In the Details: 5 Tips for Effective Story Research

In the Details: 5 Tips for Effective Story Research

In the Details: 5 Tips for Effective Story Research

At my kids’ school, they’re putting up two new buildings, and I had the chance to watch them pour the concrete for the walls as I sat waiting in the carline the other day. What was really remarkable to me was the fact that in order to get to this step, they’d first had to assemble an entire framework that served as the mould for the walls. They’d basically built a building to build the building, in a manner of speaking.

And then (because I’m a writer who likes thinking about the process of writing), it hit me: that’s a lot like prewriting. When we outline, brainstorm character traits and flaws, and conduct research, we’re providing our work with the support structures our story needs in order to stand on its own. And while some of that pre-work will make it into the actual script, the vast majority of it won’t, at least not directly.

This is true of research almost more than anything else in our prewriting process. We do research to inform ourselves so that what we write is intelligent and intelligible. Research grounds our worlds and makes them feel real, it gives us insight into our characters, and it provides us with so much raw material for generating authentic conflict.

But there are two common pitfalls we have to watch out for when research enters the picture: infodumping and procrastination.

Infodumping, as I’m using it here, is the inelegant presentation of the details you’ve spent so long uncovering in a way that’s about as digestible as week-old pizza. It’s contrived and awkward, and I find that it usually comes from a place of insecurity. We want to show that we know what we’re talking about, so we feel we have to get it all on the page.

Relax, dear friends, and remember the scaffolding. Use only what is necessary. If you’ve done the work, the structure will hold.

And what about procrastination? This speaks for itself. When we use research to procrastinate, we wander aimlessly down endless playlists of YouTube videos or read countless articles, all while the WIP languishes untouched. But research isn’t the story. Just begin.

How do we conduct research the right way, so that we get what we need to be informed and smart about our material but we don’t stagnate our process? Try these five tips next time you hit the stacks at the library or pull up that trusty old Google search bar.

In the Details 5 Tips for Effective Story Research

Tip #1: Make a List

There are so many ways into a story. You might start with a question, or a line of dialogue, or an idea for a character. But before you start researching, there are two elements of the story you should rough out. The first is your concept, and the second is the story world (the “arena” of the story).

Concept is the what, arena is the how. And both questions are essential for efficient research.

Once you have your roughed-out premise line and your story arena narrowed down, make a list of everything you need to research to give this story an engine. This will be a running list, as you will discover holes in your research as you get to the page (more on this in a bit).

I like to divide my research into sections: Setting (Locations), Character, World (Arena), and Symbols. For screenplays, I usually keep my research in a folder in Evernote, but if you use Scrivener (for fiction), you can create a research folder within the project and keep all your story-related notes and links there.

The research list you create should include everything you must have in order to start outlining and writing the story. It will probably start off with very general line items, but you will narrow down into detail work as you develop the story.

“Why make a list?” you might ask. “Why not just start Googling or browsing the library?”

Efficiency and economy, my friends. Efficiency and economy.

Let’s use the analogy of going to the grocery store. If you have a list in your hand, you can be in and out of the store quickly and efficiently. You don’t break your budget, and you don’t waste your time. You also get exactly what you need for the task at hand (making meals for this week).

But what happens if you’re in a mad rush and have no time to menu plan or make a list before you run to the store? If you’re anything like me, you scurry around, throwing a hodge-podge of random ingredients in your cart and doubling back through aisles because you forgot things. It takes longer, you end up with a whole bunch of stuff you don’t need and won’t use, and you spend far more money and time.

The same thing happens with research. Without a clear list of priorities, we’re far more likely to wander aimlessly, spending time gathering information we don’t actually need, and making it likely that we’ll have to circle back to get the job done later on.

“But what about the joy of discovery?” you might object. “What about serendipity?”

I totally hear you on this one. As I mentioned in my post on planning vs. pantsing your creative journey, I believe planning sets you up for the very best kind of serendipity. But before we get to the magic, let’s stay practical for a minute and talk about a few other practical ways to keep your research slim and trim and effective.

In the Details 5 Tips for Effective Story Research

Tip #2: Follow the White Rabbit

This is one of my favorite research tips because it’s all about minimizing effort and maximizing relevant results. You know how when you’re driving and you get in behind a truck and you let them take all the wind resistance and you just coast in the slipstream? That’s what this is like.

