Replenish, Not Recap

Over the years I have edited dozens of true-crime narratives, and since certain issues crop up repeatedly, I’d like to address one of them here. This is the assumption that a courtroom trial provides a stirring climax to all that has gone before. The logic behind this premise is hard to fault. A courtroom does provide a setting in which lawyers can produce strong conflict and surprising turns.

The concept extends only so far, however. What if you have an open-and-shut case in which the only outcome held in suspense is whether the accused receives the death sentence or not? No matter how much the defense lawyer blusters, we as readers know from the outset that the culprit will be found guilty. If the book prolongs the coverage of a lost cause, the likely outcome is reader irritation.

You have to consider how the different phases of the book stack up against each other. Presumably the criminal’s spree and the law enforcement efforts to catch him produced a great deal of excitement. If the trial consists largely of rehashing the events of the spree, you are committing a grave sin: writing secondhand narrative about what the reader has already experienced firsthand. The result is boredom.

How do you avoid this? Think in terms of fresh territory. The events of the crime can be summarized quickly at the trial. All you focus on is the new material that is brought up in court. For one possibility, a creative defense lawyer can produce inventive means to protect her client. The most common tactic is hiring an expert witness whose testimony can be used to create doubt in the jurors’ minds or to mitigate the sentence. A psychological analysis, for example, can produce mental factors that point to impaired judgment at the time of committing the crime(s). Readers tend to dislike expert witnesses, particularly since many are academic in their approach and arrogant when confronted during cross-examination.

Now you have the reader rooting against this witness—and that’s the sort of emotional engagement you want. If you jump from island to island of new material during the course of a trial, you will produce a building climax. Your reader will not put down the book long before the sentence is pronounced, even if we all know what it is. 

Exercise: The mind of a criminal is often impervious to external study. In this case the key question the reader wants to know—why did he do it?—cannot be  answered. Let’s say you have no confession, no diary, no comments by nearest and dearest. If you have psychological testimony during the trial, though, you can employ that—not at the trial, but while the felon is engaged in creating mayhem—what he’s thinking as he acts. Just pick out the relevant pieces of testimony and move it forward in the book. The reader may not know exactly why he did it, but at least you have provided some indicators.

“The essence of drama is that man cannot walk away from the consequences of his own deeds.”
—Harold Hayes

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.