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By:  Erin Carrington Smith
University of Baltimore School of Law

One of the most common criticisms of movies today is that they are too formulaic. Whether it’s the predictable misunderstanding in a romantic comedy or the obvious triumph of a quirky protagonist, surprise endings are few and far between. But is that a bad thing? Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat!, would say no. Snyder developed a story writing method based entirely on what he sees as the formula for success. His method identifies 10 genres and 15 story-writing elements. That’s it. Every great story, according to Snyder, fits into this model. 

So, whether it’s Shawshank Redemption (Dude with a Problem), Frozen (Buddy Love), or Groundhog Day (Out of the Bottle), your favorite movie is more predictable than you think, and that’s probably why you love it. But why?

Uncertainty breeds anxiety, while predictability brings comfort. In fact, a recent study found that people’s stress levels are actually higher when they cannot predict an outcome than when they know for certain that something bad is about to happen. Indeed, even Phil Connors, the unlucky protagonist perpetually trapped inside Groundhog Day, eventually took solace in the expected and found ways to use it to his benefit. 

The same is true for legal writing. As lawyers, effective storytelling is essential. Thankfully, there is a useful set of storytelling elements available to every lawyer. Enter: CREAC. If this is your first exposure to CREAC, or you’ve blocked it out from your law school days, it stands for: Conclusion, Rule, Explanation, Application, Conclusionall the essential elements to creating an effective and engaging piece of legal writing and your true formula for success. 

Imagine you are representing Columbia Pictures and the writers of Groundhog Day in the actual copyright infringement suit brought by Leon Arden, author of a novel about a man trapped inside a repeating day. Faced with saving the good name of a great film, you must effectively articulate why there is no infringement here.

To begin, CREAC puts the conclusion and rule up-front. This ensures the reader knows exactly where the memo is going and how it will get there. In just a few sentences, these elements draw the reader in and set the focus of the memo. If your rule includes several elements, you’ll likely have a separate section for each. Focus your rule statement on the element you’re dealing with in each section and apply CREAC each time.

Conclusion: Columbia Pictures is not liable to Arden for copyright infringement because the similarities between Groundhog Day and Arden’s book, One Fine Day, are insubstantial. 

Rule: Copyright infringement requires the improper appropriation of a copyrighted work. To establish this element, a plaintiff must show that substantial similarity exists with respect to the particular expression of an idea. 

Next, the explanation section sets the stage. This section answers the questions: What does this rule mean and how has it been applied in ways that support my conclusion? Effective research will identify the most relevant cases, but the explanation section is your opportunity to use case law to paint a clear and indisputable picture of how the rule works in your favor. Do not mention your own facts in this section. Stick strictly with detailing how previous case law applied the rule at hand. 

Explanation: In Williams v. Crichton, Plaintiff alleged that Jurassic Park infringed upon his earlier works, a series of children’s books set in Dinosaur World.  

In this example, Williams lost his case because, despite having a strikingly similar general idea, the way the two works expressed the idea was too different for the court to find copyright infringement. Clearly explaining how the law applied in previous cases, like this one, is the foreshadowing that helps your legal narrative fall into place. 

Once you’ve done this, it’s time to move on to the most critical portion of CREAC the application section. This section answers the questions: How are my facts similar or distinguishable from those facts set out in the explanation section and why should the court apply the rule in my favor? This is the climax of your memo, where you can show definitively that the facts of your case fit perfectly within the legal framework you’ve just established.

Application: Here, like Williams, although both stories depict the same idea of a man trapped within a repeating day, the similarities cannot be classified as substantial. 

There are no surprises here. The reader knows where you’re going and how you’ll get there, so it’s just a matter of fitting the pieces together effectively. If Michael Crichton is not liable for copyright infringement in the face of a book series depicting a dinosaur zoo gone wrong, certainly Harold Remus, the screenwriter of Groundhog Day, will be off the hook for so uniquely (and brilliantly) using the idea of a man trapped inside a repeating day.

Finally, to drive things home, restate your conclusion. It may be predictable, but the story you told along the way makes the ending effective and satisfying. 

Conclusion: Because the idea of a man trapped inside a repeating day is not itself protected without a substantially similar expression of that idea, there can be no finding of copyright infringement against Columbia Pictures, et. al.

If readers were unsure in the beginning, they’re certain now. There’s no other way this story can end. By sticking to the elements of CREAC, you’ve effectively drawn your readers in and brought them exactly where they need to be. And now, as a master storyteller, you may even have a second career in screenwriting. After all, there’s always room for another great (but predictable!) courtroom drama.