The 10 Key Elements to Writing a Courtroom Drama

The courtroom drama, also known as the legal drama, is a long-standing staple in entertainment. This noteworthy genre of film has generated such timeless classics as To Kill a Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men, proving itself to be a endlessly relevant fixture within the cinematic landscape.

In this article we’re going to look at:

What keeps the courtroom drama from becoming passé is its tie-in to real life: No matter how often writers may return back to the genre, there are always fresh and compelling cases to use for inspiration.

While a never-ending stream of ideas makes writing a courtroom drama sound like a walk in the park, just because the genre mirrors life doesn’t mean it is lacking of a basic and constructive format.

To help you sort through your inspirations, we’ve gathered the essential ideas to know, movies to watch and steps to take in order to write a stirring and believable courtroom drama. May we approach the bench?

What is a Courtroom Drama?

Starting with the fundamentals, the American Film Institute (AFI) defines a courtroom drama as

A genre of film in which a system of justice plays a critical role in the film’s narrative.”

From this definition alone, we can see why courtroom dramas take on many different forms. The main characters of a courtroom drama don’t always have to be lawyers in a courthouse. A film can have multiple personalities in multiple settings and still fall into the category of a courtroom drama. 

Consequently, this is why a courtroom drama is synonymous with the broader term “legal drama.” It’s not necessarily the exposition of the film, but rather the contents of the film, that compose the genre.

Because of this, another useful definition, one that highlights the range of films that may be considered courtroom/legal dramas, is:

“A genre of dramatic fiction which focuses on law enforcement, crime, detective-based mystery-solving, lawyer work or civil litigation.”

In this article, we’ll refer to this definition when providing examples of courtroom dramas. 

To continue, the courtroom drama’s most emotional, climactic, or imperative scenes generally stem from the judicial system’s actions. The premise of a courtroom drama may not center around the legal system itself. However, the main issue is settled by the legal system’s final decision and is therefore crucial to the plot.

Additionally, Courtroom dramas usually feature the most riveting elements in film: murder, betrayal, deception, perjury, injustice, conspiracies or sex.

Most importantly, the courtroom drama almost always proposes a moral dilemma to the audience. Just as an attorney presents their case to the jury, a courtroom drama presents ethically debatable concepts to the viewer. This draws the audience into the story by allowing for an emotional connection to take place.

Origins of the Courtroom Drama:

The courtroom drama has an extensive history in American film. The first notable courtroom drama, Falsely Accused!, was made by pioneer cinematographer Wallace McCutcheon Sr. in 1908. Despite this early start, it would be a few decades before the courtroom drama really hit its stride.

The golden age of courtroom dramas took place in the 1950s and 1960s, which spewed a number of notable films such as:

and the previously mentioned 12 Angry Men (1957) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

Almost 60 years after To Kill a Mockingbird took over ‘60s cinema, many courtroom dramas are as popular as ever.

For Example:

The 2017 film The Post was directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, six Golden Globes, and eight Critic’s Choice Awards.

The Post is based on the true events of the Pentagon Papers, where the Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force was published on the front page of The New York Times in 1971. This exposed the Johnson Administration’s consistent lies to the public and to Congress about the progress of the war.

Though depicting historical events from over 45 years before its release, The Post proves popular because of its in-depth portrayal of the power struggle between the free press and the national government.

Other Popular Courtroom Dramas:


10 Essentials for Writing a Courtroom Drama:

1. Characters in a Courtroom Drama:

The courtroom drama features several ever-present characters that serve as necessities to the genre:

The Right Guy (The Little Guy):

The characters of the right guy role are fighting for what is the morally correct side of the story. They are the protagonists and often “the little guys.”

Up against perceivably stronger forces, the right guys face more to lose than their opposers. Despite this, they always have a leg up on their competition because of the ethics involved in the story.

  • In Spotlight, the Boston Globe struggles to expose the history of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church.

