Shake Up Your Research Routine

Aug 16, 2016 | Writing

It’s no secret that research can give your script a leg up. Maybe two legs. Potentially an arm too. Research into your subject matter can flesh out your story making it feel even more realistic and grounded. Your script’s world will seem fuller, your characters more enthralling, your descriptions more vivid. The more you know about your topic of interest, the less likely you are to alienate readers and viewers with that all-too-common feeling that “something is missing”.

But, let’s face it, research can just be so boring. You chose not to go back to school for a reason (or already have enough school work as it is). Who really has time to read article after article (some often contradicting each other) when you already have such an active imagination? You could just make it up and save yourself the time, hassle and boredom. You need to get on with act 2, anyway.

If you start falling into this mindset, I have a simple suggestion for you: put a face to that topic of interest. Find an expert or a location where that topic takes place – anything that will physically connect you with your subject matter. It’s surprisingly simple and more fun than you may think.

After filling out a simple online form, I found myself standing on the campus of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on a hot afternoon. We had two tour guides who shared facts and insider anecdotes with all of us gaping space nerds. They walked us from the clean room where all of NASA’s robotics are built (anything unmanned that NASA hurls into space is built here) to their actual mission control room where we watched satellite signals filter in through multi-colored computer code. Never in a thousand years would I have guessed that NASA color codes their satellite communications in hues reminiscent of my middle school Lisa Frank binder.

And therein lies the beauty of face-to-face research. Physically being at NASA, staring Mars rovers in their glass-camera eyeballs, shook up all sorts of creative feelings in me. It also taught me details and idiosyncrasies I never could have imagined. And all it took was an online form and a few hours off work.

Obviously, not every industry has a mechanism in place that allows such easy facility tours but there are a surprising number of vetted experts who already volunteer their time to answer questions from the creative community. The Writers Guild of America, West has a public list of professionals ready to hear from you, from air traffic controllers to wilderness survival guides. Yes, even if you’re not represented or a member of the WGA you can still contact an expert in undercover investigations.

And even if you don’t have a direct contact in the industry, chances are you can find one pretty easily. Think of it this way: if someone asked you for tips on writing, wouldn’t you give it to them? You love this topic enough to write about it. You love writing enough to even do it in the first place. People are similarly passionate about their own work. If you mention in an open and honest way that you’re looking for a fresh perspective on their subject matter, chances are they will be interested in helping provide an accurate representation of it they could one day see on screen. So find that expert and send that email. You never know, you could end up face-to-face with objects that will one day be on Mars.

Eva Gross

Director of Big Break Screenwriting Contest

Eva Gross is the Director of the Big Break℠ Screenwriting Contest. She studied writing at Emerson College in Boston and has enjoyed time as a journalist, a book buyer, a script reader and a Collections Processor with the Writers Guild Foundation Library and Archive.