TRIAL PERFORMANCE BASICS FOR WRITERS

This weekend I’m volunteering at my law school and judging the 1L Mock Trial competition.  You don’t take Evidence until your second year usually and this is the first time most of them have been in even a fake courtroom.  They don’t know what they’re doing, it’s mostly just a toss them in the deep end and see what they come up with type of thing.

So, I’ve compiled the advice I’ve given ikle firsties over the last few years and posting it here for those of you who are writers who may have characters doing trials or those of you who are students going through your own mock trials.

1. Embrace your inner Law and Order: The show takes a lot of creative license with the law and the rules of evidence, but they’ve had some pretty great speeches.  Trial attorney is a performance art and your opening and closing are your times to talk to the jury directly, your little soliloquies.  Don’t be afraid to be dramatic, to sell your story as larger than life, and humanize your client.

2. Opening: In the opening, you spell out the theme (always have a theme!) and the story.  It’s your version of what happened.  If you have a catchy theme, the jury can grab onto it, follow it like a thread through the evidence.  Juries are the audience and they’re like readers in that they like a thread going through the whole story that keeps it straight for them.  You lay out this road map during the opening.

3. Testimony: You get the evidence of your version out during the testimony.  If it doesn’t come out during the testimony, the jury (duh) does not hear it!

4. Direct: When your witness is on the stand, you let them tell the story.  You coach them beforehand and when they’re up there, you ask very open ended questions.  They are the star of the show, they are telling their narrative, you are merely there to keep them going in the right direction in the story.

5. Cross: When you are cross examining the other side’s witness, you are the star.  You ask very directed, yes/no questions, and you don’t let them run off on their own version.  Which a good witness will try to do on cross.  You have to control them and narrow down each question so it’s a one word answer if at all possible.

6. Closing: In your closing is when you sum up everything, paint the picture for the jury of how the evidence fits into your version of the story.  You keep hitting the theme, pounding it home, while weaving the story one last time.  Big thing in closing is you don’t say anything that didn’t come out during the testimony.

7. Evidence: There are rules of evidence, what you can ask or submit and when.  The federal rules of evidence are here: http://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/fre and while every state has their own, they usually mirror the federal ones pretty closely.  When the other side objects during a trial, they’re saying the attorney speaking has done or asked something that violated one of the rules of evidence.  The people who win Mock Trials are the ones who have these down.

8. Memorization: You don’t read from a script in a courtroom.  You can have some notes you glance down at to remind yourself where you are and to stay on track, but you memorize everything.  Your opening and closing, your questions, the order to do things in.  Again, the people who win Mock Trials have their information memorized.

So there’s some basics of this show we call a trial.  Happy writing 🙂

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5 thoughts on “TRIAL PERFORMANCE BASICS FOR WRITERS

  1. I agree, your advice is useful and interesting. But what I would really like to know is what is it like to participate in a 1L Mock Trial competition for the first time? If you haven’t, can you take us through this experience? I very curious about it.

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  2. Okay. Like more of what it entails or more like what it feels like? Because I can tell you, I was terrified. 🙂 I’m not sure what a good comparison would be, but imagine you are acting and dropped on stage with half a script and no director but a few weeks to prep. For Mock Trial, they give you the problem. My 1L year was a break in and murder. So there was some pieces of evidence, some hurting the defendant and some helping him. There are 2 witnesses for each side and they have “past statements, basically scripts. For the trial you have to make up a story to explain your side and do your best to keep the evidence that hurts your case out. You choose what bad info to put in and explain away and what stuff to try to argue it shouldn’t be allowed in because of some rule of evidence.

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