The right guys in Spotlight are the investigative reporters on the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team. They are trying to get access to sensitive documents that will prove the mass cover-up carried out by the church.

As a periodical, the Boston Globe hasn’t much power. As a city, Boston places Catholicism on a pedestal. Essentially, much is being done by the law to keep the church’s true colors hidden from the public.

Thus, the right guys face multiple antagonists all working in conjunction with each other. Regardless of this, they strive to do what is right and bring justice to the victims of the church.

The right guys in a courtroom drama are always searching to unveil the truth, as ugly as it may be.

The Wrong Guy:

As you’d expect, the wrong guy roles are those permitting or defending the injustices taking place in the story. They are the antagonists who usually have a higher-up position in society than the right guys. The wrong guys have more power and, above all, they have things to hide. This role may be prevalent in a variety of aspects and characters in the story:

  • In Spotlight, the wrong guys are the archdiocese, the cardinal of the Roman Catholic church, the Boston judicial system and the local law enforcement. Essentially, they are those protecting the priests’ actions.
  • In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a different, yet exemplary model of the wrong guy role in a courtroom drama can be found. In this movie, Zac Efron plays the role of the real-life American serial killer Ted Bundy.

Obviously, Bundy has a strong notoriety today. Despite this, the film shows the audience the manipulative power Bundy had at the time. He had the public in the palm of his hand leading up to his convictions solely because of his charisma.

  • In The Post, the wrong guy is the portion of the national government involved with the Vietnam Task Force.

There are many ways to depict the bad guy in a courtroom drama. Sometimes, the bad guy is presented explicitly, and other times they are not. What matters most is that you decide early on whether you want the audience to come to their own conclusion or if you want to lay it out for them.

The Caller-to-Action:

In a courtroom drama, the caller-to-action is the person that allows the story to come to life. They are the first to come across something that doesn’t seem right. The caller-to-action character may not be the main character, but their role in the courtroom drama is necessary in order to give proper exposition.

The caller-to-action provides the right guy with the information needed in order to start taking down the wrong guy. Essentially, they hold a lot of power because they know something that neither side is initially aware they know. This information can be facts, morally correct opinions, or both. 

Example:
  • In The Post, the caller-to-action is U.S. State Department military analyst Daniel Ellsberg. He photocopies the Pentagon Papers and gives them to The New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan.
  • Ellsberg is aware that the government is lying to the public about the progress of the Vietnam War. At the same time, the government is ignorant of what Ellsberg knows about the Pentagon Papers.
  • Lastly, The New York Times is unaware of the government’s actions. However, when Ellsberg provides the documents to Sheehan, everything is illuminated.
Unlikely Example:
  • In Miracle on 34th Street, the Christmas courtroom drama, a hearing takes place to decide if Kris Kringle is mentally unstable or if he is actually Santa Claus. The caller-to-action here is a New York Post Office mail sorter.
  • Kringle’s attorney struggles for legitimate proof that he is not mentally unfit for society.
  • Meanwhile, the mail sorter sees a letter from a young girl sent for Santa. However, it is addressed to the courthouse.
  • The mail sorter decides to send all letters for “Santa” to the courthouse, demonstrating that the Post Office—a branch of the U.S. federal government— acknowledges Kringle as the real Santa.

Though two incredibly different movies, The Post and Miracle on 34th Street show us the importance of the caller-to-action in a courtroom drama.

The Decision Maker:

Finally, the courtroom drama always has a decision maker. The decision maker controls the outcome of the situation. They ultimately decide how the rest of the film plays out. This character is usually, but not always, the court:

  • In The Post, the decision maker is the supreme court, which ultimately rules in favor of the Washington Post and The New York Times. This allows for the Pentagon Papers to remain public, and the free press to retain their rights to publish.
  • In Miracle on 34th Street, the decision maker is Judge Henry X. Harper. He dismisses the case and alleviates Kringle from the hostility and objection he was facing beforehand.
  • In Spotlight, there are two important decision makers. The first is the judge that reporter Michael Rezendes speaks to in order to get access to the sealed documents.

