Whether you’re a veteran or novice screenwriter, tackling a courtroom drama is a great project. Unlike a typical drama, when you have a courtroom focus, you don’t need pages to set up your story and characters. All these elements are available to an audience right away: the protagonist is a lawyer with the goal of winning his case. The antagonist is another attorney whose goal is to defeat the protagonist.
The overriding question is: will the protagonist win for their client. Will the plaintiff win the lawsuit, be freed, or go to jail? Straightforward stuff.
You can layer your protagonist with audience-engaging character traits, endearing ones like Jimmy Stewart’s trout fishing defense lawyer in “Anatomy of A Murder” or debilitating flaws like the alcoholism of Paul Newman’s defense counsel in “The Verdict.”
The protagonist can have watchable allies in pursuing the goal, e.g., Jack Warden’ s long-suffering mentor in “Verdict”, and Eve Arden’s wisecracking secretary in “Anatomy.”
Witnesses allow disparate, engaging characters to add texture to the drama and bite the unfolding plot.
In “My Cousin Vinny,” Joe Pesci’s defense lawyer calls upon the automotive expertise of Lorraine Bracco to help win his case while bringing the sparring couple back together and making “My Cousin Vinny” a hybrid courtroom drama romcom we hadn’t seen since 1949 when Catherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were opposing attorneys in “Adam’s Rib”.
Courtroom witnesses also add suspense to the story as new information is revealed to either support or derail the protagonist.
Betrayal can also be inserted into a courtroom drama to give the plot a tension-building setback, a particularly effective device in "Verdict".
Many courtroom movies have also had successful runs as plays, demonstrating the dramatic strength of this form. Examples include “Witness For The Prosecution", “A Few Good Men”, “The Caine Mutiny,” and “Twelve Angry Men”.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION - 1957
dir Billy Wilder, with Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich
Claimed by some critics to be the best courtroom drama ever made, the story is adapted from an Agatha Christie play and the premise is based on an English legal mandate that the wife of a man on trial cannot be a witness for his defense. The film has many sudden twists that keep its audience gripped to the jury’s verdict and beyond.
TWELVE ANGRY MEN - 1957
dir. Sydney Lumet, with Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb
The drama zooms past the conventional trial histrionics and into the bare jury room with only a table and twelve chairs. Watch how the writing and direction hone in on the interaction of the jurors as they assess the evidence and try to reach a unanimous verdict of guilty or not guilty. Henry Fonda also builds the tension as he plays the one holdout in that decision.
An excellent model for writing a contained drama. Have a contained script? Check out our Screenplay Request Page.
THE VERDICT - 1982
dir. Sydney Lumet; writer David Mamet, with Paul Newman, James Mason, Milo O’Shea, Jack Warden and Charlotte Rampling
David Mamet’s screenplay snaps Act One into Act Two and Newman’s character into focus when the attending nurse of the plaintiff, who is on life support after a hospital error, asks Newman who he is. He replies, ”I’m her attorney.”
A twist at the mid-point occurs when we learn Charlotte Rampling’s character, who is now sleeping with Paul Newman’s character, is being paid for inside information on Newman’s legal strategy by James Mason’s attorney for the other side.
ANATOMY OF A MURDER - 1959
dir. Otto Preminger, with Jimmy Stewart, Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick and Eve Arden
Watch Jimmy Stewart’s charm as the country lawyer who’d rather be fishing, working with an outstanding supporting cast in a story that builds tension around the question of how Stewart’s attorney will win the case.
THE CAINE MUTINY - 1954
dir. Edward Dmytryk, written by Stanley Roberts; with Humphrey Bogart and Fred McMurray
The film was well-received by critics and audiences. It was also the the highest-grossing film in the United States in 1954. Set during World War II
A FEW GOOD MEN - 1992
writer Aaron Sorkin; dir. Robb Reiner with Jack Nicolson, Tom Cruise
First performed as a play on Broadway in 1989. It grossed over $243 million on a budget of $40 million, and was nominated for four Academy Awards.
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Blog was written by Alan Barkley.
Alan is a produced screenwriter (with many contest wins and film festival screenings). He has taught screenwriting, with several relevant articles published in online magazines. Here is a link to his short BARFLIES.
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