The Trouble with Research…


Well, that’s not really fair to research. It’s actually a crucial step in creating a fully immersive world in your script. Could Mark Boal have written as dynamic a script for The Hurt Locker if he had just sat at his desk instead of traveling with soldier in the field? We’ve all had that experience of watching a movie and being pulled out of it by a glaring inconsistency.

On the other hand, when everything has been thoroughly researched the world created is so authentic the audience usually (and hopefully) doesn’t even notice.

It gets a bit overwhelming after a while.

My problem is that I love research too much. I am obsessed with getting every detail of a script exactly right. In one script I’ve written, not only did a character have cancer, but it was set in the 1980’s. So not only did I have to find out a kind of cancer would be appropriate for my story (life-threatening, but not debilitating), but I had to look up how that was treated in a time before I was even born. Or let’s say character is a big-shot who is all about image. I am not a car expert, so I am compelled to look up what kind of car he could afford and would fit in with his social scene.

I’ll be half an hour into writing, right in the middle of a scene or a stream of inspiration. But this need to know RIGHT NOW what prop is appropriate or how exactly social services would handle returning a child of abduction to their parent. Which totally breaks my concentration.

Cover of "On Writing" by Stephen King

But I was re-reading Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s a wonderful book that every writer — novelist, screenwriter, playwright — should have. Part scattered-memory memoir, part suggestion box, part inspirational survival story (it was started before he was hit by a car and nearly killed in  1999, and was finished as part of his mental recuperation after), all great. The best thing about On Writing is that, unlike many writing books, King doesn’t write in a condescending, “I have done this, so this is the path to success,” tone. Many people have asked him over the years about his process, so he wrote it down so that other writers could take from it what would work best for them.

In the third section, King identifies his 10 commandments of writing. And right there at number 9 is Research. And that it shouldn’t overwhelm the story. The story should always be first and foremost. Research serves the story by making the world whole and complete. But the first thing you should do is write the story.

All that research I get wrapped up in will serve no purpose if it gets in the way of actually completing the story. That is what I need to focus on. Table the things I don’t know, the information I want to confirm. Compile a list (including page numbers) of things I want to go back and check. Once I have the story in a first draft, that’s when I can have fun with all that time-consuming, nit-picky, delightful detailing of research.

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One thought on “The Trouble with Research…

  1. i love Stephen Kings book!!!

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