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Screenwriting Structure Series Part 5: Research

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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You might be wondering WHY I'm slamming screenwriting structure and research together... Well I can only tell you how I do it and what I tend to do prior to writing any part of a screenplay is research but I also like to research as I pull my structure together.

Research is a powerful way to get the old synapses firing on all cylinders and getting you to ask all the right questions about your story. I'm a huge list-maker. As I simply THINK and ponder about my story, hundreds if not thousands of questions pop up along the way and just about every one of those questions requires me to do some kind of research EVEN if that research is simply to search through my own memory bank.

I tend to think of research similar to being a salesman. Meaning that in sales, most sales organizations will tell you that knowing your product INSIDE and OUT is 90% of the battle - if a salesman knows his or her product inside and out i.e., well enough to be able to answer ANY QUESTION that might spill out of a prospect's mouth, 90% of the sale is OVER.

I think the same is true of screenwriting, structure, and research.

Does that mean you'll automatically write a breakout spec screenplay?

Uh... No. That's something only YOU can keep developing within your own talent hemisphere. Sure, you can learn all the tricks. Sure you can learn all about structure. Sure you can research your story elements till the cows come home but in the end - if your dialogue sounds stiff and your action is too easy on your Protagonist...


There seems to be a huge school of thought that tells most of us that YOU CAN DO TOO MUCH RESEARCH.



Says who?

How much is TOO MUCH?

The same school of thought seems to tell us that too much is so much that you're not writing your screenplay... Huh? What kind of answer is that? Is this school of thought telling us not to get lost in doing so much research that we never put pen to paper? Fingers to keyboard? Crayons to construction paper?

Because let me tell you... I am by no means a intellectual, academic, guru, expert, etc. on anything except maybe how to piss people off. But by God I know how to open a book and perform a search on the net. Yet, when I read screenplays, it seems that many of the writers do not know how to do these same exercises. Why? I guess because THEY ARE ALREADY EXPERTS on their story elements.


I'm not telling you that you have to spend a specified amount of time researching your story elements. In fact, this would be a ridiculous thing to do because as you write your story - if you're like most of us - something's going to come up that requires even more research.

So how much is enough?

Just enough to allow you to start writing. Whew. Very subjective when you consider all the experts we have out there. But if you're a good salesman and you're even just a little rusty on your product knowledge, a good salesperson always does a little brushing up. In other words, they KNOW when they need it and wow... That's why they're good salespeople.

Many screenwriters on the other hand, seem content to let OTHERS work out the story element problems for them. I've actually had screenwriters whose scripts I've read and then communicated to them that their knowledge of whatever subject matter is severely lacking turn around and ask me, "Isn't that your problem?"

Uh, no. That's YOUR problem.

You don't turn in a period piece to me and then mention something that happened thirty years later. You don't give me a location that didn't exist at that time. That's just plain old sloppy writing and nobody should HAVE to fix that...

Except YOU.

You don't tell me that your Protagonist is bitten by a specific kind of poisonous snake and then proceed to detail INCORRECTLY, all the symptoms your Protagonist is experiencing. God forbid you get off your ass and open a book or call a doctor who's treated someone with the correct symptoms. LOL. That's much too difficult and besides, you've got your day job to worry about. You've got a wedding to go to this weekend. You're just too damn tired.

There's also two schools of thought when it comes to story and research - which comes first? Some say the research - some say the story. I think that's the wrong way to think about it. They go together like Butch and Sundance. You get an idea for a story, you work out a few plot points (probably in your head right off the bat), do a little research, the research causes other questions to come up - more plot point ideas, more research - and on and on and on.

But that's just me. First of all, I love learning about something I had no knowledge of PRIOR to doing the research so for me, it's fun. Others find it drudgery and I think what I like best about research is the authenticity it brings to the story and let's face it, how many movies today feel authentic?

Really? That many? LOL.

On the other hand, many other schools of thought tell you to just WRITE. Get going and get that first draft out of your system or at the very minimum, that outline and while I truly don't have a huge problem with that, I DO have a problem with it and it's simply this and it's just an observation. When I see writers begin a new story from a new idea, they're usually highly motivated in the beginning. They're excited. This is THE STORY! Wow. That kind of motivation gets me excited too! I love hearing a screenwriter tell me about their idea (even if it's not that great an idea) because even through a crappy idea, you can see the passion and inspiration that's fueling the fire. I love that!

However, keeping that inspiration and passion all the way through a first draft and then rebottling that inspiration and passion so you can go back and research all those story elements and perform a hardcore rewrite is a hard road to travel and the ROAD-WEARINESS usually shows up in successive drafts.

Sad but true.

If that has ever even slightly happened to you before, might I suggest performing your research up front as you create your structure? Keep the intensity and passion of creating a new story flowing.

With new inspiration, motivation, intensity, and passion combined with screenwriting structure AND story element research, I honestly believe that one uncovers more story opportunities that PULL YOU AWAY from cliché and derivative writing.

Next Article in series.

About The Unknown Screenwriter

A working screenwriter and producer, The Unknown Screenwriter makes his home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California and somewhere in the state of New Mexico with just a little bit of Los Angeles thrown in when he feels he can breathe the air.

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