The second is William Robinson’s friend Jim Sullivan, an insider at the church. Sullivan confirms that all the accusations against the priests are true. This allows for The Boston Globe to run the story with official sources.

2. The Prodding:

An element of prodding is always evident in an exciting courtroom drama. There has to be a reason why the story is being told. What prompted the series of events to take place? What was the motive behind the main conflict?

Usually, someone, somewhere, was not doing what they were supposed to be doing. Either that or they were taking too long to get the job done. Regardless, there is always this element of persuasion that encourages the story to really take off:

  • In Spotlight, the Boston Globe gets a new editor, Marty Baron. He is the one who urges the Spotlight team to further investigate the column claim that Cardinal Law was aware of the sexual abuse taking place in the church.

The team is, at first, hesitant to dive into reporting. This is because the documents were under seal. It is also because Mitchell Garabedianthe lawyer who claims he has proof, was “a crank.” However, as they begin to see the substantiality of what they are investigating, they have no trouble giving everything they have to get the truth.

  • In The Post, Katherine Graham needs to decide quickly whether or not she will allow the Washington Post to run their piece on the Pentagon Papers.

In an intense scene involving multiple people on the same phone call, Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the Washington Post, persuades Graham to publish by making a series of fiery statements, telling her “the only way to assert the right to publish is to publish”.

3. Contents of the Trial:

The contents of the trial are essential to courtroom dramas. The audience has to know how the legal system was involved and for what reasons. Thus, this is where the bulk of the background information and time-period perspectives come into play.

What the contents of the trial show the audience is how life was during the era in which the movie is taking place. Many courtroom dramas are based on real-life cases that revolutionized societal ways:

  • In On the Basis of Sex, Ruth Bader Ginsburg represents a man in court requesting a tax deduction on the nursing care of his mother.
  • The law is denying him the deduction because he is unmarried, and women are to stay home and tend to their family. Ginsburg saw this as a chance to challenge other discriminatory laws against women.

What the contents of this trial show the audience is that in the 1970s, it was still expected of women to not be the breadwinners of the household. She also had to reason that if a man was discriminated against on the basis of sex, then the court should recognize the discrimination of women on the basis of sex.

Ginsberg tells the court that the law should keep up with the societal changes that have already taken place, and they rule in her favor.

The contents of the trial should intrigue the audience and create a cathartic appeal. As previously mentioned, they are where the most riveting elements of film are usually found, centering around betrayal, murder or general injustices.

4. Whose Side Are We, the Audience, On?

Depending on the contents of the trial, it may not be a matter of decision for who the audience sides with. When it comes to films like Marshall, Denial and On the Basis of Sex, where the stories center around acts of injustice regarding one’s race, religion or sex, the audience is presumed and expected on the side of the honorable protagonists.

On the other hand, some courtroom dramas don’t make the verdict so easy to come to:
  • In 12 Angry Men, the evidence at first infers the defendant is guilty due to his violent past and a witness claim. All jurors vote guilty except Juror 8, who feels there should be more discussion before reaching a decision.
  • In the 2019 film Richard Jewell, only a viewer who is aware of the real-life outcome of the Olympic Park bombing investigation would initially be able to tell if Jewel was going to be held responsible for the bombing.
  • This is also true for the 2015 courtroom drama True Story. This movie progresses with the audience not truly knowing if Christian Longo committed the crime. That is unless they are already aware of the real-life events that took place in 2001.

The audience may or may not be expected to pick sides for specific characters. When it comes to murders and crimes, many courtroom dramas tend to build suspense around who the right guy is and who the wrong guy is, but in cases of injustice, the right and wrong guys are generally apparent from the get-go.

What’s important is that you, as the screenwriter, decide early on which approach is best for your film.

