Getting Things Right

I saw a familiar rant on Facebook recently: someone complaining that a TV show got details wrong, in this case about how legal matters worked. Both writers who spend time getting the details right in their stories and experts who despair at major flaws speak out on this subject regularly.

I sympathize with them. I recall an excellent short story from a few years back that had one glaring legal flaw: it had a character end up in jail over an issue that would have only resulted in a civil lawsuit. It drove me nuts, especially since the story would have worked either way.

But while you better get details right if they’re relevant, you don’t want to bog the story down by insisting on total accuracy to the way things work in real life.

For example, as any lawyer can tell you, it takes years to litigate a major personal injury action. And a lot of the “action” is filing motions and doing research. If you want to tell a story about a lawsuit over the course of a few television episodes that take place in something close to real time, you’re going to have to cheat.

Some years back, the TV series The Practice pulled off a brilliant cheat in a story where one of the lawyers sued a big corporation on behalf of a group of people who alleged they got cancer from something in their neighborhood (it might have been power lines). The purpose of the story was to feature one of the lawyers who was not used to doing trial work doing a great job for these people because he cared about them.

At the time this aired, I was working as a reporter covering this kind of litigation, and I knew exactly what would happen in real life: the suit would be filed, there might be some depositions, the defendant corporation would file a motion to dismiss, and the case would get thrown out.

The truth of the matter is that even if the plaintiffs’ claims were valid, there wasn’t enough good scientific evidence to back them up. Tying chemicals and other products to cancer is incredibly difficult; only in the case of a very few products and a very few specific cancers (the connection of asbestos with mesothelioma comes to mind) do these suits succeed.

(Someone just won a similar suit recently against Monsanto over its herbicide Roundup. It sounds like there might be some new scientific evidence about that particular product, but the case is being appealed. It may not hold up. I should note that I’m sympathetic to a lot of plaintiffs in these situations and am pretty sure that some of the products are, in fact, dangerous. I’m just talking here about the current state of the law.)

On the TV show, the lawyer brings the suit and it survives the motion to dismiss. In the next episode, the case goes to trial before a jury. I didn’t object to the speed of the story — you don’t really want to do legal stories as slowly as litigation happens in real life — but I was shaking my head at the idea that they got before a jury.

The jury comes back with a verdict for the plaintiffs, and everyone cheers. And then the judge says the jurors are a bunch of idiots and awards the case to the defendant with a judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

It was a brilliant solution. It allowed the show to present the dramatic side — arguments to the jury make much better drama than technical motions — and it also got the outcome right. Those plaintiffs were never going to win that suit, and that’s what happened.

Judgments notwithstanding the verdict are a real thing. A judge could have done that. They do it all the time. It would have been unusual in a case like this in real life, but it could have happened.

This kind of reworking might be harder than getting the details right. I don’t think you can pull it off without understanding how the legal system works and then figuring out how to fudge just the right things so that the story works as a story while still being true to life.

My point is that getting details right doesn’t mean dotting every i and crossing every t; it means conveying the core truth of the activity you’re featuring in your story. Facts matter, but stories have their own logic. Sometimes you have to change the way things fit together to tell the best, and most honest, story.

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Getting Things Right — 4 Comments

  1. I once read a work on research that all but frothed at the mouth (the term “Francophobia”) at works on the French Revolution that — put the tumbrils with the scores of victims — too early in the Revolution. No poetic license allowed!

    • I think Dorothy Sayers dealt with that nicely in Gaudy Night when Miss de Vine is annoyed at someone who dismisses an excellent work because of a minor error about someone who played only a small part in the story.

  2. It occurred to me that doing this is akin to breaking grammar rules: you need to know the rules before you break them or else you’ll screw something up. So I’m not sure it’s an easy out.