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Finding That Slice of Truth to Create Imagined Stories
Research Strategies to Authenticate Your Fictional Work
An amazing story idea just popped into your head. Maybe it happened on your commute, or perhaps you came up with it in the shower while kicking yourself for taking on the arduous challenge of writing a good screenplay. Either way, you have an idea that’s finally going to set you apart from everyone else. Now you’re filled with all this new energy that pushes you to get right into it.
But there’s a problem…The story isn’t a simple Rom Com that takes place in the city you grew up in. It’s set in a completely different space, chock full of cultural norms and beliefs that are far removed from your everyday life. It’s also a story that has characters doing jobs that you know absolutely nothing about.
Now you have an idea that goes beyond the complexity of crafting a good story because now you must also do research in order to write it well. Yikes! You got into screenwriting, not academia. Do writers actually have to research? Well, that depends on the story, but yes, sometimes they have to.
If you’re very familiar with the World, characters, and plot that you’re building, or if you’re creating a story that deliberately veers away from realism, then for the most part, you don’t have to worry about researching. But if you don’t understand these fundamental parts, and if you’re trying to make your story as realistic as possible, then you really can’t skimp out on it. Otherwise, you’ll mess up the suspension of disbelief and take the audience out of the story. You do that and people will leave well before the movie has even finished.
I mean, imagine if Alejandro González Iñárrituthe and Mark L. Smith, the writers of, The Revenant, never opened up a history book before crafting that story. Sure, they might have been able to get the general brush strokes, but they would have significantly dulled the details of everything else that made the movie so immersive, such as the clothing, the way they loaded their muskets, how they spoke, the technology they used, the dirtiness of their skin and teeth, or the way the natives attacked their enclave.
These are super important details you have to add depth to if you want to maximize the authenticity of the piece that you’re building.
And this is where the skills of researching come into play. Again, the more removed you are from the World, characters, and plot that you’re constructing, and the more realistic you want the piece to be, the more research you’ll have to do. Though extremely helpful, writers don’t have to have a “lived experience” in order to tell a story that’s different from their own. But it does mean that they have to do a lot of research. So the art of researching is essentially what allows writers to avoid constraining themselves to their own experiences.
There are so many different stories to tell, and the most interesting ones tend to be about Worlds and characters that are completely different from our own. But to tell those stories, you must understand how to research, effectively. So let me show you what’s worked for me.
Academic Research Versus Researching Fictional Stories
First, when it comes to researching your fictional story you can breathe some sigh of relief because it’s not at all as rigorous as academic research. The goal of a fiction writer isn’t to be correct or accurate. Rather, it’s to be correct and accurate enough to convey authenticity.
Academic research, on the other hand, is about being as correct as you possibly can be because the entire point is to uncover new knowledge about reality. That requires a strong thesis with credible evidence to support it, and all of it needs to be heavily peer-reviewed.
Researching for a fictional story doesn’t require any of that. You’re not being guided by a thesis to prove or disprove. You’re not presenting your primary and secondary sources, and when it comes to peer reviews? For writers, that’s just a general audience who are merely looking to be entertained. They’re not looking to find holes in your argument or point.
With that said, accuracy does foster authenticity. And if that’s your aim, then you’ll need to apply some of the same principles that academic researchers use for their work, such as understanding where to find quality information, how to evaluate that information, and how to extrapolate it quickly from mountains of content. These techniques are crazy important, not just for fiction writers looking to step out of their comfort zones but, really, for everyone across the board.
There’s too much information about the World, today, and it’s easier than ever before to get the wrong kind. So here’s how I go about researching my fictional stories in a World inundated with “facts”. You’re not always going to be accurate, but hopefully, after reading this you’ll be accurate enough so that what you do end up getting wrong are stupid minor things that 99 percent of your audience won’t even catch.
Developing the Right Questions at the Right Time
Let’s say you’re doing a cop drama in 1940s Chicago. Are you seriously going to read twenty books, cover to cover, touching on every aspect of Chicago and being a cop in that era? I certainly wouldn’t because there’s a better way, and it’s very simple. Before you dive headfirst into your research, take the time to formulate the right questions you need to answer, and then go out and find them.
This can be a great tactic to narrow down your search and avoid reading a lot of unnecessary material just to get to the necessary stuff. Now instead of having to read everything, you just need to read the stuff that’s going to allow you to answer those questions. What kind of questions should you be asking? Well, it depends on the story as well as where you are in the development process.
I like to formulate my questions during two key parts of my writing process. The first is when I’m developing a one-sheet and my characters. A one-sheet is just a template used to place all of the foundational elements onto a single page. Here’s a complete breakdown of how to build one along with some examples so you can see what I mean.
