So much about good storytelling mirrors the way a lawyer might lay out the case for their client. Our job as writers is to select events and characters that reveal the protagonist we hope the reader will see. In effect, we are manipulating scenes so that they present our protagonist’s inner development at any given point in the plot.
Let’s take a look at five ways you can approach
your novel like a winning trial lawyer,
delivering your reader to the verdict you want.
1. Give Your Opening Argument
- Within the “ordinary world” section of your story, make the case that your protagonist is both in need of change and capable of change.
- Convince the reader to empathize with the character by showing the way they have deep, internal needs.
- Make the opening interesting enough that your reader sticks around so you can prove your case.
- Craft scenes that show the protagonist interacting with other characters and being presented with experiences that show what they lack.
- Let us see a moment that signals redemption or hope for your character so we understand what a satisfactory ending will entail.
2. Bring in Witnesses
- One of the primary ways we reveal who are protagonist is along any given point in the plot is by having them interact with other characters.
- In the first quarter, consider interactions that show your character resisting change or refusing to acknowledge some sort of wound/lie/baggage holding them back.
- As you approach the first-quarter mark, bring in “witnesses” who challenge your protagonist to start facing that wound.
- Take advantage of secondary characters for the remainder of your novel to show your character changing and growing.
- Use these characters to draw your protagonist back to their old habits so that we can see them choosing to grow instead.
- Craft interactions with characters in the end that let the reader easily see the way the character has changed.
3. Put Your Protagonist on “The Stand” to Testify in Their Own Defense
- Think about how you might plot scenes that reveal the root of your character’s wounds.
- Resist the urge to make your protagonist out to be a victim of circumstances or to show them exuding self-pity.
- One of the biggest errors we can make is using narration or character dialogue to let the character bemoan their situation.
- Let us observe in active scene how the existing relationships and past experiences of your character have created the flawed protagonist we meet.
- The more you silence your narrator/character and keep them from signaling self-pity, the more the reader deduces how the character must feel, which frees them up to experience genuine empathy.
4. Let Your Protagonist Be Cross-Examined
- Consider crafting scenes that tempt your character back toward old habits. To slip up and reveal their flaws.
- It’s only in testing your protagonist by presenting them with opportunities they would have formerly been drawn to that you show your reader how they’re changing. How they aren’t who they were when we met them.
- As covered in my post on the zigzag character arc, don’t be afraid to let them make mistakes.
5. Prove the Protagonist’s Change Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
- So often, we arrive at our endings without sufficient evidence that our characters have changed.
- We’ve spent a lot of the story shielding them from obstacles.
- We allow other characters to protect them or we don’t directly hit important stakes that force the protagonist to take action.
- By the time they reach the story’s end, readers don’t have the proof they need to see the character’s agency and to make a confident judgement about their evolution. The proof is insufficient because the reader hasn’t been given evidence scene after scene that the character is, in fact, someone quite different than when they met them.
- As you evaluate your scenes, ensure that your character is being presented in each and every one of them with a choice to make.
- Think of making them choose, as often as possible, between two things they care about.
- The thing they pick should be painful to choose because the thing they give up must be nearly as valuable.
- If the choice the protagonist makes is easy or obvious—escape, fight, follow someone, hide, etc.—it’s a signal that the scene isn’t really presenting them with that hard choice they need.
- Notice how those choices don’t really cost the character anything. They’re expected.
- Let the reader see scenes with all the proof they need to reach the verdict that your character has truly changed as a result of their own actions.
How else might you approach writing your novel like a lawyer? Are there specific areas that you can foresee as spots where you might make a stronger case for your protagonist?
Chime in with your thoughts!
Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over seven years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching.