you see them sitting in the audience all the time. For example, in "To Kill a Mockingbird" the accuser and her father, both witnesses, were sitting front and center during the trial.

For effect, I'd like at least one witness to be part of the audience. As a reader, would you call me on that or just accept it?

Thanks.

Dominions Son

@Switch Blayde

For effect, I'd like at least one witness to be part of the audience. As a reader, would you call me on that or just accept it?


Before or after that particular witness has testified?

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Dominions Son


Before or after that particular witness has testified?


Before and after.

Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


They weren't allowed to hear each other's testimonies.


This is the situation in most criminal trials in most legal jurisdictions. A witness is not allowed to hear what the others have said before they give their own testimony; even then, if it's indicated they're very likely to be recalled, they're kept apart after they testify. However, if both sides indicate they've finished with the witness, then they may sit in open area of the court and listen in. They can be recalled from there if they do that.

Now, mind you, the general rule is a witness is served with a subpoena to appear as a witness well before the trial date and when they arrive at the court they have to sign in as a witness - in most cases they get paid for attending. After they're released by the court they see the clerk and sign out, at that point they're usually paid or sign a form with the details for a cheque to be posted.

Where the films and TV shows vary a lot is to have a witness called from within the watching members of the general public, not only is this unusual in real life, many judges will not allow it. Also, if called like that at short notice, many jurisdictions allow the witness to refuse to take the oath; the reason for that is to stop lawyers from bush-whacking people on the stand without due time to prepare themselves for the court - yet the films and TV shows allow them to get away with that all the time.

edit for typo

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Ernest Bywater

yet the films and TV shows allow them to get away with that all the time


That's my question. Is it okay to have something in fiction that is contrary to what happens in real life?

richardshagrin

@Switch Blayde

Most fiction is about things that don't happen in real life. The trick is not to overdraw the readers suspension of disbelief account. It is okay to have something in fiction that is contrary to what happens in real life. Like time travel, exceeding the speed of light, doing you life over with improvements, having the opposite sex pursue you so diligently you have harems, mind control, becoming (one of) the richest person(s) in the world. Climbing mountains in your spare time. Living a very long time but your body doesn't feel it. There are lots of wonderful things in fiction, and some horrible ones that don't happen at least in most individual's real life.

sejintenej
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


For effect, I'd like at least one witness to be part of the audience. As a reader, would you call me on that or just accept it?


I would not go along with that for several reasons.

1) There may be an appeal resulting from new evidence which that juror could validate or not confirm.

2) Something unexpected might be divulged later in the trial which the dismissed witness may be able to confirm or deny.

I have been a witness only once - I was not logged in, the recorder (sitting as a judge) asked me to confirm who I was and whether I had written a specific memorandum on which the case rested and whether the facts in that memorandum were true, complete and correct to the best of my knowledge. No oath, no logging in or out, no expenses paid.

As a juror I was surprised at the lengths the judge went to to ensure an absolutely fair trial except for one case:

The defendant had evidentally pleaded not guilty at a prior hearing. As soon as he was called his brief got up and stated that the defendant was changing his plea to guilty. Although we knew nothing about the charge, whether there was any evidence or other factors the judge addressed the jury saying that we could get no better evidence than the defendant's own statement and we were ordered to find him guilty.

After all that was over the case got "interesting";

The man's alledged accomplice was brought - he had previously pleaded not guilty so the prosecution started précing the case starting with GBH, illegal weapons, theft with violence but at that moment the case was stopped. A juror had sent a note to the judge that he knew someone mentioned. We were sent down, that juror set aside and the rest of us plus one new person went back to court, got chosen etc etc. 10 minutes into the prosecution's second spiel attempt another note to the judge and we were sent down with the instruction that none of us could be presented again. The jury clerk had seen that happen where the jury was sent down once but never twice; even worse in the jury room next morning one of us (not me) had checked the prosecutor's names and found that she also knew one of those named!

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Dominions Son
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


That's my question. Is it okay to have something in fiction that is contrary to what happens in real life?


Here is where it get's tricky. In my personal experience suspension of disbelief is much easier the farther you get away from a person's day to day experiences and / or personal knowledge.