At this stage in the writing process, I generally formulate my preliminary questions, which are broad-based since I’m exploring my story at a very high level. I’m not getting into the plot or scenes, which means I don’t know the specifics of what I need to research, yet. But with the one-sheet and characters laid out, I’m at least in the right ballpark where I can begin to ask the basic questions.
For instance, right now I’m writing a feature where the main character is a limo driver who fled from the Darfur Genocide in 2003. With that information, alone, I already know that I need to research what Darfur was like before and during the Genocide. I need to read about the culture and customs. I need to research what it’s like being a refugee, including the process of going from a camp to being relocated abroad. And of course, I need to learn about what it’s like to be a refugee in America as a limo driver for rich people.
These initial questions I ask are very broad-based and mostly intended to help me figure out the world that these characters are in so that I can make better decisions about their makeup and how they will be operating throughout the movie.
With the Darfur example, because I read about their culture, I learned that Darfurians are very community and family-oriented, which fundamentally reshaped my entire backstory for the main character that was initially much more reflective of my own culture in the U.S (basically, the depressing opposite). Had I not taken that time to read about their culture and customs, my backstory for the character would have been wildly off.
After answering these broad questions, I create a second set of questions to research, which occurs after mapping out my plot. Why? Well, think about it. Your story isn’t something that will cover every facet of a time and place. It’s limited to a singular moment or series of moments that occur from start to finish; a little slice of life, so to speak. So if my goal is to make that “slice” as realistic as possible, I need to make sure that every moment is authentic in its build. But how can I ensure that when I don’t even know what happens in the story?!
Trust me when I say that you can save a ridiculous amount of time researching the nuances of your piece if you do it after mapping out your plot. This is because your plot informs the second set of questions you should formulate and research.
I mean, let’s say I’m writing a Doctor drama set in Miami. My initial research might involve reading general information about the day in the life of a doctor or what it’s like to live in Miami. But until I outline my plot, I won’t know what to research, specifically, such as the process of saving a man from a gunshot wound or the bureaucracy of a hospital and some examples of how admins can easily screw over staff. What happens in the plot ultimately is what informs me of what to research. The logline and synopsis can give me a general area to study, but the plot is what can tell me EXACTLY what to research.
So to avoid getting lost, formulate the right broad-based questions when you initially dive into your story and then widdle those questions down to more specific ones after you’ve mapped your plot. That way you don’t have to go all over the place and feel overwhelmed. Writing a story is overwhelming enough!
Where to Find the Answers to Your Questions?
Back in the day if you wanted to do research, you had to go to this place, called the library, where you’d rent these things called, books. If you were lucky enough, you could also get access to university libraries, which are far more comprehensive in their selections. So needless to say, researching was much more of a feat than it is, today, because now we have the Internet, and that’s both a blessing and a curse.
It’s a blessing because we have access to all this information now, but it’s a curse because it presents us with too much information. You’ll often find things that are overwhelmingly biased or just completely wrong. So where do you find the most accurate information to formulate well-rounded answers to your questions? Well, many places. The first and best place to search is through academic literature that’s been peer-reviewed. Just Google books about whatever topic you want, and you’ll find endless lists where you can easily evaluate their validity using the author’s name and the reviews. You can also go deeper if you want and look up book recommendations from University Professors on the topic, as well.
Then, of course, there’s JSTOR. It’s a huge database full of published articles on just about every topic you can think of. And now you can make a free account and get up to 100 articles every 30 days. It’s totally worth it because the reality is, what academics say about certain topics is often very different from what mainstream sources say, given that mainstream is often driven by agendas, and thus driven by heavy-handed bias.
Academic literature certainly has its fair share of bias, so there’s no real way around this, but at least, when it comes to peer-reviewed articles, there’s a huge attempt to mitigate the bias. A random website may have the same goals, but they may not and you may not realize they have other motives that can heavily influence the information you’re being provided with.
But you don’t have to limit yourself to literature. These days, we have Youtube and Spotify, which are full of heavy-hitting professionals who film their own lectures. For instance, say you wanted to learn about international diplomacy from the perspective of the U.S Military. Well, there’s a show for that called, Battlegrounds, hosted by the former National Security Advisor of the United States, retired Lieutenant General H.R McMaster.
This guy often interviews top diplomats and former heads of countries, from all over the World, to talk about current affairs and how leaders make international decisions in the 21st Century. Of course, there’s a fair amount of bias in their discussions, but as long as you understand those partialities, you can take the valuable information you need and leave the rest.
Or, let’s say you’re writing a story that deals with Macro Economics. Raul Pal would be a solid person to watch. He runs a Youtube show called, Real Vision News, where experts, from all over, regularly discuss deep topics surrounding the global economy.
And he’s not just a random person spouting off things that sound smart. Raul’s got the credibility to back the bite as he was one of the few macro investors to accurately predict the 2008 mortgage crisis, and now he co-manages a 35 billion dollar hedge fund in London.
