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Limiting your research?


How to Limit Extensive Research for Your Screenplay

Although this article comes from a screenwriting website (as its title implies), most of the language suggests its argument is aimed at fiction-writers in general. Basically what it's saying is that you should start with your story or plot already in mind and do the research later.

Honestly I am not sure I completely concur with this. I agree that research, like world-building, can distract from the actual writing if overdone, and that's when it's not overwhelming. However, while the article implies that research is something that you can put off until after you write your first draft or outline, I have to wonder if there are cases where the story is dependent on a certain level of research in the first place. What if you hatch a story idea that turns out to be impossible in a given setting once you do the research?

For example, a few years back I once tried to write a story about a population of Polynesians who settled Antarctica and got attacked by the Japanese in WWII. Someone asked me, "How would the Japanese find fuel for their ships to get to Antarctica?" (I didn't even know ships in WWII needed any kind of fuel.) That one question ruined my entire premise no matter how awesome I originally thought it was.


Myth Weaver
I think I agree with what is meant but not necessarily with the way it is said...
If what the author means is that research is secondary to a good story then I agree.
If the story, character and plot aren't working, nothing will save you...
I don't really care if you are a bit generic and fuzzy with the facts of an event [even if in fantasy we tend to make a lot of the "facts" ourselves] as long as the story is good enough to pull me along... but if you are going to get specific then you had better get it right.
[Okay - American Civil War History - not really my strong point... but continuing on from the article]
Say someone was in the Union/Confederate army at the Battle of Bull Run and I have no problem with that.
Say they were in the 123rd Transylvanian Rifles at the Battle of Bull Run and that unit really should be there [or at least not somewhere else on the same day].
A few years' back I read a story about the first day of the Battle of the Somme [1st July 1916] and the writer had the troops mired in foot deep mud... it took me 30 seconds on line to find out that it was a warm summer's day with no real rain in the preceding week... dust was the problem, not mud... some research is essential if only for credibility...


According to On Writing Stephen King agrees with the basic idea of this article and I am inclined to follow his lead.

I think research is essential but not when it interrupts writing. Since I enjoy research, I do it when I wouldn't be writing anyway. Even just random research is a form of self education that can eliminate the need to look something up later when you're on a roll in your WIP.


Fiery Keeper of the Hat
It's important to remember that different people have different starting points and take different paths. Some people don't have the same general knowledge base or deductive reasoning going into their projects. And Stephen King didn't self-publish, or rely on a cheap crapshoot editor to catch his mistakes.

I think there's also different types of research. Looking up how far you can travel in a day is one thing. Having no idea what the Middle Ages looked like is another all together.

Audiences are also getting smarter, and landing a bad review because you didn't do your research can hurt.

I think a good question, that often gets ignored, is to ask how you should educate yourself, generally, instead of speaking about research as a thing that competes with your work. Grab a few books on your subject and read for an hour a week. That'll get you farther than wasting writing time on wikipedia, I think.


Concur with Devor regarding what the writer's base knowledge is. I've written medieval fantasy before with little time dedicated to research, but I've also been studying medieval history in proper, academic settings for nearly five years. I hardly need to spend time googling how politics worked back then when I've written theses on the subject.

Whether or not excessive research helps or hinders mostly comes down to the writer. There are some who spend decades doing their worldbuilding and taking notes on Nordic tapestry weaving, and it pays off. And others who never get a word on paper since they're too busy studying the subject instead. I've done 'blank drafts' of sorts, where I left a lot of details loose for me to fill in later once I'd done more nitty gritty work, but I still could write down a good layout of dialogue and character development and story without it. A lot of research is just flavour, after all.

Of course, sometimes flavour can change the whole dish. But there are worse things than an abandoned draft of a novel.


Frankly, I think that simple research is all that's need on most points but many screen plays / movies / TV shows fail at that.

Sure spending hours research one subject can procrastination but it is completely unacceptable not to check some basic facts. Ohio doesn't border Colorado. The entire world isn't in perpetual summer.

Writing then research is just fine. Not everyone needs to be an expert to put something in a story but basic facts seem to escape many screen plays. That's just not cool.

One of the basic tenets of writing fantasy I've always held to is that if you can take your story and put it in any setting then just set it in modern day. Setting needs to be part of the story if you can take a story and remove the setting and just be fine then you're doing it wrong.
Personally, I always have to do a certain amount of research before I start writing. I use research to build my outline for sure and when I'm feeling stuck on ideas for my next story. I agree that you shouldn't procrastinate on writing by researching, but I think the whole balance between researching and writing should depend on the writer.


Eehh research should be slipped into the story subtly unless it's really helping make sense of the plot. I feel like if it's obvious that the author is giving unnecessary trivia or too many little details about whatever subject the story is exploring, they're just showing off.


My take is that first you identify a general, or few general, areas of interests that you'll need to research and get an overview of these areas. After that you can start to decide which parts you'll need more detailed information about and do additional specific research after the needs of your story and/or interests.

But if you in your research found something which was very cool and you think could add a lot to the story but isn't part of the story itself right now, I'd say to change the story to incorporate this new stuff and see where it goes.