Issue 8: Lesson 8—Research (Part 5)

Phew…it’s been a long haul through the world of researching the fact-based film, but we’ve finally reached the end! This final lesson ties all the loose ends together and offers some tips on getting the most out of that mountain of research you’ve assembled…

As we’ve discussed in our past few lessons, the research process can be lengthy and varied, encompassing historical research, journalistic accounts and other techniques that all serve to give you a full and rounded picture of the factual story you want to tell.

You should emerge from this process with a renewed sense of who your characters are and how you want to move forward with your script. It might be that the research has simply put meat on the bones of what you already knew; or it might have sent you off into exciting new directions.

Either way, you will eventually reach saturation point. This is the point in time when the research process has moved beyond a useful fact-gathering exercise into the realm of procrastination. In other words – it’s easier to read another book or spend a few more hours on Google than it is to actually start writing your script.

Which brings us to the single most important piece of advice with regards the research process:

When you have all the pertinent information in your head, it’s time to clear away the research and face the blank page.

What this means in practical terms is that, if you have immersed yourself in the world of your story with enough dedication, you will get to the stage where you know it almost as well as you know your own life and environment.

As such, when you’re writing, you won’t need to get out your notes to look things up. All the facts will be in your head and you will incorporate them into your writing without thought.

This is the point of the research you’ve undertaken – to feed into the script and infuse it with authenticity in a natural and organic way. Given all the time you’ve spent on the research process, it might be tempting to try and shoehorn all the stuff you know into the script and almost write the story around the research, but that’s the wrong approach.

The whole point of gathering knowledge and information is to help you create a believable world and true-to-life characters that remain faithful to real life, as far as possible.

To get this right, you need all the pertinent information to be easily recallable in your head so you can concentrate on the next challenge, which is to structure your story and flesh it out on the page.

Thorough research will feed into this process on an unconscious level, freeing you up to write and make good creative decisions based on the facts rattling around in your head.

Exercise

Imagine you’re writing a script based on your own life story. Ask yourself the following:

  • How easily can you recall the all the important details?
  • How well do you know your protagonist (you!)?
  • If you had to strengthen your protagonist, which of your qualities would you illuminate?
  • Likewise, how would you strengthen the other important characters in your script (your family/friends/co-workers etc.)?
  • If you had to make some crucial changes to support the fictional story, how easily could you alter the order of events, compress time periods or amalgamate characters?

Now ask yourself:

  • Having gone through this process of adapting your life story, do you still recognise yourself on the page?
  • Is it still essentially your life story (albeit a fictionalized version)?
  • Does the story remain true to who you are and the life you’ve lived?
  • Is it an authentic and sympathetic dramatization that retains the spirit of the source material?

As you move forward with your fact-based film, ask yourself these same questions…if your research has been a successful endeavour, you should be able to provide the right answers and be well on your way to writing an excellent script.

Next time, we (finally!) move on to looking at the actual writing process.

Issue 9 of RSL is out on 14 September.