Research for Writing Screenplays

Have you ever woken up in the morning and said to yourself ‘I want to write a screenplay today’? I know I have, quite often actually. There’s something special about placing words on paper and watching them turn into something magical. But, before you take your favourite pen and start writing, there are a few things you need to prepare beforehand, or at least think about.

First, do you have any idea what you want to write about? If you already have a rough line drawn in your head about what the subject is going to be, that’s great, because you’ve already done part of the work. So then, how can you proceed from here, and refine your vague idea into something worthy of attention? Well, as with anything really, you have to do some research.

Types of research

With regard to the complexity of the research, its depth and indeed its very purpose, the process can be split into two categories. First, there’s the hard research, the nuts and bolts kind of inquiry, which you should use when you’re looking for specific, concrete and objective facts. Who was Prime Minister in 1955? How many litres of gas can you fit into a Toyota Corolla? How does one operate on a patient with appendicitis? This sort of stuff; facts and figures and specific know-how which allows you to become a mini-expert in a certain field, with the purpose of integrating the learned particularities into your project

The other type of research is of a more qualitative nature, and is much less specific and considerably vaguer than the aforementioned process. This is more related to the undertaking of ‘finding’ your film ideas, and it’s a part of a very gradual process of integrating those ideas both with one another and with the overall context. Sometimes you might not know exactly what you’re looking for and two minutes later you might accidentally stumble upon something interesting, that will prompt you to enthusiastically exclaim ‘Oh! That works!’.

Sources

Depending on the type of research you want to embark on, you’ll have different sources at your disposal. For the hard, fact-checking type, you’ll want to look at reliable sources which are bound to supply you with the correct information. Whether this is Wikipedia, articles from an academic journal or an expert in a particular field, it’s up to you to make the best choice on a case by case basis.

For the second type of research, my only advice to you is to go about your life as you normally would, while keeping your eyes and ears peeled for anything interesting that might pop up. A news report which you overhear while in the waiting room of your dentist’s office might provide you with the right idea to carry on with your project, as might a conversation between the two people seated in front of you on the bus, or a banner ad you see on the street on your way to work. Just like creativity, potential sources of inspiration for ideas are almost infinite.

Make lists

The wonderful and equally annoying thing about the human mind is that it’s capable of coming up with absolutely magnificent ideas, only to completely forget them in an instant. Then you have to spend the rest of the day trying to relive the train of thought which might have led you to having that idea in the first place – and this process is destined to fail more often than not. Therefore, make it a rule to jot down any half-decent idea which crosses your mind, whether it’s an exciting plot twist, a particularly beautiful dialogue line or a song which seems to fit your agenda perfectly. I use a notepad, but you can also do it on your phone, tablet, computer, handkerchief, toilet roll – as long as it can be read sometime in the future, the idea is there, in the real world, as opposed to the complex and winding tunnels of your mind palace.

Talk to people

If observing indirect conversations did not quite cut it, get out in the world and get talking. Even if you’re writing your first screenplay and have no previous experience in the industry whatsoever, don’t worry about not being taken seriously. People love talking about stuff which interest them, so you shouldn’t have such a hard time getting them to share interesting insights with you. And it doesn’t always have to be an interview about something specific: next time you’re hanging out with a couple of friends, simply ask them what they think about this or that. You can decide for yourself if what they respond is usable or not, or whether it could potentially open new avenues you hadn’t thought of at all. This is the wondrous bit about screenwriting: you never know where the grand idea is going to drop from.

Happy writing!

Article written by Julian A. Leu for The Monthly Film Festival
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16.7.2017
 

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