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How to Limit Extensive Research for Your Screenplay

Have you ever spent months or even years doing research for your story? Have you ever felt that you have a great story idea and you just need to do a little research to get more ideas, get the facts, get the time period, etc.? Then after all that time spent researching all you have it a cluster of facts and no real story. There is a more efficient way.

Why do we do extensive research?

Because it's a good excuse NOT TO WRITE your story.

How much research is enough?

If you spend more than two weeks and more than the gas to your nearest library, that's too much. Who wants to spend their time researching when you could be writing?

What about writing science fiction, period pieces, historical events and biographies?

You can't write a story without having one. Excluding biographies, gathering research material is just going to give you a bunch of facts and after you write your story it will read like a manual.

If you're writing about aliens, the renaissance period or the civil war-you're not really writing about those things. They're just genre and tone. What you're really writing about is people.

If you're writing about Shakespeare... that's a person and it would take a different research approach. Writing a screenplay based on someone's life would require heavier research and heavy event editing. You still need to create the story you want to write, but this approach would take another article to detail.

What comes first, the research or the story?

The story!

Whether you're writing a period piece, science fiction, heavy industry-related stuff, period, or historical stuff, the story always comes first.

Let's say you've decided that you want to write an original story about the civil war. That's a broad subject. You don't know much more about it then movies you've seen or textbook lessons.

So where do you begin your research? The library... the Internet... the bookstore...

None of the above. The best place to start is to ask yourself a few questions.


Okay, I have the civil war backdrop, but what do I really want to write about?

--A love story... maybe a Union troop falls in love with a southern woman whose family is confederate?
--A man's struggle against his demons... maybe a gung-ho adolescent goes against his father's dying wishes, joins the army, kills hundreds in the name of the Union, but finds peace with himself in the end.
--A friendship... two opposing men from different backgrounds meet in the trenches and learn to respect each other's differences.

It could be anything. Remember, this is a story about people, not the civil war. A story needs people. People need their own story. You're not writing a documentary with a bunch of stale facts. You're writing a story that you want people to shell out $8.00 to see. That means it has to be personal.

So, you choose the love story. Next, you need to create these characters. You can make their inner personality and traits whatever you desire or need, because people's desires are universal. However, remember that the facts about the war and the society in which your characters live should be accurate.

Now you have a story premise (Great love conquers the conflicts of warfare) and a backdrop (The civil war). Next you need to work out who are main characters are.

What are the main characters' journeys? If he is to fall in love with a woman of the south, you can start developing his character. Opposites are used because they work. So, he is adamantly opposed to slavery. Her family owns four slaves. Maybe he's trying to live up to his father's high expectations. She can do no wrong in her father's eyes. He's engaged to a woman from a well-to-do family because it elevates his family's social status. Her family is financially well off, but are losing everything due to the war. What do they have in common? Secretly, they both want to be loved. The first thing on his mind is to become a hero; the last thing is to fall in love. The first thing on her mind is saving her family and surviving the war, the last thing is to fall in love with her enemy.

Next thing to develop is the timeline. If you're going to get two people to fall in love, they have to interact. So maybe you'll introduce your hero in his northern environment, quickly get him into the frontlines, and settle him in the south for the bulk of the story.

Maybe your main character is promoted and sets up a command post using a confederate house-your love interest's house! Here he gets to know her and falls in love, causing conflict between his love and his duty. He could grow to know her, meet the slaves and see things from a totally new point of view. The slaves fear freedom because they don't know any other way of life. Maybe she's hiding her wounded father in the attic and your hero finds out about it. Maybe he's ordered to burn the house and move forward. All sorts of conflicts could happen.

From here you can work out your main plot points.


The point is that you need to develop your story-fully-having written an outline or even a rough draft before researching.

As you write your story, keep notes or blank spaces at the points that you absolutely need to research. Once you're done with an outline or draft, you'll realize that there really isn't much to research. You may need terminology, actual places, mood, tone, and certain events. Maybe reading about a battle scene might help with your battle scene.

The bottom line is that you now have your complete story. So now when you do your research it will be specific and take less time. And most importantly your story and characters will be organic and not read like a textbook.

You can apply these principals to any original story that you think is too big or needs a lot of research.

© Script Fly 2010


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