One thing screenwriters hear all the time is “Write what you know.” Well… in a lot of cases that can be pretty limiting. Yes, writers should be drawing on their personal experiences for sure, because what you’ve seen and heard for real can be used as real in your writing, even if you have to enhance it or use it out of its original context.
But writers… most writers… come up with ideas for scripts all the time on subjects they know nothing about and what separates the good or great writers from the pack is what they do about it.
The good writers do RESEARCH. Real research. They don’t just look up stuff on Wikipedia or do a cursory internet search, they get out there in the real world and find what they’re looking for to bring authenticity to whatever they are writing about.
I read a script not too long ago that mostly took place in a Hospital. To say this might have been the worst script I have ever read is giving it some credit. The paper it was printed on threw up a little knowing what was written there. Nonetheless, the Hospital scenes were extra astounding due to the fact that the writer got everything about them 100% wrong.
Where do I start… ok… A nurse who is an integral part of the plot is only a REGISTERED NURSE because it’s part of her community service for being arrested for prostitution. No nursing school. No nursing license. Community service. The protagonist uses vacant operating rooms in the Hospital to do illegal operations on someone as part of a revenge plan without anyone there knowing or finding out. They use a “spare Hospital Room” for this same person while they recover, keeping it a secret from everyone.
I asked him, “Where is this Hospital? On Mars?” I then asked him if he had done one second of research on how hospitals really work. I knew the answer. “No.” I then told him that none if this would happen, ever, in any hospital in this country, ever. His answer was, “But it’s a movie. It’s not real.” It was then that I thanked him for letting read his opus and made a quick getaway.
Most all scripts are fictional and most are set in the real world and thus, need to be grounded in that world. If you’re going to be writing a film about the Secret Service, you need to find something out about how they operate. If you’re setting a film in a hospital or crime lab or anywhere else real, you need to learn the reality of those places so your script is steeped in that reality.
If your characters are doctors or cops or lawyers or scientists or any profession that requires a specific knowledge or ability, it’s your job to obtain enough of that knowledge to write intelligently about it. AND… you’ll find that knowledge opens all kinds of plot doors you never would have thought of in a lot of cases.
Ok, Bob… since you think you know so much… how do we go about doing this the way you suggest instead of just surfing the net for our education.
I can only go by what I’ve done in the past. I’ve interviewed and gone on ride-alongs with cops. I’ve interviewed real life detectives and even one Chief of Police of a semi-large city. I’ve bought lunch or visited at work to watch them in action, all kinds of doctors, forensic scientists, gunsmiths, military experts of all kinds, lawyers, art experts, Theoretical Physicists, Historians, Chefs, FBI agents, Theologists… You name it, I went and found them.
And I found they all had the same thing in common. They wanted me to get what I was writing about correct. To a person, they mostly hated the way their professions had been portrayed in film and on TV and were more than happy to help me get it right. Did I know all these people before interviewing them or watching them work? Nope. I cold called some of them and got referrals from friends for others and told them I was writing a film about what they do for a living and wanted to get it right. A few have said no, but mostly it’s been a fabulous experience leading to a couple of lasting friendships.
Great research makes your job writing a great story easier and it helps once you’ve optioned or sold a script, too. I can think of three separate instances where I was in production meetings getting notes where someone has questioned whether something I wrote in the script could really happen. In all three instances I was able to use the research to prove that each thing could and in most cases would happen in whatever setting or occupation I set my story. Not only are they impressed that you know, but sometimes stop asking those kinds of questions after a while because you’ve demonstrated that you do your research.
Yes. It takes more of your valuable time. Yes, you do have delay starting your script with the great idea. Yes, it takes effort and does cost something, but it also leads to your script being a whole lot better than if you don’t. It might make the difference between an Option and a Pass.