Listen up fellow screenwriters. We’ve all been told to do background research before writing your screenplay. How much should you actually do?
Why Do Research At All?
Quite simply, it adds authenticity to your screenwriting. It lets your audience know they’re in good hands and your story is factually correct. That said, your research should augment your story, not replace it. You do have some creative license to create an emotionally satisfying story unless you’re writing a documentary.
What Should You Research?
This could be as simple as answering a specific question like how many Supreme Court judges there are or how long does a typical gallbladder surgery take. This factual research is important for procedural type stories.
Other research is broader, such as how do children in Amish communities speak to their elders or how are their communities organized?
Some research is more geared towards production design such as what did people wear in the 1920s or what were typical female hairstyles in the 1980s?
Know what you want to achieve in your research before you commence. Otherwise, you risk falling down a rabbit hole from which you may never return.
How Do You Conduct Research?
The simplest way is the internet or a visit to your local public library. If you want to know how much average rents are in Denver, Colorado, check out some local real estate websites. If you write characters in your screenplay complaining about the rents in terms of San Francisco prices, your audience will retreat because they will sense your figures are way off; particularly those from Denver, Colorado.
Many writers ‘SHADOW’ experts in a field. For instance, screenwriters who are working on police/ detective screenplays may do a ride along with police officers. They can discover what a typical day looks like, what radio crosstalk sounds like, how they respond to a call or how they arrest someone. This is an invaluable experience that can’t easily be gleaned from websites or online videos. Become knowledgeable in the are you want to write about. There is no need to gain a professorial understanding of every subject unless your film script warrants it.
If you are writing about an underground political movement, you may have to penetrate them undercover to find out how they operate, what their hierarchy is and their ultimate mission. The research process is invariably longer and more difficult to undertake.
When should you stop?
Not all research is created equal. Some screenwriters use research as an excuse not to write. Bad idea. Procrastination is a four-letter word. Other screenwriters continue to research well past the initial information required because they are intrigued by the subject material. Save your inquisitive mind for another time. I’ve met writers who over-research to impress their readers on how well-researched they are.
For instance, if you are writing a story about computer hackers, you only require minimal research to get a list of key terms the characters use so they sound like computer geeks. If you add unnecessary technobabble to your dialogue to impress your audience, you most likely will not.
If you are writing a story about the Civil War are, it pays to conduct more extensive research to help you write stronger and richer characters. Read books, look at photos. What were their fears, their concerns, their dreams, their reasons for their ultimate sacrifice to obtain liberty?
Even if you don’t use all the information you learn in your screenplay, it will never go to waste because it will inform the decisions and actions your characters take.
So there you go. Research, like all screenwriting tools, should be taken in moderation. Write informatively!