Source of the following article Persuasive Litigator.

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

Most of us are now entering our second week, or longer, of isolation to maintain social distance, limit transmission, and help “flatten the curve” of the current Coronavirus pandemic. For lawyers, of course, that generally means working from the home office. For others, though, it can mean days of “Netflix and chill.” And what are people watching during this disaster? While you might not expect it, they’re watching disaster movies, and in particular, movies about contagious pandemic infections are surging in popularity. Movies with titles like Outbreak or Containment are trending highly, and a movie called Contagion was the third most popular title on iTunes last week, even though the movie is from 2011.

Why? At a time when it might seem more psychologically healthy to tune into the escapism of a Hollywood musical, what is the allure of medical disaster movies? It could be a resort to black humor, an attempt to prove our toughness, or just morbid fascination. It could be a route to a comfortable “Things aren’t that bad (yet)” kind of feeling. But I think that there is another reason why this genre of movies has a pull, and it is a reason that helps us to understand a bit more about the ways in which we are narrative creatures at heart. And understanding that, in turn, informs our understanding of how we should be telling stories in trial. In this post, I will share what I think the real reason is and discuss the implications for your case narrative.

The Appeal of Disaster Movies Comes Down to One Word: 

Any understanding of narrative begins with the idea that it is not just sequence. A linear presentation of “this happened…then this happened…then this happened” isn’t received as a story unless it also contains some of the recognizable narrative elements: protagonists, conflict, resolution, a story arc. The genre of disaster films, in particular, has a common and recognizable structure:

  • Life is normal,
  • Then there is a disruption,
  • That disruption escalates to a crisis point,
  • Then the crisis is resolved,
  • Eventually, things start to move back toward normal.

That is a comforting sequence. Particularly, the final stages of resolving the problem and putting things back in order creates a feeling of closure and control. Even those darker disaster stories that omit the return to normal will still often highlight the themes of persistence and survival that provide a kind of reassurance.

So, my theory is that the reasons people would chose to watch a disaster movie during a disaster is that they want the narrative comfort of seeing people cope with it and ideally, solve it.

So, What Is the Closure in Your Case Story?

So, if closure is the motivator to the story, then storytellers in court should ask what their closure is. Trial lawyers — particularly those who wrongly assume that just because they have a timeline, they have a story — may not even give thought to that part of the story, but it is critical. For a plaintiff’s attorney, it is usually the damages themselves that are the closure to the story, the factor that will set things right again, or at least move to balance the scales. For a defendant, the sought-after closure to the story is the social message, conveyed through the verdict, that the defendant did nothing wrong. Or perhaps, part of the story is that the closure was reached earlier. For example, in an employment case, the defense might argue that the company already got to the right result, and that the lawsuit is just an echo, or an attempt to rewrite history.

Ultimately, it makes sense for both sides to look for that closure, and ask, what fixes the disruption? What returns things closer to normal? What ends the disaster?


Thanks for reading. I am a litigation consultant (bio here) specializing in mock trial research (including online research!), witness preparation (including VC prep!), jury selection, and case strategy, generally (but not always) in high-value civil cases. If you have a comment, a request for a future topic, or a concern about a current case, contact me now.

Other Posts on Narrative: 


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