Respecting the process of research in screenwriting…

March 4, 2012 § 3 Comments

big booksThree types of research for your screenplay: Experience, imagination & reality.  I believe doing your proper research shows respect for the subject you are writing. It harkens back to my strong convictions about respect for the art and craft of screenwriting and being a professional.  Every aspect of your writing goes into your writer’s toolkit and you will draw upon these tools as your build and establish a career as a working screenwriter.  How many movies have you seen that feel completely inauthentic?  How many characters seem fake?  Quite a few and it’s hard to mask inauthentic writing.  This is why the best films come from a place of authenticity and it starts from the producer and screenwriter’s desire to get it right.

The fun part of being a writer is that your research is an ongoing process of venturing out into the world and living your life in an adventurous way. You constantly need to have new and different experiences to make your writing more truthful and creative. It helps to get out of your “comfort zone.” I don’t believe you can live in an ivory tower and write about life without ever really experiencing it from the gutter to the penthouse.  I believe any writer needs to stay open and curious about the world.  It’s our duty to experience life and fill our stories with truth and authenticity.

observe and be fully presentMaybe you’ve done research for a paper or report in college or high school and found the process frustrating and overly time-consuming.  The process is the same when crafting your screenplay, so if you haven’t mastered the techniques of research, you need to learn how to use the process as a tool in your ability to craft an authentic project. If you’re hired for a screenplay assignment, you might write about something you don’t know. Many of my screenwriting assignment jobs have been to write a particular genre — military action, family, holiday, science fiction, natural disaster, even noir crime thriller. You’ll need to watch and study films of a particular genre to become an expert on the story, structure and characters in the types of genre movies you might write. You’ll also need to read other screenplays in the genre to become an expert in that particular world.

So, how do you begin your screenplay research? You’ll need to have your basic story down first and as you compile your research, but make sure you don’t get lost in the process. As you know, us screenwriters tend to procrastinate, so don’t allow your research to keep you from writing your script. Make a list of specific issues or facts you need to research and use it as a guide to save time. The better you know your screen story, the faster you will be able to target the research topics as they will become clearer. Limit the time you spend on research, so set aside a block of time and keep to a schedule, take detailed notes and keep track of everything in a file or notebook. As you compile most of what you need to learn, switch the rest of your day to writing. Don’t waste unnecessary months, you can always go back and find specific items you need, but always get on with the process of screenwriting.

When I developed the basic story for my WWII coming of age screenplay, “I’ll Remember April,” I needed to flesh out the lives of the characters during this period in history. I needed historical details to add realism to my story. Authenticity was my mission, as I based my story on a historical military incident: The shelling of an oil refinery just north of Santa Barbara in Goleta, California by a Japanese submarine.  It was the first attack on United States soil by a foreign power since the War of 1812.

I already structured my screenplay and spent three months reading every book, historical newspaper article, magazine and watched dozens of films to get into the mindset of the months surrounding February of 1942 when my screenplay took place. I interviewed my parents who remember the war as small children and I incorporated their feelings and experiences into my characters. I interviewed my grandparents, who were the age of my lead characters during the war, for a different point of view. All of this information went into my research notebook.

I needed to know what life was like on the home front of the United States—what troubled people living on the west coast, what was going on in Washington DC, what was happening in the battles of the South Pacific where our lead character’s son was fighting, how people reacted to rationing and the war, and the facts and events leading up to the Japanese internment? These topics were necessary research to make my story more authentic. Your screenplay may never be a hundred percent authentic, as it’s a movie and not a documentary, but always service the story first and then do your best to make it realistic. If you want to write a historical screenplay, hunt for your story first and don’t let the historical facts to keep you from writing—for the Hero’s Journey dates back to the beginning of storytelling. I believe the little details are important and trust me, someone will always find inaccuracies in your movie and point them out on their blogs, customer reviews, or the Internet Movie Database!

What if you don’t have screenplay credits, how can you get others to take you seriously with your research? You’d be surprised how easy it is to get people excited to help once you tell them you’re working on a project. The more serious and professional you are about your writing, the easier it is to draw others in to help your cause. You’ll find experts are very open to sharing their knowledge and will even do interviews to help you make your screenplay more authentic.

Years ago when I was writing a spec action screenplay that took place on a supertanker, my writing partner at the time and I contacted a shipping company in San Pedro, California and told them we needed to get on board of a ship to ask questions for our research. We showed our serious interest in their world and in return, they were extremely helpful and gave us a complete tour—from the bridge down to the bowls of the rear engine room with its gigantic propeller. It was a unique experience and I would have never set foot on a supertanker if it hadn’t been for our need to do research.

As I mentioned earlier, you must use the three types of research for your screenplay: Experience, imagination & reality. Like the actor, I believe a screenwriter should go out of his or her way to log as many life experiences as possible to expand their writer’s arsenal. How can you possibly write about something and make it authentic without ever having experienced it? Sure, you can imagine what it would be like, but many times you get writing that isn’t authentic and is just a rehash of what you’ve either seen in movies or television. If you always write your stories from your unique perspective and experience, they won’t read or feel fake.

How many times have you written gunfire into your screenplay and maybe you’ve never really fired a gun? Well, I’ve written several action scripts where “guns were blazing” and I had never fired a gun before, so I figured it was time to do research and experience it for real. My friend invited me to a shooting range where I fired three different pistols and even put two bullets into the same hole in my paper target!  Here I was experiencing something I had only imagined, and now the awesome firepower was in my hands with spent shells ejecting from my own 9 MM — BLAM!  BLAM! It was a priceless experience. The target part actually ended up in a scene from one of my spec screenplays. The whole experience was a blast (sorry). Now I can write from experience and not just from what I’ve seen in movies or television. Your personal experiences make your writing more truthful and believable. Living a life of experience makes you a well-rounded person and it’s also a hell of a lot of fun too!

The ability to research is another important tool in your screenwriter’s arsenal.  When you can’t write from experience, you need to do research and become a mini expert on a particular subject or film genre. Don’t get distracted by the process, set aside a block of time, target your topics of research, take detailed notes and move on with the job of writing. As you live an authentic writer’s life, everything you do and observe is research for your writing. Make it your goal to pursue as many different experiences in life as possible—it will enrich your writing and your life.  Learn as much as you can about every subject and always strive to make your screenplays authentic.  Again, it’s all part having respect for the craft of screenwriting. (Written By Scriptcat—Mark Sanderson)

Follow me on Twitter (named as one of Screencraft’s 25 Screenwriters to Follow on Twitter) on the account @scriptcat – I’m also on Periscope & Vine.

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“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” —Stephen King

“… because the greatest writer in the English language wasn’t trolling for facts, he was hunting for the story.  He wasn’t writing a biography of Caesar (which would require real research), he was writing a play with characters and a theme that would speak to his audience.” —Steven Pressfield

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