5.High Stakes:

Trials are always a high-stakes situation, but in the courtroom drama, everything is put on the line for those involved. What is at stake is always more than what is being presented.

This is what connects to the viewer’s emotions and really engrosses them in the film:
  • In The Post, it is not just about The New York Times and the Washington Post getting out of a lawsuit. The entire country’s first amendment rights are being tested by the government. 

At this time, Katharine Graham is the first female in the Fortune 500 as CEO of the Washington Post company. She has her reputation on the line, being a woman CEO in 1972. She also fears if she runs the paper, their new financial contributors will withdraw their shares from the company.

Despite this, Graham knows there is more at stake than just her company alone. There are men still in the Vietnam war fighting a lost cause. Moreover, there are mourners who lost their loved ones and deserve justice.

  • In Just Mercy, it is not just about one man’s wrongful conviction. It is about the countless legal and political manoeuvrings that perpetuate systematic racism.
  • Bryan Stevenson, An African-American lawyer representing Walter McMillian, an African-American Pulpwood worker, faces battle after battle from racism within the local court, the local law enforcement and the local community.
  • Not only is Stevenson trying to save McMillian from death row, but he is also fighting for legal representation and a fair trial for all those wrongfully convicted because of their race.

6. Unexpected Twists In the Case:

Whether it be a surprise witness, the discovery of new evidence or even a sudden revelation, twists are prevalent in every courtroom drama. There has to be something to keep the audience on their toes. It needs to throw everything— the entire court— into a state of disbelief.

It’s the gasp moment.

  • In the film Fracture, there is a good example of a twist that works against the protagonist. Ted Crawford, the defendant and primary antagonist, reveals to the court that his arresting officer is having an affair with his wife, making his previous confession inadmissible as evidence.

Now our protagonist William Beachum is scrambling to recover from his thinking that this case would be a simple, open and shut matter.

  • In Primal Fear, the twist works in favor of our hero. It occurs when Aaron turns into “Roy” (a sociopath personality he assumes when berated) and threatens to snap the prosecutor’s neck. This enables our protagonist to clear his client of charges due to insanity.
  • 12 Angry Men is an excellent example of a film that has multiple twists. These twists allow opinions to form and alter. The first comes when Juror 8 shows that he owns the same switchblade as the accused, casting doubt regarding the uniqueness of the weapon.
  • The final twist is when Juror 9 realizes that the key witness couldn’t have had to put on her glasses in order to see the crime take place.

Twists need to make sense and actually relate to the story. Luckily, life is full of twists and turns. With real-life events often inspiring courtroom dramas, twists are readily available to us. What’s important is that we present them with the emotion and integrity they deserve.

7. The Eruption:

Emotions are king in the courtroom drama. People are being pushed to their limits in search of objective truth. Inevitably, somebody will hit their breaking point, letting loose with a vicious tirade expressing their contempt for the case or those that oppose them.

The moment professionalism and control fly out the window, emotion takes over:

  • In 12 Angry Men, after another vote is conducted ending in a 9-3 vote in favor of “not guilty,” Juror 10 explodes, exclaiming “I don’t understand you people!” He then launches into a bigoted rant regarding the defendant’s race.

The eruption scene does not always have to take place in the courtroom.

This is evident in The Social Network, where the major eruption scene takes place in a flashback cut in between the scenes of Eduardo Saverin’s lawsuit against Mark Zuckerberg.

  • Saverin tells the lawyers how he was unrightfully removed from Facebook. The flashback from several months earlier shows him slamming Zuckerberg’s computer into the ground and having security called on him.
  • This emphasizes what follows in the present when he reveals that Zuckerberg diluted his ownership share down to 0.03%.

Possibly most famous of all, in the film A Few Good Men Colonel Jessup is being questioned repeatedly regarding his involvement in a crime and is now totally furious. Having been caught lying, he screams the immortal words, “You can’t handle the truth!”

