Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Thinking Thursdays: Using Screenwriting Techniques to Tell More Compelling Stories

Margaret Hannon, guest blogger, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School

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Storytelling is an integral part of a lawyer’s work, particularly for appellate lawyers. One critical aspect of effective storytelling is structure—and when it comes to structuring an effective story, lawyers can learn a little something from screenwriters.

In Teresa Bruce’s forthcoming article in the Journal of Legal Writing Institute, The Architecture of Drama: How Lawyers Can Use Screenwriting Techniques to Tell More Compelling Stories, Professor Bruce proposes that “lawyers build their stories in the same way Hollywood writers do.” Just as screenwriters follow a formula, lawyers should do the same: as IRAC is to argument sections, SCOR is to fact sections.

Professor Bruce’s article builds on existing storytelling literature, which approaches narrative theory from several different perspectives. The structural perspective uses a pragmatic or pedagogical approach, arguing that “[a] large part of telling an effective story is the order in which the reader presents information.”[i] Scholars in this area argue that an effective story structure helps judges and juries understand and remember information, and the story that flows most logically will be the story that seems most probable. As a result, good story structure can increase a client’s chance of winning.

Professor Bruce’s article takes the structural approach to narrative theory a step further by introducing the SCOR structure. Many lawyers will be familiar with the writing stages identified by Professor Betty Flowers: Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge. The Architect stage is where writers focus on “large, organizational, paragraph-level thinking.” The SCOR template gives writers a “flexible, generally applicable template they can use each time they tackle a new case.” This enables “lawyers to skip the Architecture stage entirely when writing a facts section (as IRAC enables them to do when writing an argument section).” Ultimately, Professor Bruce’s hope is that using SCOR will make it easier for lawyers to write their clients’ stories more coherently, which will result in clearer, more compelling, and more convincing stories.

So, what is SCOR? To explain SCOR, Professor Bruce begins with the classic three-act story structure, “the basis of Western storytelling.” Act I, the Setup, establishes the protagonist’s “status quo.” Act II, the Confrontation, breaks the status quo and takes the protagonist on a journey to a point of climax. Act III, the Resolution, introduces the protagonist’s “new normal” and resolves any unanswered questions. Taking this basic story structure a step further, advanced story structure builds additional milestones into each act to create an overarching “story arc” that provides “rising tension throughout the first and second acts and falling tension during the third.” Professor Bruce illustrates both the basic and advanced story structure through a classic movie, The Wizard of Oz.

Professor Bruce then translates this traditional formula into legal writing: Setup, Confrontation, Outcome, Resolution, or SCOR. As in advanced screenwriting, within each act, additional milestones help to give the story added structure and keep audience members engaged.

First, the Setup, Act I, humanizes the client by establishing the client’s life and status quo before the “bad event” of the litigation. Second, the Confrontation, Act II, is the “meat” of the story—it introduces the client’s antagonist and sets out the pivotal (i.e. outcome-determinative) facts. While the opposing party will often be the antagonist, for some clients, the antagonist will be subtler. For example, for less-sympathetic clients, the antagonist might be “mental-health problems, addiction, childhood trauma, or poverty.”

The third and fourth components of the story are the Outcome and the Resolution, Act III. The Outcome is “the end of the protagonist’s quest,” while the Resolution is “where the audience gets closure.” This is the most difficult section for legal writers because a “lawyer cannot simply resolve her client’s story . . . the way a screenwriter can.” Instead, the lawyer may invite closure by inviting “the judge or the jury to resolve the storyline in a way that favors the client.”

To illustrate how this structure works and why it is effective, Professor Bruce uses the statement of facts in the Petition for Certiorari in Miranda v. Arizona. This statement of facts helps illustrate the SCOR structure, but also shows how the structure “can work even for a largely unsympathetic defendant, one who has been convicted of a violent crime.” In addition, Professor Bruce points out that other landmark briefs use a similar story structure.

I encourage practitioners, legal writing professors, and law students to read Professor Bruce’s article. In the article, she provides a more in-depth discussion of advanced storytelling structure, including the milestones within each act. SCOR provides a practical, accessible, and memorable way to help lawyers incorporate storytelling into their legal writing. And if lawyers can make their clients’ stories more accessible to their audiences, those stories will hopefully also be clearer, more compelling, and more convincing.

Special thanks to Alison Doyle for her help with this blog post.

[i] Brian J. Foley & Ruth Anne Robbins, Fiction 101: A Primer for Lawyers on How to Use Fiction Writing Techniques to Write Persuasive Fact Sections, 32 Rutgers L.J. 459, 475 (2001).

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2018/09/thinking-thursdays-using-screenwriting-techniques-to-tell-more-compelling-stories.html

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