There are all kinds of professionals running online shows and discussing things that they’re more than qualified to talk about. Hell, I’m sure you can even find podcasts hosted by pros who do nothing but construction work. It’s all out there. You just need to find them. But, again, it’s important to stress that even academic sources are biased, and there are a lot of unqualified people out there dressing up and playing the role of a professional when, in fact, they have no idea what they’re talking about. That’s why you should also know how to…
Okay, so what do you do when you find the information that you’re looking for but don’t know if you can trust the source? Well, I like to consider the following:
Purpose and Intended Audience
First, ask yourself, “What’s the purpose of this piece that I’m reading or watching, and who is this for?” People don’t create content for no reason. There’s always a reason. Maybe it’s to provide information, persuade, or advocate for something. Perhaps it’s intended to entertain, sell a product/service, or a combination of all of these things.
For instance, this Substack blog is used to inform readers about techniques for writing and indie filmmaking. But it’s also used to persuade readers to get into writing and filmmaking because it’s, in part, an indirect sales funnel to get you to try out our AI-assisted writing tools. This is a standard playbook strategy for most businesses, which is why a lot of what you read is from companies trying to sell you something.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just depends on how much value they’re putting into the content, how truthful it is, how much they’re pushing you to buy, and of course, what they’re selling.
The point is, always ask these questions when reading something so that you can understand the bias’s behind what you’re reading. In the case of this blog, it’s our unwavering support for indie screenwriting and filmmaking above studio-level work as well as the use of AI in the creative process. This doesn’t mean the information we’re providing is wrong or manipulative. It’s just that it’s only providing a piece of the larger picture.
Our space and audience exist within the Indie Film World, not the Hollywood Studio World. Our focus is on learning how to master the craft and using AI to help you along the way. This is just one out of billions of different perspectives.
Authority and Credibility
Another good question to ask is, “Who is behind the content?”. In other words, evaluate their authority and credibility on the subject. For instance, there’s a renowned geopolitical analyst named Peter Zeihan who speaks a great deal about the World’s political landscape and has a lot of credibility to make his words carry much more weight than say, a news anchor or a History Teacher.
But if you wanted to get information about Bitcoin and whether it has a bright future, Zeihan can certainly speak on this and does have a well-informed opinion, but it’s an opinion that doesn’t carry as much weight as someone like Raul Pal who specializes in Macroeconomics and Cryptocurrency. Zeihan claims that Bitcoin will ultimately fail, but Raul Pal believes that it will be the greatest store of value the World has ever seen.
Either outlook could be totally wrong, so really, no one actually knows. But given that Zeihan studies demography and geopolitics and Raul Pal studies Macroeconomics and Cryptocurrency, it makes sense that Raul Pal would likely have a more informed outlook on Bitcoin, and thus, stronger evidence to support his claims.
But you also have to factor in their audience and what their goals are. Peter Zeihan’s audience is CEOs of major companies, banks, investors, and government organizations, so naturally, he’s trying to appeal to an audience that likely doesn’t favor Bitcoin given its disruptive nature to the very structures they’re thriving off of.
Raul Pal’s audience, on the other hand, is regular and professional investors who are trying to safely add cryptocurrency to their portfolios and gain a more detailed understanding of the macro forces that are affecting the global economy. That means he has every incentive to make Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies sound super enticing.
This information is important because it suggests that both of these people may have perspectives that are too heavy-handed on one side or the other. This isn’t necessarily the case, which is why you may also want to look into their histories to try and find any controversies surrounding their beliefs.
Everyone has an agenda of some kind, so it’s okay if their opinions are used to sell books or to get people to do something. But if their history shows stubbornness and an inability to change their thesis based on new information? That’s an obvious red flag that indicates the person is more interested in selling something rather than spreading their version of the truth.
So if you’re trying to evaluate a source of information, look into the people you’re consuming the content from so that you can better understand their biases, where they’re coming from, and whether they’re even worth listening to as a credible source. Also, look into whose financing their operations as they can certainly have a huge impact on what’s being presented.
Now if you can’t find enough information on the person, you can always look into what they’re saying and validate them through other credible sources. In fact, you should do that anyway just as a rule so you can gain a 360 view of the topics that you’re studying.
Accuracy and Reliability
How reliable someone’s sources are is another very important question to consider. Assuming we’ve confirmed that the author or creator of the information is a reliable source and we’ve identified their biases, it’s a good idea to go further and consider the accuracy of where they’re getting their information from.
Generally, sources are listed as citations or footnotes located at the bottom of each page, but sometimes they may be in the bibliography section at the end of the book. With the listed sources, you can easily backtrack and evaluate them. And if these sources have sources, you can even check those out.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of information out there that may be well-researched, but there isn’t any proof that it was. For instance, you may stumble upon a Youtube video by Steven Wolfram about data storage with zero sources. Can that video be trusted? I’d certainly say so, given that it was made by one of the foremost leading experts in computer science and mathematics.
