Films like ‘Adaptation’ can give legal professionals a window into how to assemble persuasive narratives in court

Table of Contents So, what is the point for attorneys?My beloved CLE systemSpence’s closing argument…

The movie Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze and composed by Charlie Kaufman, is especially suitable for lawyers having difficulties with telling tales correctly equally inside of and outdoors the courtroom.

So here is a temporary distillation of the theme of Kaufman’s/Jonze’s marvelously convoluted comedy:

A partially thriving “commercial” screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman struggles to “adapt” New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s nonfiction reserve The Orchid Thief. The book is dependent on Orlean’s New Yorker article content about orchid thief John Larouche, who operates in the Fakahatchee swamp of the Florida Everglades. The e-book is a collection of meticulously noticed parts about bouquets and, precisely, a single flower-lover’s obsession with orchids.

Orlean’s The Orchid Thief lacks a propulsive narrative main. There is no “plot”—no compelling causal relationship among “events” formed by human agency that builds to an explosive and emotionally fulfilling climax. Orlean’s story drifts in disconnected and episodic pieces—it unfolds just like the flowers. Kaufman suffers from a severe writer’s block as he struggles to adapt The Orchid Thief into a professional film.

To remedy his writer’s block, Kaufman ventures to New York City and attends screenwriting guru Robert McKee’s a few-day storytelling workshop. There, McKee reveals the secret sauce of effective Hollywood film building: Tales should be tailored making use of compelling and remarkable plot constructions. The “big” Hollywood climax is specially vital, as it offers a long lasting emotional wallop that can in some cases fill in holes in remarkable logic and “save” even a mediocre movie.

So, what is the point for attorneys?

Adaptation offers a lesson on how seemingly unstructured narratives can consider form. It also offers a timely and ironic meditation on the wrestle all lawyers face when repackaging “reality” into tales, especially into courtroom litigation tales.

Litigation stories, like Hollywood videos, are commonly “plot-driven,” constructed on linear plot points, composed of earlier-tense occasions and linked with strong causal by-traces. They usually aspect monochromatic figures building mindful possibilities that propel the tale ahead. Conclusion-makers—jurors and judges, too—then employ familiar narrative models in their deliberations, reshaping proof into tales that in good shape verdict categories. Like screenwriters, lawyers need to build robust causal as a result of-lines that thread proof into compelling tales, foremost to a extraordinary climax that justifies the verdict—thereby, permitting the jury to inscribe significant closure upon the tale.

All persuasive stories—including the tales attorneys tell—are never ever just artless or formless representations of earlier-tense “facts.” As the title of a popular CLE/National Institute for Trial Advocacy guide declared, Information Simply cannot Communicate For By themselves.

Renowned demo attorney Gerry Spence puts it this way: “It seems that the evidence is weighed in terms of a fantastic story, and not the other way close to … The proof sends me seeking for a fantastic story with which to support it, but the proof does not develop the story on its have.”

In which do attorneys obtain templates for courtroom litigation stories? Resources include common cultural stories, particularly Hollywood films.

My beloved CLE system

Yrs ago, like Charlie Kaufman, I attended Robert McKee’s storytelling class in New York Town. Like many lawyers, I hoped to change ordeals from law apply into a screenplay I could provide to Hollywood.

McKee’s training course emphasized “plotting” and how to make successful narrative construction that sustains the awareness of the viewers in all “commercial” storytelling, which include lawyers’ storytelling observe. I was especially absorbed by McKee’s scene-by-scene analyses of the plot-structures in basic Hollywood videos.


Jack Nicholson (ideal) and Lee de Broux in the 1974 film Chinatown. Image from MovieStillsDB.

For example, McKee closely analyzed author Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown. One particular of McKee’s takeaways for legal professionals was about the efficient depiction of villains and villainy in courtroom melodrama.

McKee identifies the “value-at-stake” in Chinatown as justice, itself: The detective-protagonist struggles to resolve the secret, defeat the villain and attain justice. To make the plot perform, the “forces of antagonism” (villainy) opposing the will of the protagonist should grow exponentially more robust as the motion picture progresses, transferring from wrongdoing to criminality and murder to systemic corruption, and then finally morphing into tyranny uncovered in the darkish ending. In this article, Jake, the detective is defeated, the villain will get absent with murder and an overwhelming and pervasive tyranny is captured in Chinatown’s unforgettable line: “Forget it, Jake. It is Chinatown.”

