By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
As a species, we used to hear tales by the flickering light of a campfire, and now we hear them by the flickering light of a projector in a large darkened movie theatre. Moviemakers have become the storytellers, and many of the stories that now play a role in how children and parents see the world -- stories like Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Cars, Monsters Inc., and now Brave -- are told by Pixar. So I was intrigued when I learned that Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats used Twitter to compile 22 rules of storytelling: They are short nuggets of wisdom (true to the medium, just 140 characters or less) focusing on the best ways that stories are conceived and conveyed.
Much of this advice applies to the ways stories are told in another setting - a courtroom. In the pretrial, mediation, and trial phases of your case, there is a story that is being discovered, reframed, retold, and refined as you make your way to the courtroom. Experienced trial lawyers know there is quite a bit of art to deciding how to tell the tale of your case, so wise advocates ought to consider these Pixar rules. Not all apply perfectly to a trial context since legal narratives are, after all, nonfiction. But there is still an important part of what the ancients called "invention" to any narrative because you are always applying some level of creativity to your approach. In this post, I'll be looking at the most applicable of the Pixar rules -- the top ten -- and discussing what they mean for the legal storyteller.
1. What's the essence of your story - the most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Stories need a center, and not just a sequence of events. For a legal story, that often means a theme that can be expressed in a sentence or less. Too often, however, the theme is an afterthought rather than a centerpiece. If you just think of your theme as a device to be used in the introduction to your opening, you are missing out on the advantages of building your trial story, from discovery onward, around a simple and economic story core.
2. Once upon a time there was ____. Every day, _____. One day _____. Because of that ____. Because of that, ____. Until finally ____.
There is a useful checklist of what the core of your story should contain. You have a central character, a pattern of background events, a central challenge or conflict, a series of consequences, and then a resolution at the end. Attorneys should think creatively about each of these. For example, the central character isn't necessarily your client. For a products plaintiff, it can be better to focus on the careless corporation instead of the injured customer, because that encourages a more strategic view of personal responsibility.
3. What are the stakes? Give us a reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.
In stories, motives matter - both the characters' motives and the listeners' motives. While the legal process might presume that fact finders follow the story just so they can apply the law and fulfill their duty, there needs to be a more basic drive at work for the story to succeed. A trial story that taps in to some form of universal morality - loyalty, fairness, balance - will do better.
4. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
Lawyers taking a case to trial can get frustrated when the advice of people like me is so often to shed detail. "The details are important," they'll stress, "that is our evidence." True enough, but making choices makes for a better case. That is actually one of the prime reasons for conducting a focus group or a mock trial early on: It tells you what you really need and what you don't. If you can 'combine characters,' for example, by strategically trimming and streamlining your witness list, you are helping to focus your case.
5. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th - get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
Novelty is what generates interest and involvement in a story. But our first impulses in telling a legal story can sometimes lead us away from novelty. In an employment defense, for example, the first thing that comes to mind might be the faults and shortcomings of the now terminated employee. But a large company blaming the individual isn't novel or necessarily credible. If your strategy focuses instead on endorsing the plaintiff wherever possible, you might succeed in gaining attention by surprising the jury.
6. You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
What is fun to do as a lawyer often amounts to strategies that jurors dislike: aggressive cross- examination, sparring over objections, and pointed argument in opening statement. Thinking about it from the jury's point of view, however, what is interesting for them is not "great lawyering" or even advocacy. Instead, what they need is help on what is often one of the most difficult listening, comprehension, and decision making tasks they've had to take on since they were in school. The most effective way for your story to help is, like they say about good teaching, 'Be a guide by their side, not a sage on the stage.'
7. Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.
There is one question that we generally ask in mock trials that often isn't answered directly in the presentations: Why are the parties litigating? That is, why is the plaintiff bringing this case, and why is the defendant choosing to fight it instead of settling it? The answers go beyond the obvious: The plaintiffs don't just litigate to receive compensation and the defendants don't just contest in order to avoid paying. Instead, there is a principle at stake. Make sure that you are conveying that principle, showing that it is a burning belief, and building your story around it.
8. You gotta identify with your situation/characters. You can't just write 'cool.' What would make YOU act that way?
If 'writing cool' means maintaining a distance from your characters, then 'litigating cool' might mean just conveying facts and law without that personal connection to your clients. It is important to show that connection. One of my clients, for example, once worked for a large group of farmers. In closing argument, he spoke about the knowledge and respect he had gained by getting to know these people and representing them. At that chosen moment, it wasn't pandering, but rang true because the jurors were able to see how he had treated them over the course of the trial, and were able to appreciate the relationship.
9. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up-front.
Endings are especially hard in court cases, because the story doesn't end with the event that precipitated the lawsuit: the injury, the termination, or the broken contract. Instead, the story needs to continue to the point that the jury is part of the ending. Here is a question advocates should always ask: What do you see the jury spending most of their time arguing about during deliberations? If you frame your case around that central conflict, and your preferred resolution of it, then you are focusing on the ending up-front.
10. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.
They say that the way to be a writer is to write, not to think about writing. In the same vein, the way to start toward a great opening is to prepare one, even if imperfect. This is another reason to mock try your case well in advance. You are sharing your view of the case so far, not only with the mock jurors, but with colleagues, clients, and consultants. Think of it as a writers' workshop, or a 'storyboard session' in the moviemaking parlance. Your mock trial helps you focus, prepare, and ultimately tell a better story in mediation or trial.
Other Posts on Stories:
Photo Credit: Mazzarello Media and Arts, Used by Permission. Sculpture on Pixar Campus, Emeryville CA.