When you follow the white rabbit, you use someone else’s research to springboard your own. Use the hyperlinks in articles you read, or send a note to the people the writer interviewed. Work from the bibliography in the back of a book to track down additional sources. These authors have done the research and found the sources. Now all you need to do is follow in their footsteps.

But the beautiful thing about this technique is the way it opens out. For instance, if I follow a hyperlink to another article, that author has also linked their sources. So I branch out. I follow another link, and another. This is a strategic rabbit hole. Every time I click on another link, I’m deepening my knowledge in particular areas.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel when you do your research. Leverage the labor of others to make your process more efficient.

In the Details 5 Tips for Effective Story Research

Tip #3: Look for Unusual Details

Following the White Rabbit research process frees you up to look for the unusual details. I might have started with a general search, but now I’m drilling down into specifics -- and that’s where the gold mine is. As the title of this article says, the story is in the details.

We’re not just looking to get the names of things right when we do research in a subject area. We should also be looking for the specific and unusual details that give us ideas for possible conflicts that are grounded in our particular arena. To take an example from the sphere of character, a public defender encounters different circumstances, stakes, and conflicts than a tax attorney. A general practitioner and a pediatrician aren’t the same.

What delights an audience is being shown something they’ve never seen before. And when you find out what makes your characters and your story world different, you’ve found what’s freshly entertaining about your concept.

Discovering these details is part of the joy of research, and when you can weave them into your narrative with skill, it demonstrates your mastery of the arena.

In the Details 5 Tips for Effective Story Research

Tip #4: Research as You Write

If we’re setting up our initial research list, we’re looking for those things that we must know in order to outline the story and hit the page. The goal is to get there as efficiently as possible without sacrificing quality.

Researching as you write is a way to continue to engage with the process without letting it become all-consuming. If you keep a running list of things you need to look up, you can just flag those spots in the script or in your outline and then set aside some time before your next writing session to track the answers down.

We all know that the story changes as soon as we start writing, so you’re going to find that there are holes in your initial research. Keeping a running list of things you need to track down will help you balance between maintaining momentum on your WIP and finding the answers you need to enrich the story.

You can also use research to refill your creative well if you hit writer’s block. This happened to me in my most recent project, and I used the research process to help me work through the creative block. I needed to find the details that would unlock the story and give me that new angle on the concept. I honestly didn’t know what exactly I was looking for, but I knew I would recognize it when it crossed my path.

And that brings me back now to the objection about discovery and serendipity.

In the Details 5 Tips for Effective Story Research

Tip #5: Leave Room for Serendipity

I mentioned that one of my favorite parts about planning is being prepared to recognize opportunity -- to be open to serendipity. It’s about deliberately placing yourself in the path of inspiration so that it can’t help but run you over. I feel the same way about research.

Planning out your research doesn’t cut you off from discovery: it sets you up to discover exactly what you need to discover. You track down an expert and ask her a question about one thing, and she mentions something in passing that you never expected, but which completely opens up the story for you. Or the same thing happens as you read an article: you think you’re looking for one thing, but discover something even better.

The key, I think, is to recognize that you don’t have to have all the answers before you start writing. You can’t have all the answers. Research and writing can’t be totally discrete processes. They go hand-in-hand. As you discover the story, you find out that there are things you don’t know -- and tracking down what you don’t know leads you to details that send the story in new directions.

In the Details 5 Tips for Effective Story Research

Bonus Tip: Let Your Brain Filter Your Results

The other really amazing thing that happens when you research strategically is that your brain gets on your side. Your Reticular Activating System -- your brain’s natural filtering system -- goes on alert for what it thinks you want and need. You don’t have to do anything particularly special to get it working for you, either. Just take the time on the initial planning and research to set your trajectory (and show your brain what you’re looking for), and let your subconscious give you a hand.

No matter what kind of story you’re working on, chances are there’s going to be some kind of research involved. I hope these tips will help you balance efficiency with effectiveness so that you can get that story written!

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About the Author

Shannon K. Valenzuela

Shannon K. Valenzuela

Author, Screenwriter

S.K. is a screenwriter, author, and editor. Writing is in her blood and she's been penning stories since she was in grade school, but she decided to take an academic track out of college. She received her Ph.D. in Medieval Literature from the University of Notre Dame and has spent many years teac...

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