Fiction and Legal Writing: Three Surprising Similarities

When we’re writing for judges, we’re writing short stories. We might not be writing fiction, but if you look closely at the elements of fiction, legal writing is pretty close.

Take Edward P. Jones’s story, A Butterfly on F Street, which covers just five pages, and made me realize just how similar fiction and legal writing can be—and how keeping the elements of fiction in mind when it comes to your legal writing can actually help you provide excellent client service in terms of legal writing that works.

Here’s what I found:

Fact Patterns and Legal Argument

In fiction, facts tend to take the shape of back story. So, too, in law practice. Here’s the first sentence of “Butterfly”:

The man Mildred Harper was legally married to for twenty-seven years had been dead and buried five months when, standing on an F Street traffic median, she came upon the woman her husband had lived with for the last two years of his life.

The facts are Mildred’s 27-year marriage, her husband’s infidelity, his death, and Mildred’s grief. Jones builds the foundation of his story with these facts, just as we (as lawyers) use facts to build the foundation of our arguments.

On the other hand, the here-and-now, as I call it, is the world that Jones the fiction writer needs us to believe in, if we’re going to take his writing seriously. The here-and-now is analogous to the legal argument we want the judge to believe.

The back story—the marriage, the infidelity, the death and grief—is woven into the here-and-now, which is Mildred standing there on the F Street traffic median. Mildred’s actually doing something, she’s a real character in the world, and when she comes “face to face,” as Jones writes, with the other woman, it’s all the more believable.

Point of View

Jones writes from Mildred Harper’s point of view—not first person, but a relatively close third person, which is exactly how you write for your client, furthering the believability of your legal writing. Jones does not assume the role of an all-knowing, omniscient narrator. Rather, he writes for Mildred, his character, who feels grief and loss and struggles to understand it as she confronts the other woman.

As in “Butterfly,” you will not put yourself in your argument. You don’t write, “My client deserves compensation because I believe it would be a just result.” You state why your client deserves compensation based on the facts and the law and then you get out of the way and write from your client’s point of view.

Brevity

In a story that includes big themes like marriage and heartbreak and mortality, Jones could easily have overwritten Mildred’s part by including much more back story than he did, Mildred going on and on about how bad she feels that her husband left her. Jones could have doubled the size of the story with moments plucked from her lengthy marriage, driving the point home to the reader that, indeed, Mildred’s lost her marriage and her husband and all is not well.

But that wasn’t essential to the story.

What was essential was the one moment in time when Mildred confronts the other woman on F Street after all the bad stuff has happened and Mildred is trying to “get far enough away from insanity’s doorstep to see hope.”

Come to think of it, the lives of some of our clients resemble Mildred’s.

There’s no reason why you cannot write Mildred like Jones does.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/richardwc/1434905165/)

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  • http://questionoflaw.net Lisa Solomon

    As you may know, Chris, there’s a fairly substantial body of academic work in the area of “applied legal storytelling.” In fact, there’s even a conference on the subject (see, for example, http://www.law.du.edu/index.php/storytelling-conference). In fact, you can access the materials from, and videos of, almost all of the presentations at the most recent conference at http://www.law.du.edu/index.php/storytelling-conference/program.

    In the CLE programs I present, I share this kind of information (which is developed in the rarefied world of the academy and) with practitioners.

    • Chris Bradley

      I wasn’t aware of applied legal storytelling, but I will certainly look into it now. Thanks for sharing. Also, it’s an honor to have you comment on my post. Nice to meet you (digitally).