Thursday, January 18, 2007


We have to do it sometime, but should we let it get in the way of a good story?

As an unsold writer research uses up a lot of my writing time, time I think should be better spent getting the script into a good as state as possible. Obviously if you're writing a script about real life then some form of research needs to be done.

Let's say one of my characters is a firefighter, how much research should I do? Just enough to make it convincing, that's what I say. I know, that's a very ambiguous statement; how much is enough and how much is too much? Let me put it this way, if I was researching firefighters I would find out how many people were on a fire truck, what their specific jobs were, rankings, and times of shifts. I don't need to go into great detail, like what pressure the water is when it comes out of the hose, as I really only need enough information to cover the basics. For example, I don't need to know about pensions and death cover unless I specifically need this in the script, otherwise the research is unnecessary.

What I should be doing is thinking about the kind of emotions a firefighter might go through and if I can use them in the script. Getting the character right is more important than what diameter hose he's using on what fire. As long as I know a firefighter will use a hose, and the rough tactics he'll employ, to put out a fire I don't really need to dig any deeper.

However, when the script is sold you can afford to do more research on firefighters for the many rewrites you'll be asked to do. Research in this instance is fine and expected, and the more that is done the better the script. Otherwise, if you do a lot of research for your first draft you are using valuable time that should be used for writing. It's the writing that's important and not how much research has been done.


Olaf Legend said...

But do you not fine internet makes research less hard than going to bloody library on wet aftermidday in January? I think internet created just for screenwriters.

Good Dog said...

You make research sound like a real chore. Surely it bolsters your thinking and enhances any ideas.

Dom Carver said...

I don't think of it as a chore, more of a distraction and this is something most writers (especially new ones) can do with out.

potdoll said...

From my experience script editing, when a script isn't believeable it's usually because the writer hasn't done enough research. I think research feeds and enhances writing. Plus if you're doing real life research, such as going to spend a few days in the firebrigade, you inevitably are going to hear loads of stories and characters who can feed into present and future scripts or spark off other ideas. Surely you can't lose?

Optimistic_Reader said...

I think I sort of see what you're getting at here Dom... I would say for a first draft then just get it down on paper and if you find there's a scene you can't write without researching it properly then maybe just sketch it out till you get to the end of the draft. By then you'll know what you need to know. Researching loads before actually getting down to any writing can just be another way of procrastinating and you can end up with more information than you know what to do with. However, I don't agree with the idea of waiting till a script is sold before doing more solid research - because I don't believe you'll sell it if it isn't accurate. And readers will pick up on the fact that you haven't done your research. So I would certainly say get an idea of the story you want to tell first and get a rough draft out of the way but don't wait until after you've sent out a script before doing research. And as Potdoll says, you can find some great stories that will help your script. But I reckon if you've got a draft done you'll know what you can filter out and what might be useful.

Phillip Barron said...

I agree with Dom on this. You can immerse yourself in research for a year and write one script which is factually accurate; or write four in the same time which are reasonably accurate, certainly beyond the knowledge of the casual reader (unless they are firefighters).

To be honest, I'd be inclined to write the script, then give it to a firefighter to read. Let him tell you what's wrong for the second draft.

Alternatively, write sci-fi where you can do anything you want, it's your universe.

All firefighters in my universe are called Bob, wear pink uniforms and have eight noses - one for each day of the week.

There, that was easier than doing any research.

Lucy said...

I LOVE research and think any writer who doesn't want to do it is crayzeeee. New experiences (as Potdoll says) like going out with firefighters and police, both of which I've done, are AMAZING. I didn't actually use any of the stuff I learned about in the end 'cos I junked my (then) fireman project and made my policeman retired in my new spec, but it's given me a trillion ideas for other stuff and I have a bunch of outlines ready to go like some kind of scriptwriter squirrel. Yesss!

piers.beckley said...

If I don't know how things work, how can I expect the audience to believe?

And as to being able to do anything you want in SF - well, just no. That way you end up with Star Trek: Voyager.

Sure, you can set your own rules to an extent, but you can't break them.

Tim Clague said...

Jargon, facts and figures are one kind of research. I think character types and attitudes is another - and much more useful. What emotions DO firefighters have? How do they feel? How do they switch off? Understanding these things will inform your script and make it a better read.

For my medieval script I did some research that eventually changed the entire central character. Real history was more interesting that what I had imagined.

But I've yet to do my detailed research.

So I agree with you Dom. Don't do EVERYTHING but make sure you're picking the right things.