Spence’s closing argument in The Estate of Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee

In my e-book, Storytelling for Attorneys, I assess how a variation on this development is designed by lots of plaintiffs’ attorneys in litigation tort-tales, contacting for the actuality-finder to clear up a mystery centered on the proof, defeating the “forces of antagonism” and redeeming the price of justice by returning a verdict for the plaintiff. As an illustration, I supply a close, McKee-like looking through of Spence’s famous cinematic closing argument on behalf of Karen Silkwood in The Estate of Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee.

The backstory: Karen Silkwood, a lab analyst at Kerr-McGee’s Cimarron nuclear facility in Oklahoma, whose task was to grind and polish plutonium pins utilized to manufacture gasoline rods for nuclear energy vegetation, was contaminated with radioactive elements. A union consultant, she experienced earlier complained about ailments at the plant and was allegedly documenting Kerr-McGee’s basic safety infractions. She was killed in a mysterious, a person-car incident the day prior to a assembly with a New York Periods reporter about basic safety problems at the plant. Her condominium was quarantined and all her private residence inside of was buried in a nuclear squander internet site.

Spence sued Kerr-McGee for Silkwood’s suffering and struggling, resulting from the exposure and for residence loss and punitive damages. Spence cleverly retrofitted the evidence into a suspenseful plot that afterwards presented the structural bones of Mike Nichol’s award-profitable motion picture Silkwood.

Silkwood publicity still
Meryl Streep in the 1983 film Silkwood. Image from MovieStillsDB.

In the plot of Spence’s demo story and closing argument, the jurors are cast in the roles of detectives as they look at the demo unfold like a film, revisiting the wrestle in between the virtuous protagonist Silkwood and villainous corporation Kerr-McGee. Silkwood battles the “force of antagonism” aligned towards her, valiantly trying to receive justice for the other staff at the plant. As in McKee’s paradigm, Kerr-McGee’s villainy grows ever more effective as the trial progresses. In his closing argument, Spence empowers and calls upon the heroic jury to remedy 3 riddles in their deliberations, resolving the Silkwood secret and delivering justice in the close:

  1. “What is this case about?” Spence’s advised answer: “It is about the power of truth, that you have to use in this case someway, due to the fact it has been uncovered to you now—you know it.”

  2. “Who is Karen Silkwood?” Spence’s prompt solution: “A brave standard woman who did care. And she risked her lifestyle, and she missing it. And she experienced anything to convey to the environment. What was it that Karen Silkwood had to inform the environment? That has been still left to us to say now. It is for you, the jury, to say it for her.”

  3. “How does this all tie in? … Did she know way too a lot? … Who contaminated her?” Spence’s prompt remedy: “She understood plenty of to bring this full mess to an close.”

Contrary to in Chinatown, Spence proposes a constructive and uplifting ending to his tale, and the heroic jury will come as a result of: It punishes the company villain and preserves the benefit of justice by returning a plaintiff’s verdict for Silkwood, awarding $10 million in punitive damages in opposition to defendant Kerr-McGee.

Robert McKee’s reserve

For legal professionals not able to show up at a McKee workshop, I propose his book, Story: Material, Composition, Design and style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.

McKee distills sophisticated narrative concept into obvious-headed explanations, suggesting conceptual equipment to incorporate to any litigator’s toolkit—supplementing what legal professionals might previously know intuitively from their storytelling apply. McKee’s ebook is also a repository of film plots akin to lawyers’ brief financial institutions. These templates propose ready-manufactured plots that get the job done and strategies for “adapting” proof into powerful tales.

McKee’s insights are primarily practical to legal professionals making an attempt to assemble their own litigation tales and for deconstructing the competing stories told by courtroom adversaries.

We are all immersed in an infinite sea of stories. As academic psychologist Jerome Bruner (Precise Minds, Feasible Worlds) and Nobel-profitable behavioral economist Daniel Kahnemann (Imagining, Quick and Slow) have unveiled, we reconstruct our globe through the tales we explain to other folks and explain to ourselves.

To fake that legal conclusion-makers are immune to the seduction of very well-advised tales or that litigation follow turns exclusively on proof presented analytically misconceives the mother nature of the fight of competing tales in the courtroom. And in this storytelling levels of competition, productive attorneys inevitably attract on recurring plots from other stories, including stories borrowed from pop culture and the flicks.

What Robert McKee does remarkably well is to offer an partaking refresher training course for better understanding standard “principles” of the storytelling craft. These applications do not exchange, but alternatively nutritional supplement, the analytical instruments and vocabulary currently in most lawyers’ toolkits and may perhaps suggest a rejuvenating method to litigation apply.


Philip N. Meyer, a professor at Vermont Law School, is the creator of Storytelling for Lawyers.