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Lawyerly Thinking and Writing Fiction


When I walked away from the legal profession and stepped into the world of creative writing, I thought that would be the end of legal thinking and analysis. I was wrong.

While the primary subject of fiction is human emotion, values and beliefs, the way to convey that can benefit from thinking like a lawyer. What do I mean?

First there is the element of causation, critical to legal thinking and also to fiction. In writing work that relies on verisimilitude, the reader is, implicitly or explicitly, thinking about causation. If in a scene a boy and his mother are fighting, then the mother turns around to wash a dish and the boy begins to speak sweetly, the reader will wonder--what happened? What's the reason for the change? It could be a sensory detail or a thought, but something has to be there to explain the change. And the same holds true for the sequence of events building to the turn/ shift/climax--there has to be a thread of causation leading to the change. As John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, "When the realist's work convinces us, all effects, even the most subtle, have explicit or implicit causes. This kind of documentation, moment by moment authenticating detail, is the mainstay not only of realistic fiction but of all fiction."

Then we come to the idea of specific detail-the writer must convince the reader, bombarding the reader with proof or evidence. Prove it, says the reader, prove that I am in 19th century France or the early 1900s Germany or on a dirty subway in Washington D.C. Only with specific detail, with evidence, will the narrative dream, as John Gardner calls it, be sustained. ..."we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind," writes Gardner. And throughout the story we must be shown, not told, what is at stake--the proof must appear in the plot. Prove to me, says the reader, that the main character loves her mother.

And when the fiction writer chooses to deviate from the traditional rules of fiction--to not have a climax; to forgo a main character; to write primarily in summary not scene--the fiction writer must defend her choices. Otherwise it reads as gimmicky.

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re: "When I walked away from the legal profession and stepped into the world of creative writing. . ."

First: What a lovely and provocative statement! I wonder what causation explains the change? What is the detail on which it turned?

And: It's like cross-training. The perspective and skills gained in one area or field build strengths that may apply in another.

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Kim, Oh, boy. That's a story

Oh, boy. That's a story in itself. But let's say the uber refinement of the logical mind to the detriment of the creative. Or maybe the terribly heavy weight of precedent or legacy of the law, which abhors risk taking. All of which leads to a particular mindset that didn't fit me.

It is like cross-training! One great thing about being a writer-- it's all material. All of it! The ugly, bad, horrific, joyful, ecstatic. All there waiting to be shaped into something that provokes, entertains, makes one look again.