March 10, 2014

Researching for Your Screenplay? Here Are a Few Things to Think About

If you have ever written a screenplay before, or are in the process of writing one, chances are you've put in your fair share of research into the world you're reproducing on the page. Research -- is no joke. More often than not, a screenplay is going to require many weeks, if not months of fact-wrangling and study to turn you into the pseudo-expert you need to be to aptly tell your story. Lucky for us, Raindance has shared a bunch of tips on how to approach this sometimes tedious, but vital step in the screenwriting process.

Raindance shares 6 "rules" on how to go about researching for your screenplay, and I've shared a few of them below.

Figure out what you want to write about first

Some of us out there are total nerds and legitimately enjoy studying things. That can really work for your benefit when it comes to learning about what you're writing about, but if you're a big procrastinator (like me), this can actually be a detriment. When researching for your screenplay means never actually writing your screenplay, I think it's safe to say that it's time to stop researching and get busy writing.

That’s why I recommend you never start your screenplay research before knowing what your story is about, or at least “what” you want to write about, such as elephant poaching in Kenya, or a rogue agent in the CIA. First, write down a short outline so that you know what you actually need to research. Doing research in the hope that a story will come knocking at your door is a sure-fire way to wander in the dark for a very long time. You’ll just end up being a PhD candidate on a subject but still without a story to tell.

(Now, this rule works just as well inversely: Research what you want to write about before you write about it -- or get too attached. You might find that you've bitten off more than you can chew, or want to chew, with your subject matter.)

Develop a system

It's easy to get lost in the labyrinth that is story research. Not only that, but it's easy to lose the link to that amazing article that opened your eyes to the psychology of your character, or the title of that documentary that showed you the prison system from the inside. Treat researching for your screenplay like school -- get a notebook, folder, whatever -- set a place aside for all of the data that you're compiling, and keep it well-organized for when you need to reference it.

Get a notebook or your I-Pad, compile a list of facts you need to research and use it as a roadmap to save time.

You might want to compile a list of Wikipedia entries you need to check out as preliminary research, followed by movies and TV series that are good references for you story and its particular genre. Oscar calibre screenplays would ideally feature on your list as well so that you can be inspired by brilliant writers who are experts in that particular world.

Become a mini-expert but don’t write a textbook/manual

It should come as a relief to know that you do not need to be an expert on whatever you're researching -- at least it doesn't have to show on the page. Personally, I work better when I know every aspect about the subject I'm writing, but I know that 99% of the facts and figures I learn will not end up in the screenplay itself. In most cases, it shouldn't, because it could weaken the story. Instead of your audience making an emotional connection with the characters, they'll be busy processing your facts.

Remember, chances are that your audience knows just as much about the subject of your screenplay as you did when you first started out, so don't feel like you need to weigh yourself down trying to get the verisimilitude exactly right. However, there's a balance. Research is there to make your story's elements real enough to not be distracting, but not so cumbersome that it never gets written in the first place.

Refrain from cramming all the knowledge into your script just because you know it and don’t add scenes just for the sake of showing off your knowledge. Don’t overload it with scientific facts to the point that the story gets lost or it reads like a manual. The story and the emotions come first. Always.

Be sure to check out Raindance's article to get the rest of their helpful tips on researching for your screenplay.

What do you think? How to you tackle the giant beast that is research? Do you have a specific workflow that you swear by, or any resources that are especially helpful? Let us know in the comments!

[Book image by Flickr user Andrei.D40]

Link: 6 Rules of Screenplay Research -- Raindance

Your Comment

14 Comments

Your research for this article* was incredible**.
*Cliffsnotes of another article.
**Unhelpful

March 10, 2014 at 10:46PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Pualubo

@Pualubo lol

March 11, 2014 at 2:27AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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JAYE

Well, it is too rude, man. I mean, if somebody really needed research paper assistance and found it in this article? Yes, it could be not the greatest one, but still. Instead of being rude, just be happy, that your level of writing is far higher than this article's author. Remember: everyone is different, so somebody might like this guide!

July 4, 2017 at 8:36AM

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Evernote. nuff said.

March 10, 2014 at 10:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Harry

I write the story I want to write then go back and fact check. It's best to get a throw up draft in before refining with facts, character depth, etc. At least for me anyway.

March 11, 2014 at 2:14AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Wikipedia.

March 11, 2014 at 2:30AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

Do it like Hemingway and you'll write a better script

March 11, 2014 at 8:02AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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shaun wilson

I'm writing fiction, who cares about facts?

March 11, 2014 at 3:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Bertzie

Danny Strong, is that you?

March 11, 2014 at 4:50PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

The best research is first hand research. Whenever possible I try to distant myself from google and get out there into the real world and immerse myself into my project.

Right now I'm working on a film titled "Dreaming in Autistic Colors" about a misunderstood autistic man who is committed to a mental hospital where he rallies fellow patients to produce a movie, but is met with opposition by Nurse Mara, a tyrant control freak.

The story was inspired by a true story so my first step of research was simply hanging out with Michael Gimson, the inspiration of the story. I think whenever possible you as the writer should spend time with your real life version of your character or someone as close to them as possible. You'd be surprised how willing a person would be to be the inspiration for your story.

Next I do my best to familiarize myself with the environment my story takes place in. Reading an article on a mental health facility isn't nearly as effective or productive as visiting one personally. Most hospitals will allow you to set up a tour of their facilities through their public relations department.

March 11, 2014 at 7:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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And I was wondering what the hell were JJAbrahms, Darth Vader and Yoda doing at Taco Bell the other night...

March 11, 2014 at 8:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Fernando

Hands-on is the way Tony. Agree!

March 13, 2014 at 1:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I'm currently in research mode for my film. Which I decided is going to be a contained thriller -- so I'm squeezing the most out of that genre. Studying emotion, timing, cinematic space, and other elements that will help me keep the film alive and entertaining in a constricted space. Films like Rear Window, Buried, Phone Booth, Locke, Non-Stop...and more come to mind. So I add them to my watch list, read their screenplays, listen in on how the creators approached it.

As hard as it is for me, I'm strictly on a read - watch - write plan. It's working. But still have no story to go with it... So am I working backwards?

March 13, 2014 at 1:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I think people underestimate the importance of the script. I believe that spending time researching the script upfront can save lots of time on the back end.

March 13, 2014 at 3:35PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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