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Screenwriting Lessons From a Week on Jury Duty

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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenplay structure, screenwriting
screenwriting blog article

Storytelling is a high stakes activity when it’s used in a courtroom. Here are three lessons you can apply to your screenwriting, from my week on jury duty.

Screenwriting Lessons From a Week on Jury Duty

Three screenwriting takeaways from jury duty:

ONE: Everyone has a story.

As the prosecution put on their case, we heard about the incident – a threat made by the defendant – which was the reason for the trial. We heard from witnesses, including the victim, about the danger the defendant posed. With everything being said in that courtroom, it didn’t look good for the defendant.

And then we heard from the defense.

We learned of all the events leading up to the threat the defendant was accused of. It was impossible not to empathize with him, to put ourselves in his shoes – how much could a person take before saying something regrettable?

That sympathy we felt for the defendant made our job a million times harder, and reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Mr. (Fred) Rogers:

“Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”

Screenwriting takeaway: Good use of a character’s motivations and backstory helps create more sympathetic characters, and a more complex story. While as a juror it was kind of awful knowing what was right or what should happen, but emotionally wanting a different result, when an audience experiences that kind of internal conflict, it’s a good thing – they’re engaged in your story.

TWO: Structure creates story.

A story’s structure is the way its pieces are organized. The way you, the screenwriter, choose to organize those pieces determines the story experience that is conveyed to your audience. Writer Janet Burroway explains the structure of a story’s plot this way:

“A series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.”

When the prosecution told us their story during the trial, the focus was very much on the action that the defendant took – he threatened – and the pain that caused the victim afterward.

But when the defense told us their version, the emphasis was on all the events before the incident. They gave a different context to the defendant’s actions. The defense attorney also tried to reframe the victim’s pain afterward, by drawing out testimony that made us doubt how significantly the threat had affected her.

The structure each side used in the telling created a different story, each aimed to affect us in a specific, different way. Even though both stories dealt with overlapping elements, the very core concept behind each of their stories would sound different from the other if you were so inclined to logline them, just based on how the pieces were arranged.

Screenwriting takeaway: Know what story you want to tell. That will help you find the structure that best conveys it. Playing around with your logline is a good way to test out options.

As screenwriter Doug Eboch says on his blog:

“[The logline is] the DNA – it contains the seed of the whole thing. Understanding the DNA of your story will help you decide which of the other ideas fit and which should be tossed or saved for a later story.”

THREE: How a person judges others can say more about them.

Reacting to events or passing judgment on someone else can reveal a person’s true, core beliefs.

When we finally made it into the deliberation room, I was surprised to hear some of the other jurors’ reactions. They had different experiences of the trial and of the information we’d been given, based on their own backgrounds and personal histories.

As soon as we began discussing our impressions of the evidence and of the defendant, I saw the other jurors more clearly and distinctly than I had all week. (And if I told you what I thought of them, I guess that would say more about me, wouldn’t it?)

Screenwriting takeaway: Think about your characters’ reactions to plot events as windows into their personalities and beliefs. Consider how you might use their reactions or judgments of other characters to convey who they are, what they believe, and maybe even what they’ve experienced in the past.

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WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

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