Writers of crime and legal drama often struggle with developing authenticity in their stories. Authenticity is critical to keeping readers or viewers engaged because they need to believe in your characters and your story. The world of criminal law has its own procedures, language and rules. Knowing the rules of criminal law is essential to creating a story with authenticity. However, that does not mean that the rules must always be followed.
Breaking the rules for the sake of drama is perfectly acceptable and often even necessary to creating a compelling story. The key is to first know what the rules are, so you can then make an intelligent decision about how and when to break them.
One of the best courtroom drama scenes in movie history broke the rules, and did it in a way that did not take away from the film’s authenticity. Remember this exchange?
Witness: You want answers?
Attorney: I think I’m entitled to.
Witness: You want answers?
Attorney: I want the truth!
Witness: You can’t handle the truth!
Of course, this is the height of courtroom drama in A Few Good Men. This is the culmination of an epic battle between Tom Cruise as the defense attorney, Lt. Kaffee, and Jack Nicholson as the witness, Col. Jessep.
This exchange is followed by Col. Jessep’s long recitation about the importance of the military to our ordered society even though we sometimes do not like the reality of the way they conduct their business.
This scene breaks the rules because trials are conducted in a question-and-answer format. The lawyer asks questions, and the witness answers. Here we have the opposite. The witness is asking questions and the lawyer is answering.
Then the witness gives a long speech that is not in response to any question. Witness testimony in a real trial is required to be in direct response to the attorney’s questions. The objection to such a long speech not in response to any question would be “nonresponsive” or “no question pending.”
However, breaking these rules is necessary to further the story in A Few Good Men because Tom Cruise’s character is trying to push Jack Nicholson’s character to admit that he gave the order that killed the victim. It is important for Col. Jessep to explain why he does some of the things he does out of military necessity even though most people might consider such acts morally “wrong.” He eventually admits his role in the killing out of contempt for Lt. Kaffee and all that he represents, including the courtroom rules.
More importantly, the movie can break these courtroom rules for the sake of drama without losing credibility because most of the movie is very authentic. There is an understanding of the way criminal cases and trials really operate that pervades the entire movie. That kind of authenticity throughout the story permits the viewer to forgive the occasional rule being broken. Especially when the result is such great drama.
The lesson is that breaking the rules doesn’t necessarily take away from a story’s overall authenticity when it is done conscientiously and with an understanding of the choices you are making.
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