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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

How is Writing a Thriller Like Practicing Law?

Long ago, my cover was blown that I'm a lawyer by training if not by temperament. The connection between my current writing and my past career crystallized on a recent walk with a lawyer friend of mine.

She was in the mad crush of work to complete an appellate brief. The case had been to trial and decision rendered. One of the parties didn't like the outcome. As happens very frequently, the party appealed the ruling, hoping a higher court would see things differently. When a decision is appealed, the world for that appeal is set in the record of the trial. No new facts can be entered on appeal. She was pulling out her hair over the Statement of Facts section of her brief, trying to craft a foundation upon which her whole case would rest on the existing record. She couldn't move on to the Argument section until the foundation was right. One faulty shaping of fact or omission, and her whole case could come crumbling down.

She felt caught in quicksand. The more she tried to craft the facts to best bolster her case, the deeper she sank into the muck. "Lean and mean," she told herself. But she kept getting stuck knowing that any overreaching or mischaracterization would be like giving clover to the opposition. No attorney wants to make picking apart finely honed arguments easy. She stopped midstride and commented how much her writing briefs was similar to me writing books.

In a recent interview on ArtistFirst radio (a CBS affiliate) the host asked me where I learned to write. My answer was law school. Writing a well paced and cogent thriller is very much like writing a well articulated and succinct brief.

1. You have to know where you are going with each word.
From the very beginning of the brief or your book, you need to know where you want to take the reader. Each word is chosen for a purpose. Each sentence is crafted to persuade and manipulate the reader and coerce them into your world.

2. Opposing counsel is your discerning reader.
I value the intelligence of my readers and I construct my plots so everything hangs together in a logical progression. If there is something not quite right, I expect them to find the chink and pry the whole darned plot wide open. A good opposing counsel is just waiting for that one forgotten fact or that one logical extension of an argument that cuts everything off at the knees. Everything is written for a reason and there cannot be any holes or loose threads that, if pulled, unravel the whole work. I write for readers who plow through plots with a fine tooth comb.
3. A well constructed thriller is like a well constructed brief.
A brief starts with a Statement of Facts. It sets the stage and defines the capsule in which the Argument resides. A good thriller starts with setting the stage and world of reader expectations. A writer has to know when to quit and not overload the front end.
A brief continues with the Argument. This section takes the facts and fleshes them out with other cases and perspectives, always with an end in mind. A thriller continues by expanding the initial statement of the plot and weaves in other information, pulling the reader along with a clear purpose in mind.
The final section of the brief is the Summation. All the facts and law are woven into a final and ironclad presentation of the case, leaving no room for doubt that the client's perspective will prevail. The thriller takes all of the facts and threads seeded throughout the book and weaves them together in a believable and airtight climax.  
4. Always keep your audience and direction in mind.
In both a brief and a thriller, always keep what you are writing and who you are writing for in the forefront of your mind. Make sure you keep where you are heading clearly in your vision. Use your reader's world view to shape how you craft a sentence. Are you writing to a criminal lawyer or to a family attorney in divorce court? Very different approaches are used here. Are you writing to a young adult audience or to lovers of erotica? That first kiss will look a lot different depending upon who you think will be reading it.
Law school was my writing boot camp. There, I inhaled information and exhaled legal arguments. I learned to write in a very direct fashion and further honed my skills in writing articles. I learned to stay out of the quicksand.

It's good to know that a strong foundation never lets you down.