by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
Write what you know. That’s the old adage that every writer has heard a thousand times. But what does it really mean? Does it mean that your main character should be a version of yourself? No.
It means that the best stories are the ones that feel authentic.
If you have a passion for model trains, give that passion to one of your characters. You’ll be able to make their passion specific and quirky and thoughtful — not just surface level — because you’ll be able to bring authenticity to the character.
But what if you want to write about a murderer or an Egyptian pharaoh or a dairy farmer? How can you “write what you know” when you and your characters have nothing in common?
That’s where research comes in.
Research is one of the primary components missing from most novice scripts. If you don’t take the time to research your story, your characters and plot will inevitably rely on cliches. Researching your screenplay lets you dive deeper and make more genuine, more unique, and more compelling choices.
So how can you research your next script? Here are six story research methods to get you started:
1. Go to the library.
The internet is an amazing trove of information, but at your local library you can utilize news archives, academic journals, and all sorts of expensive databases for free. It’s also a great place to focus and do some great writing.
2. Read books.
If you’re writing a story about a serial killer, read a biography of a real-life killer who fascinates you. Get a sense of how their mind works and see what you can translate to your own story. Histories and historical novels are also great for researching particular time periods.
3. Take a trip.
If you’re setting your screenplay in New Jersey but you’ve never actually been to New Jersey, you’re probably going to rely on stereotypes and generalities. Visit the place you’re writing about. Take note of the vibe, the ways the people interact, and note actual locations that would be great to use in your story.
4. Interview professionals.
If you’re writing a story about a private detective, call up an actual private detective and ask to interview them. You’d be amazed how many people will take the time to speak with you — complete strangers — if you tell them you’re writing a film script about their profession. Who wouldn’t want to sit for that interview?
5. Draw from the people around you.
If you have trouble writing three-dimensional female characters, talk to some of the women in your life. Ask them how they would react in a given situation pulled from your plot. Ask about the experiences of people who are different from you to better understand their perspective.
6. Watch movies.
If you’re writing a romantic comedy, watch every big rom-com of the last ten years. Learn your genre inside and out, and make sure your knowledge is current. Genres evolve over time, so you need to know what’s worked and what hasn’t worked at the box office over the last five to ten years. Having that knowledge base will help you write a more timely and compelling story.
What other research methods do writers use? Share yours in the comments!
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.