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How to Write a Legal Thriller: Step-by-Step Thriller Writing Guide

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 14, 2020 • 3 min read

The thrill of a cross-examination. The pending uncertainty of a verdict. The dogged perseverance of a virtuous public defender. These are all classic elements of a legal thriller. Legal thrillers combine the heart-pounding suspense of the thriller genre with the procedural and crime elements of novels about the legal system.



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What Is a Legal Thriller?

Legal thrillers are a subgenre of thrillers and crime dramas. The protagonist is usually a lawyer, and the legal system serves as the backdrop and framework for the story’s drama. Many of the best legal thrillers tell the story of a criminal defense attorney representing an innocent client, often at the expense of their own safety or personal relationships.

Famous examples of legal thrillers include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960), Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver (1958), Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow (1986), Accused by Lisa Scottoline (2018), and John Grisham novels like A Time To Kill (1989), The Firm (1991), Sycamore Row (2013), and The Whistler (2016).

How to Write a Legal Thriller in 4 Steps

Writing a legal thriller is about more than crafting a killer closing argument for your defense attorney. A great legal thriller requires extensive research and an eye for morally complex characters. Here are some tips to help you write a legal thriller:

1. Do Your Research.

Readers expect a high degree of realism and accuracy from legal thrillers, and legal thriller writers need to be experts on their subject. Many of the most successful authors in the genre have an extensive background in the world of criminal defense. Before he was a New York Times bestselling author of courtroom dramas, for instance, Richard North Patterson worked for many years as a lawyer. Patterson’s background infuses his stories with a level of authenticity that readers have come to demand from the legal thriller genre. If you’re going to write about the inner workings of a law firm dealing with a murder case, you should research the structure and hierarchy of a typical firm. If your story is about a defense lawyer arguing a case before the Supreme Court, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the process and timeline of a standard Supreme Court case. Research is an essential element of writing a credible legal thriller.

2. Write Complex Characters.

When writing a legal thriller, it’s tempting to make your protagonist a virtuous hero and your villain a morally bankrupt criminal. However, things are rarely that simple in real life. There are plenty of district attorneys who are corrupt and untrustworthy, just as an accused serial killer sometimes turns out to be an innocent man. Harry Bosch, the long-running character featured in bestselling author Michael Connelly’s book series, is a talented homicide detective from Los Angeles with stubborn and self-destructive tendencies, a complex dynamic that makes for a compelling protagonist. The structure of a legal thriller often pits “good” vs. “evil,” but the best writers know how to explore the ambiguity of these black-and-white labels. Try to make your characters as three-dimensional as possible.

3. Make Sure Your Protagonist Has a Personal Life.

Legal thrillers shouldn’t take place exclusively in a courtroom. In order to care about your protagonist, the reader needs to have some insight into their personal life. Oftentimes, a character’s personal life functions as a way to convey the stakes of the case, as we see the effect the protagonist’s work has on their personal relationships. In other scenarios, the home life of the protagonist may serve as a thematic mirror for the case they’re working on. For instance, in To Kill a Mockingbird, we see Atticus Finch instill a sense of morality and fairness in his daughter Scout as he attempts to defend Tom Robinson in a racially-charged case. In Scott Turow’s bestselling debut novel Presumed Innocent, prosecutor Rusty Sabich’s marriage is strained by the weight of his ongoing investigation. Without a life outside the courtroom, your protagonist will feel thin and hard to connect with emotionally.

4. Populate Your Thriller With Compelling Minor Characters.

The world of a legal thriller is comprised of more than your protagonist and antagonist. The common settings of legal thrillers, such as courthouses, law firms, and FBI offices, offer a rich world of minor and secondary characters to pull from. A courthouse contains more than the lawyers and the person standing trial: There’s a judge, the court reporter, the jury, the bailiff, and the friends and family in the gallery. A law firm is filled with secretaries, bookkeepers, clerks, and interns. Populating your legal thriller with a vivid cast of minor characters will make your novel’s world feel rich and vibrant.

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