For your trial scene, you are probably okay because few people have any personal experience with the criminal justice system. If you have any criminal lawyers or judges in your reader base they may call you on it, but then again, maybe not, because no one does criminal trial stuff right.

Switch Blayde

Okay, sounds like I should not have witnesses present at the trial, other than when they're testifying. Bummer.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


Is it okay to have something in fiction that is contrary to what happens in real life?


A lot depends on how far you want it to move away from reality, and also how far the readers will let you go before they decide it's too much (which varies from person to person). Most fiction stories are fiction, but are set in a society where the author has to either abide by the rules of an existing or past society (as known) or take the time and effort to create and establish their own society (as often happens in science fiction). If set in today's society you're best to adhere to the existing rules.

Having said all that, the best way to handle some things like the complexities of a trial etc. is to not handle them. Instead of going through the fine detail of how the court opens, just write something like: '... they go through the opening ceremonies and the judge turns to the prosecutor saying, ...' - - you can use similar type short-cuts to skip a lot of the formal stuff. Treat it like you do a trip to the store, cut the fine detail of indicators, checking mirrors, changing gear and simply drive until you reach a point where the gear changes etc. are very important to the story.

In short, if set in today's world you're allowed to bend it about a bit, but not so far the readers see you as breaking it. It's an oddity where they don't see daily activities as being an area where suspension of disbelief can apply, but you can thin it down a lot.

edit to fix typo

Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@sejintenej


I have been a witness only once - I was not logged in, the recorder


That sounds more like how they do a witness deposition. But procedures can change between legal jurisdictions. I've been a witness at a couple of trials in New South Wales, one was a homicide trial. In each case I was given a subpoena to appear, had to see the Clerk of the Court to be marked in as Answering the Subpoena and sat in a waiting area with the other witnesses, but we weren't allowed to talk and a cop saw we didn't. When I gave my evidence I noticed a couple of the earlier witnesses were now watching the case, but in the homicide case they called a break after I gave my evidence (in the witness box and under oath) and I was told to not speak to anyone because they were going to recall me after the break - during the break they structured a deal and he plead guilty to a lower charge of manslaughter and I was told I was free to go after seeing the Clerk of the Court, where I signed for a check made out to me as my pay and attendance expenses as a witness.

Your report on being a juror is a fairly common one for the process used.

typo edits

Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

Okay, sounds like I should not have witnesses present at the trial, other than when they're testifying. Bummer.


You could get away with them giving their testimony early and then sitting through the rest of the trial, that's OK in most courts. That gives you room for them to be concerned about some of the later evidence given and to start a search into it.

bondsman

@Switch Blayde

Switch, it might be worth a look at the rules attorneys have to follow for trials in the jurisdiction you're putting your trial in. I think many states don't have all that detail in "laws" but in other forms. For example in Florida they are found in the 'Rules for Criminal Procedure", there is a similar set of rules for civil cases,developed and published by the Florida Supreme Court.

I can't say that either of the following happen in all jurisdictions or in criminal trials but they do in some. First, the opposing attorneys have to provide the court and each other with a list of potential witnesses. How detailed those ore as to the exact nature of the testimony to be given I don't know. Exceptions to that rule during the trail are determined by the judge and are usually very hard to get. Second, and I'm not clear about this in criminal cases, many times the opposing attorney will interview potential witnesses, or as Ernest mentioned take depositions.

Switch Blayde

And I saw yet another movie today where the witness was called from the gallery -- "A Time to Kill."

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


And I saw yet another movie today where the witness was called from the gallery -- "A Time to Kill."


And Hollywood wonders why less people are watching films when they make such basic crews ups all the time.

I want you to think about Hollywood and truth - remember these are the people that think when you download a pirate copy of a film you just cost them a few hundred thousand dollars and not the five to ten dollars royalty they'd have got from the film.

typo edit

Slutsinger

@Switch Blayde

It seems like you got to a good place in terms of focusing on interactions between people and sacrificing accuracy for good story. Even so, I'd recommend if you can find a subject-matter expert (lawyer, police officer, etc) running the scene by them. If there are choices where you can choose between two options one of which is more accurate and one of which is less, but where both are reasonable for the story, it's worth knowing that. Also, some inaccuracies are more annoying than others.

