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Monday, October 30, 2023

Of Wrong and Write

The sandstone courthouse stood high above the street, its doorway a yawning mouth framed by towering columns. Inside, steam heat blasted, radiators clanked and high heels clattered over worn black linoleum. As prospective jurors, we were herded into the courtroom where we gazed at the brown-tinged windows filtering light high overhead. Looking out we could only see sky. Bailiffs hollered names and numbers. We sat as directed on wooden benches while two opposing attorneys selected the jury.

It was a murder trial, I was elected a juror and without going into grisly details, it was the time I first learned the meaning of the word nuance.

For five days we listened to testimony while the suspect sat across from us, his face an expressionless profile, arms folded across his chest, legs shackled in silver chains. I couldn’t help thinking that a long time ago, this man was a baby who likely cooed and laughed. Now he stood accused of murder. Later, the prosecuting attorney provoked a similar sentiment when he circulated the high school picture of the seventeen-year-old victim. That photo replaced the horror pictures we had already seen with the vision of a lovely high school student, turning her into the girl next door, you know, the one your brother had a crush on.

After the closing statements, the jury sat around a dark stained table. A stocky white haired man slammed his hand down, convinced of guilt at the offset while the rest of us were determined to use all manner of fairness before reaching any conclusion. If we were to convict, there were three statutes under which the suspect could be found guilty. Two were obvious, one, more obscure and as we analyzed evidence we needed clarification on the third statute. Tearing a sheet of paper from a yellow legal pad, our foreman jotted, “Can we get a copy of the statute for Felony Murder?” and handed it to the bailiff to deliver to the judge. Shortly, the bailiff knocked on our door and instructed us to return to the courtroom.

Winding our way single file down a dimly lit hallway, we entered the courtroom, slid into squeaking wooden seats and gazed toward the bench. 

The judge spoke. “The jury has requested a copy of the statute of Felony Murder. This building has no copy machine therefore I cannot fulfill the request. The jury may return to the deliberation room.”

Nuance. Twelve members of the jury sat back at the rectangular table, flabbergasted that the antiquated courtroom didn’t house a copy machine, and due to the meticulous requirement of our legal system, that meant the judge could do nothing more than respond to our request the way it was written. As a group, we were irritated. We'd used the wrong word and we couldn’t move forward.

That experience, which occurred many years ago, reminds me of writing. The law leaves no room for leeway, and yes, perhaps writing offers more. But in the end, it’s in the details, the fine distinction, the exactness in which you form a sentence that leads the reader on, convinces them, and tantalizes. The wrong words shut a reader down just as one wrong word stopped the jury cold. “He walked down the hallway” provokes a yawn of boredom, whereas a sentence like, “Scuffing his feet, he ran his ruler across the beadboard paneling. We could hear him getting closer with each click,” makes the reader ask who “he” is and where is he going.

As a jury, we spent several more careful hours discussing the case. When that word copy derailed us, we moved to another part piece of testimony. We knew that the one word was an issue, but rather than waste time on it, we worked together to draw a clearer picture of other details related to the case, the same way when stuck, a writer moves on to a different part of the story.

When we were close to a verdict we returned to the word copy, sending a second note back to the judge: “Could you please read us the statute on Felony Murder?" Once again the bailiff knocked on the door and escorted us down the hallway. Again we took our assigned seats and waited expectantly for the judge. After reading our question out loud, the judge opened a thick, leather bound book and read the statute. The jury returned to the deliberation room. Within an hour, we had a verdict.

The right words will bring you home. When has a single word or scene stumped you?


Tabitha Bird said...

single words often stump me. I insert... something... and come back to it. And scenes that stump me just make me plain mad. I mean, how dare they! :) Love the scene you describe with the jury. Relates well to writing.

Tamika: said...

This is a great analogy. The trick I'm using now is to highlight the word and move on. It will never come to me on the first try most times.

The art of fluid writing is my aim. You have given a much needed reminder. Single words form complete opinions.

Happy writing!

Ginger B. (Barbara) Collins said...

Thanks for the excellent example of the power of a single word to bring action to a screeching halt. The thesaurus is my best friend, along with any other book that determines the the correct word choice for clear communication.

Ginger B.

ib said...

Liza, I am stumped by words daily. I write, proof, write, re-proof everything that I post. It is tedious. I am normally happy with the finished product but after clicking the post button, I reread the piece and think of a better way I could have worded it originally. I hate the thought of feeling inferior but it is normal for me in the writing game. I'm never satisfied with the words or phrases I use.

jabblog said...

How very interesting. I love the analogy. l never did jury duty, much as I would have liked to . I think!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Great analogy and excellent words you used to recreate that moment in time!

Joanne said...

Words matter. Nuance is the lifeblood of writing. You just gave a master class. Thank you

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Liza - I was called up as I was about to leave the country for South Africa - so I never had the chance. Fascinating story you've given us - clever ... really informative - cheers Hilary