Issue 7: Lesson 7—Research (Part 4)

In our last two lessons, we covered the basics of historical research and interviewing. However, there are times when you might need to go even further and (metaphorically, at least) walk in your characters’ shoes. So, in this penultimate lesson on research, we examine techniques you might employ to take your fact-based screenplay to new heights of authenticity…

We’ve all heard about the method actors who go to great lengths to create their characters – from gaining/losing weight, to learning instruments, to taking on their character’s job. As a writer, you might also find that gaining a little real world experience might help you bring that fact-based story to life in a whole new way. Here are a few examples:

1. Walkabout: Sometimes, there’s no substitute for going to a place and walking around. Even with advances in technology that let you do a ‘virtual tour’ of different locations, if it’s feasible, why not take the trip in person? You’ll get a real flavour of the atmosphere and a feel for how your characters lived. Even if your script has a historical setting, you’ll probably discover the location has retained its historical roots and may have local museums or hold documents that contain information you can’t access elsewhere. Research some places you want to feature in your script and make sure you swing by while you’re in town.

2. Training Day: While it may not be practical to actually become a doctor/violinist/financial trader/chef, you’ll find plenty of resources that can teach you the basics of your character’s profession. Whatever world your character moves in, there are bound to be online courses, websites and evening classes that can help you learn the jargon and get a feel for your character’s world.

3. Working 9 to 5: Here’s one for the confident writer – why not try to get a short period of work experience in a company related to your character’s profession? Offer to help out for a week at a local newspaper, make coffee for few days at a law firm, or sweep up at a hair salon. If that’s a no go, get creative and think about other ways you could get close to your character’s world, such as…

4. The Write Stuff: Leverage your writing skills to help your screenplay research. If you can/want to write non-fiction, why not pitch an article about something related to your screenplay to an appropriate publication? With journalistic credentials, a whole new world may well open up to you; offering access to people and places a non-scribe would be precluded from. “Hi, I’m writing a screenplay and wondered if I could …” might draw a blank response. However, “Hi, I’m writing a story for XYZ magazine and wondered if I could…” is likely to be met with more enthusiasm.

5. Music Man: Here’s a simple and easy one. What type of music does your character listen to? What books do they read? What food do they enjoy? Find out (or use your imagination to conjure up plausible answers) and immerse yourself exclusively in all the things they like. Cast your net wide and make a list of anything that your character(s) like(s). It goes without saying that there are limits to this – use your common sense and stay within the parameters of the law/your safety/common decency. If you’re writing about a drug-taking pyromaniac who likes to shoplift TVs when he’s not sleeping in alleyways and having wild orgies, you might want to rely on your imagination and creativity…

The point to take away from all this is that by going the extra mile, you’ll set yourself apart from other writers who think it’s enough to read a couple of books and spend an hour or two on Google.

After all, classic movies, like the subject of this issue’s analysis, Goodfellas, gain their ‘classic’ status, in part, because of their authenticity. The filmmakers go to great lengths to nail down the details and incorporate them seamlessly into the story.

You’ve heard the old adage: ‘write what you know’? Well, thorough research is the next best thing to this. If you’re writing about a soldier going to war, unless you’ve actually had that experience, you’d better be prepared to dig into the nitty gritty of what it’s really like, as winging it will only show you up as an amateur.

While it’s not solely down to the screenwriter to create authenticity as the film moves into production, when you first present your script to producers or studios, you want the world you create to leap off the page and conjure up a vivid and plausible picture in your reader’s mind. Story, structure and characterisation are all important in this, but meticulous research might be the difference between a lukewarm ‘maybe..’ and an enthusiastic ‘yes!!’.

You’ll also feel more confident going forward if you’ve hit all the bases and can write and talk about your project with authority and an informed opinion.

Next week, we wrap up the topic of research by bringing all the strands together. Well look at how to make sense of all the research you’ve undertaken and how to put all the knowledge you’ve accumulated to good use.

Issue 8 of RSL is out on 31 August.