Crumbly Writer

@awnlee jawking

The same appears to be true for courtroom dramas: from literature through TV to movies, accuracy is sacrificed for the purposes of entertainment. You could do worse than find a courtroom scene you found entertaining and rework it to fit your story.

The exception is John Grisham, who as a lawyer covers trials quite accurately. But even he skips the details, just showing the dramatic scenes, skipping over the niggling details.

For someone with no direct experience with the law (from a lawyer's perspective), you'd best skip the actual trial scenes and deal with their aftermath.

"I heard your trial went badly today."
"Your lawyer is an idiot!"
"The judge is pissed at you, and he's going to hand you your ass!"
"Your defense isn't holding water, what aren't you telling me?"

As far as the experts sitting in during the trial (my sister is serving her first stint as an expert witness, and she despises it!), I'd take the same approach. If the accused can afford a good lawyer, he'll be free and can talk to the expert witnesses on their side. His lawyers would know about the experts on the other side, so word gets around, but the scenes don't have to be shown in a courtroom.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

For someone with no direct experience with the law (from a lawyer's perspective), you'd best skip the actual trial scenes and deal with their aftermath.


In the short story, there's mention of the father being found guilty (which is the inciting incident even though it never actually happens in the short story). So there is no trial scene.

But to convert the short story into a novel or novella, I need to expand a lot and add new things, like sub-plots. In the longer version, the father hasn't been found guilty yet. And there's a lot leading up to the trial (whereas in the short story the trial is already over). I thought a chapter for the trial would have an impact (and make the story longer without fluff).

Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

And there's a lot leading up to the trial (whereas in the short story the trial is already over). I thought a chapter for the trial would have an impact (and make the story longer without fluff).


You can have the lead up, then jump to people bitching about things in the trial after the event, is just have him talking to his lawyer about what the witnesses are saying during the trial and skip the actual witness statements and trial procedures.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Ernest Bywater


You can have the lead up, then jump to people bitching about things in the trial after the event, is just have him talking to his lawyer about what the witnesses are saying during the trial and skip the actual witness statements and trial procedures


I need the word count. I'm finding it hard to convert a short story into a novel (or even a novella). I don't want to add fluff just to make it longer. I want substance, interesting stuff, stuff that moves the plot forward. I thought the actual trial would do that.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


I want substance, interesting stuff, stuff that moves the plot forward.


You said earlier he was framed, so instead of doing the trial like report of it, you have the scene from the perspective of the defendant's table with the defendant and his lawyer, eg:

Witness X tells how the defendant checked the documents and signed them on the morning of Wednesday May 12, and have the defendant say to his lawyer, "She's lying through her teeth. That morning I was in conference all morning with Y from before she arrived to lunchtime, then I went over to see W."

Similar comments between the defendant and his lawyer to show the material being presented is faked can be used to push the various aspects of the plot without having to concern yourself with the court procedures at all.

After a few scenes like this you can have one with X and Y outside the courthouse gloating over how they screwed him over with false testimony because they connived to commit the fraud etc.

See what I mean?

edit to add: the same sort of scenes can be done as an after trial discussion between different parties.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

But to convert the short story into a novel or novella, I need to expand a lot and add new things, like sub-plots. In the longer version, the father hasn't been found guilty yet. And there's a lot leading up to the trial (whereas in the short story the trial is already over). I thought a chapter for the trial would have an impact (and make the story longer without fluff).

Switch, what I was suggesting was that, rather than dive into a genre you're uncomfortable with (legalese), you instead focus (during the trial) on the personal connections, and have him talk about the course of the trial with his lawyer, family and colleagues, rather than focusing on the testimony against him. It just seemed like an easier and more graceful tact rather than jumping into the boring details of the trail. That way you have the excitement of the trial (the personal conflicts) without the mind-numbing details of testimonies.

But my main aim was to move the story from the area who feel weak in to one where you feel stronger (as an author). I suspect the writing will be strong when written with confidence, rather than approached with a sense of apology.

awnlee jawking

@Switch Blayde

I think that could work well, especially if you ramp up the suspense before the verdict is delivered. You could engage the readers through the heightened sense of injustice.

AJ

Back to Top