Research?! I thought screenwriting was meant to be fun!
5. Make research your BFF, pt. 1
Research is fun. We know, the word “research” makes you think of boring stuff. It sounds like it shouldn’t have any place at the movies. Guess what, you. Yeah you, writing that hospital drama without a shred of research, just imagining what those doctors and nurses would sound like.
Let me guess – your “research” is watching other films & TV about hospitals and you’re essentially regurgitating everything from there? Of course you are. Everyone does it, and every script reader and producer can always tell. But don’t worry your little cotton socks off. We’re gonna teach you how to research like a boss and make your script sound goooooood.
Your favorite movies & TV are backed by tons of research
In Martin Scorsese’s Silence, he had a research binder fatter than a KFC bargain bucket. We want you to have a love affair with your research – and love it as much as that bargain bucket (sorry, vegans). Even fantasy stories like Game of Thrones require a ton of research.
Even fantasy and science fiction are based on real things – just with a fantastical twist to make them special. GoT’s setting is similar to medieval England, so the writers researched how people lived, hunted for food, and discussed battle plans – then slapped a dragon or three into the mix and made the show a whirlwind of fire-breathing awesomeness (even if Dany loses track of the dang dragons like every 5 minutes).
What good is research for my writing? Just give me the keyboard already.
Here’s a little secret for you: research gives you story. Use Google like it’s never been used before, read articles, watch interviews and documentaries, read books, read the news, read everything.
Hang around the kinds of places in which your story is set and perceive how people talk to each other: the lingo, the topics, the body language. Get the official name for that crime your character gets arrested for to make the hardboiled detective sound authentic. Ask a real doctor what real-life illness could possibly cause your character to die in that deadly vat of (fictional) baked beans!
Before you know it, your scenes will be rich with succulent authenticity. Anyone who reads them will subconsciously suspend their disbelief, because your script reads as plausible. That’s the aim. You want to work so hard on every tiny detail that the reader never gets the feeling that “something isn’t right”.
Research solves most writing problems
The brain works in mysterious ways. If you absorb all this information, when the time comes to write your script and you need to come up with an authentic scene, your brain will connect the dots like dominoes, extracting even the most obscure tidbits of information you forgot you even knew (like those freaky pills in Maniac).
That niggling feeling of “something isn’t right” is poison to a reader, who will stop caring and struggle to stick with your script to the end. Readers often can’t quite pinpoint why this feeling arises, just that it’s definitely there. Every single line in your script’s dialogue and action must be sweated over as if that single line is the entire script. This is what prevents a reader from getting that dreaded feeling of “offness”.
Whenever you’re writing a certain detail and you’re struggling with realism, it is entirely natural to let yourself off the hook and fudge it. We’re here to tell you that each time you do that, you’ve popped another bullet in your foot. You’re so much better than that!
Proper research gives you automatic discipline
Each time you allow yourself that space to be unrealistic, imagine yourself dropping one spot further down the reader’s list of quality writers. Writers make it because they never let themselves off the hook. Research until your eyes go square (although don’t put off writing forever) and make yours the smartest script in the pile.
Want to know how to research your story into a state of deeply authentic bliss? Watch the video above and dig into the homework below. Seriously . . . what are you waiting for?
It’s time to get organized. We greatly prefer digital research tools rather than dusty paper, greasy pens, and index cards, but if that works for you, we hear ya. Here are our favorite online tools for organizing your research:
If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard of Evernote, here’s a quick debrief. The app is an online organization tool in which you can share your great ideas, favorite articles, documents, images, videos . . . you name it! Everything can be categorized to your liking and you can create collaborative boards with your friends they can add to on the go.
Trello is the ultimate workflow organizer that works in the visual way we screenwriters think. Once you start with Trello, we warn you all other scheduling tools may look inferior. In fact, we just gave away a bunch of notebooks because Trello does that job so well.
This app allows you to organize your projects in workflow lists and drag cards through the various stages of your project. You can organize everything in your screenwriting process, from arranging interviews, to storing articles, to scheduling films and TV you need to watch.
Here’s an example of a board you can use to help organize your process. Feel free to copy this board and use it to plan your screenplay.
Are you just an old-fashioned guy/gal?
Like to keep things old school? Here are our tips for the traditional screenwriter.
- Go to the stationery store and buy yourself a nice folder with paper, file dividers, hole punches, highlighters, and those plastic folder thingies.
- Do web searches on every single thing you can find on your subject.
- If it has even the slightest impact on your understanding on the subject, go to the library and print that sucker! Get it in the folder. (Bonus points if you actually still own a printer.)
- Highlight the most important parts.
- Hey! While you’re at the library, see what books you can find. Find anything pertinent in any of those books? Scan and print that MF.
- Send at least 5 emails to people you think could be of use to your story, and ask to interview them. Tempt them with coffee, or if they’re busy, just make it a short phone call. (Make sure you specify it’s for a film you’re writing, or you’ll just be a stranger asking them out on a date.)
- If it’s appropriate, ask if you can record the interview – you’re very interested in this person’s opinion and don’t want to forget anything.
- Taking physical notes is also fine. If you take notes, make sure you store them in the folder!
Lists are friends
- Download the app List for Writers.
- Make some organization lists pertaining to your project.
- Use the app to add thoughts and ideas every time you get a new one. Eventually, you’ll have a goldmine of information to build your characters from.
Come back to your movie titles. Do you still like them? Take a poll of your three favorite choices with your family & friends.