narrowing the focus on your novel

Beginnings are always tough, but something I found useful when trying to define the focus of my current WIP is the format of the legal brief. Attorneys use legal briefs to narrow the focus of case from a lengthy rationale to its essential parts. Last week, I thought perhaps I could use the format of the legal brief to help me explore my novel.

To make any legal brief easy to scan, it is broken into distinctive parts: parties, issue, facts, rationale, and holding.

Here’s how you can make it work for your story-line:

PARTIES: In a legal brief, the parties are the plaintiff and the defendant. In your story, the parties are your protagonist and your antagonist. Don’t go into detail over secondary characters or sub-plots, remember, you only want the most essential portions of your novel. This will also ensure you have a clear picture of your protagonist and antagonist.

ISSUE: The issue is often written in the form of a question and covers the main issue the court is trying to decide. Think about the main point of your novel and place your theme here. For example: Is life predestined or can free will alter our future?

FACTS: This section is comprised of the facts of the case and a general overview of how the plaintiff and defendant wound up, first in court, then in appeals court. When used for a story-line, this section will contain some back-story on how your protagonist and antagonist came to be rivals. What each party wants and how they intend to defend their positions.

RATIONALE: This is a summary of as many as forty to sixty pages of why the court made the decision it made. For your story, the rationale is a general roadmap of your plot arc. The beginning, the slow rise to the climax, then the climax. You want to show the reasoning behind your protagonist and antagonist’s actions.

HOLDING: This is the court’s final decision; however, in your story, the holding will represent your ending or the denouement.

Of course, feel free to change the headings anyway you want to, but this should give you a very simple road map of how your story unfolds.

What about you? How do you manage those sloppy beginnings?


About T. Frohock

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15 Responses to narrowing the focus on your novel

  1. Um…I’m a pantster who’s trying not to panic at your post, although it’s really lovely, ‘n’ all.

    Seriously, I had no idea you possessed legal training. *boggles* What you say makes sense, but I’d have to fill it in retroactively. I try to follow emotional logic and what I understand of human nature, but once I have a setup that involves a story question or conflict, it gets worked out through the writing.

  2. Donna says:

    Wow, thanks for this!

    My characters tend to write themselves, but I find that resumes and a list of events helps tremendously. i’m going to try this. Plus this is also useful as my next hero is a lawyer. It’s a good enough place to start getting used to the jargon. 🙂

  3. Ooh, this is nice & concise! Thanks!!!

  4. erikamarks says:

    What a great post–my brother is right now studying for the bar so this was a treat to read–I’ll have to share it with him. And what a clever way to rethink revisions…new ideas are always an inspiration–it’s a process that is always challenging, no matter the system you employ, I’ve found.

  5. Julie Musil says:

    I love this clear summary of narrowing our focus. Thank you!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it Julie.

      @Erika, I got my degree in paralegal technology and worked in the field for a few years. Good luck to your brother on the bar exam!

      @Laura, thanks!

      @Donna, I’m glad it helped. I think sometimes a brief cheat-sheet can help even the most dedicated pantster.

      @Jan I think everybody writes differently. I used to be a pantster until I converted to an outliner. It just works better for me, especially in the beginning of my novel where everything is so fuzzy. It is also a massive time saver considering I have to budget my every second when it comes to writing time. 😉

  6. Kelly Bryson says:

    My little 8 page outline and a few pages on the main characters is enough to get me started. I’m doing more research- that takes a lot of reading since my WIP requires some knowledge of ancient civilizations. Soon, it will start slicking, I hope!

    • Kelly, your outline was great. I do research the whole time I’m writing my novel. If I waited and did all my research first, I’d probably never get started. 😉

      However, like you, I do have to do a lot of preliminary research before I can get a real feel for my characters and setting.

  7. Lua says:

    I used to read legal briefs like this all the time when I was in law school and now use them for my WIPs as well 🙂 They are really helpful- and I thought nothing good could have come from studying law!

    • Hi Lua, I’m not even sure why this popped into my mind, except that I was having a hard time coming up with a hard line focus for my next book. I needed to put it under the microscope and this worked out really beautifully for me so I thought I’d share. 😉

  8. kat magendie says:

    You know about my “black hole” brain – however, I do like seeing if I can fit what you have so intelligently and interestingly crafted here for what I’ve written or am going to write. I like to see if I can kind of answer the questions: Who is protag/antag (even if the antag is sometimes the main character herself in some ways! or ghosts come bothering her, or nature or place)…. Issue is a little more difficult, but probably not really – sometimes in literary fiction those fuzzy lines are harder to make clear, but the line is still there all the same:

    Genre fiction: Big arse tomato comes to a small town and kills people
    Literary fiction: when Betty Lou looks out her window as she lies dying, she sees an angry tomato rampage the little town; Betty Lou has to make existential decisions . . . will she leave her husband, travel to Italy, forgive her father, find what she has always required before she dies? . . .etc etc etc
    *laughing* or something like that . . . 😀

    Anyway — I love how you see things, T

    • Hey, Kat!

      I like what you had to say about the antagonist is sometimes something within the protagonist. That’s an excellent point, and a lot harder to pull off than a male/female antagonist.

      I adore your definitions of genre and literary fiction! You’re dead-on! 😉

  9. Glynis Smy says:

    Another interesting post, thanks Teresa. I research for each character or chapter, depending on what it is I need to know at the time. I could never research and then write.

    PS: Something awaits on my blog for you.

  10. jenniferneri says:

    beginnings are my largest struggle… first novel i have re-written the beginning countless times and I’m still not happy with it. It became too literary, something disjointed from the rest of the novel. My problem is that it was born with a prologue that I cut, that left me hanging, and I’m still trying to find something to latch onto.
    My current wip opened on an appropriate scene. then with edits, i added in the dimensions that it needed. fun post, Teresa!

  11. lawrenceez says:

    Hi, I generally write, then choose a section for the opening at a later point

    Some good ideas, though. It’s important to deal with the Parties and Issues before putting pen to paper.

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