8. The Jury Has Reached a Decision…

Finally, everything is laid out on the table. Will justice ensue after all that has occurred? Will the little guys get their chance to stand tall in their accomplishments? Presenting the verdict to the audience answers all the questions.

Because of this, the reveal of the verdict is often one of the most climactic scenes in a courtroom drama:
  • In The Post, The Washington Post receives the supreme court’s decision through a phone call. As everyone gathers in the main room for the news, they are ecstatic to hear the court ruled 6-3 in favor of the newspapers.

An employee relays one of the justices’ words to the room, saying “the founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy, the press was to serve the governed, not the governors,” as she breaks down in tears.

  • In 12 Angry Men, Juror 3 tears up a photograph of him and his son, breaks down sobbing and then mutters the words “not guilty,” thus making the vote unanimous and the defendant not guilty.
  • In Richard Jewell, Jewell meets with investigators in an FBI office. They ask him several irrelevant questions, and it becomes apparent to him that they have no proper evidence against him. This subtly confirms that he is no longer under investigation.

9. Lessons Learned:

In the end, the events of the trial must change the protagonist. They need time to take stock at the end of the film. To be a successful courtroom drama, what happens within those four walls needs to be utterly exhausting for the protagonist.

They have to think about what they’ve done, who they’ve freed or who they’ve put behind bars. Often they’ll be reflecting upon all of this on or around the courthouse steps.

  • Following his outburst in ...And Justice for All, Arthur Kirkland exits the courthouse in defeat and sits on the steps, fully aware that his career is now in tatters. He sits there knowing that the legal system is, and always will be, broken.
  • In Primal Fear, Martin Vail visits Aaron in his cell to inform him of the dismissal. Aaron then reveals that he faked mental illness and is a murderer. Dumbfounded, Vail exits the courthouse, haunted by the fact that he’s helped a guilty man get away with murder.
  • In 12 Angry Men, we see a group of strangers question seemingly clear evidence and finally make the right decision. In the final scene, we see jurors 8 & 9 exchange names before parting ways, now safe in the knowledge that the justice system isn’t entirely doomed.

10. A Tinge of Irony:

Every virtue has its vice, and every vice has its virtue. Sometimes, a victory in court may only be a glimpse into what must be done to gain victory in the outside world.

When the bad guys are smarter, more powerful and more mischievous, it indicates a larger system is at work. The audience must remember the irony of the legal system itself. We often place our faith in an imperfect institution solely because it is all we are given. What is solved in a courtroom is hardly ever completely solved outside of one.

Thus, a courtroom drama usually features a tinge of irony towards the end of the film. This irony serves as a reminder to the viewer that despite the court ruling,

there’s still more to the story:

In The Post, The Washington Post and The New York Times win the right to publish without penalty.

  • However, there is still the issue of the government lying about the progress of an entire war that killed thousands. 
  • Furthermore, the film features a scene where Graham and Bradlee discuss further lawsuits being pursued against them. This shows the audience that a supreme court ruling doesn’t exempt a company from future backlash.

In Spotlight, after months of trying to gather up enough evidence against the catholic church, the piece’s publishing leads to the Spotlight team receiving hundreds of calls, all from victims of the priests in Boston.

  • A textual epilogue at the end of the film notes a list of places around the world were sexual abuse by priests took place.
  • It also tells the audience that Cardinal Law, who evidently knew about the misconduct of the priests, was promoted to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. No explanation of irony needed there.

The truth may be elusive, but obtaining true justice is even more knotty.

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This article was written by Brenna Sheets and edited by IS Staff.

3 thoughts on “The 10 Key Elements to Writing a Courtroom Drama”

  1. Great article! 👏
    Loved the conclusion! As a critic of bourgeois penal system, movies that point out systemic flaws of the penal system always have me hooked. Recently I really liked Just Mercy and the german drama In the Fade, specially since the last one adds a bit of revenge thrilling to the mix.

    Reply

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