But what if it’s someone who lacks experience in the subject that you’re researching? What if they’re just a regular person with their own show or blog? If that’s the case, they may be totally right, but in order to confirm that, you’ll either need their sources or you’ll need to cross-examine their information with others who do have that credibility under their belts.
Take my brother and I, for instance. We’re not household names. Hell, we’re not even recognized in our own town. We’re just a couple of brothers who spent a lot of time in the indie film scene writing and learning about the process.
On top of that, we don’t use sources for any of our pieces. So does this mean people shouldn’t trust what we’re saying? No, it just means you have to take the extra steps to verify if what we’re talking about is true. You have to go out and write screenplays, yourself. You have to buy a book or two on the screenwriting and filmmaking process from credible sources, or watch Youtube videos from pros with recognizable names, and see if what they’re suggesting is similar to what we’re suggesting.
We can certainly say that what we’re writing is true, or at least, mostly true (everyone’s always wrong about something). But you really won’t know the accuracy of our statements unless you go out and explore the subject, further, which is what I encourage everyone to do, regardless of how much you trust me.
This one’s pretty straightforward but often missed. When reading or watching something, pay attention to the publication date. This can be very important because, as we all know, information isn’t static. It changes all the time as new things are discovered or invented, regularly.
So if you’re doing research on Afghanistan because your main character is a kid who resides in Kabul in 2023, be mindful of anything written prior to 9/11 because things radically changed after that moment. Or let’s say you’re researching the process of how NASA sends people into space. Well, a lot has changed since 1969 and even since the early 2000s.
So if your story takes place in 2023 and you need to accurately convey a space launch…Yeah, read up on the latest information, not from ten years ago. Otherwise, you’ll end up creating a World that doesn’t make any sense.
Objectivity Versus Bias
Last, but not least, when evaluating a source, it’s very important to consider whether the original creator is attempting to be objective or if they’re giving their opinion on a matter. Again, you can’t write something without your own bias seeping into it, but if the aim is objectivity then, at least, an attempt will be made for the author to disconnect themselves from the subject matter so that they can focus on the evidence.
With opinion pieces, that’s just not the case. The entire point is for the author to express their personal opinion on a matter, so there isn’t any attempt to disconnect, and that can have an impact on how the information is presented to you. It’s sort of like the difference between first and third person. In the first-person perspective, we’re getting one strictly from a single character, but in the third-person, we’re getting perspectives from multiple characters. That’s the big difference between the two.
For instance, let’s say I needed to research modern politics in America, specifically the differences between Conservatives and Liberals. If I only did my research using opinion blogs from people who are heavily engaged in one side or the other then I’d likely end up writing an analysis that makes both parties look like radical factions hell-bent on steamrolling over Democracy and freedom just to stay in power.
That’s because they’re inherently bipartisan, and the creators are likely too connected to the subject matter to give a more objective view, even if what they’re writing has strong evidence to support their claims. But let’s say, instead, you decided to research books from independent scholars who are trying to give a birds-eye analysis of the political landscape, with the intention of being fair and balanced. Well, they may still lean one way or the other. But, at least, there would be an attempt at being unbiased and that can really be helpful for readers or viewers wishing to gain a better view of the subject.
Extrapolating the Information You Need Quickly
Okay, so the final tip I’d like to touch on is how to obtain the information you need as quickly as possible. In 2023, it’s much easier to do, not only because of search but also because of AI. You can get on ChatGPT or Bard right now, for free, and ask it questions for pretty much anything you want to dig into.
Albeit, it isn’t perfect and can produce false information that sounds good. So by no means is it something you want to fully rely on. My advice would be to use it as a starting point that can land you in the right direction for further reading.
For example, going back to the story that I’m working on where the main character is from Darfur, there are a lot of books out there for me to check out, but because I’m far removed from the subject, I don’t even know where to start. So I got on ChatGPT and asked some basic questions, and it gave me answers I could further dig into.
From there, I was able to determine the right reading material to spend my time on. AI was able to get me that relevant information much faster. But I couldn’t determine if the information was correct, which meant I had to open up a book.
This is where the art of extrapolating specific information from a large body of text is crucial despite advances in AI, which will likely make this skill less important in the near future. But for now, it is important. So I’m gonna go over it real fast. Now, to do this effectively is really simple. It’s just a matter of understanding the main titles, sub-section titles, and introductory paragraphs.
First, the main titles. This is the title of the paper or book that can tell you what the whole thing is about, so you’re able to get a sense of it before diving head-first into the text. Then you have your sub-section titles, which are just mini-titles that give you an idea of what each section within the chapter is about. So say you run across a 500-page book on the U.S Government that covers everything, but you only need to get information about how a law is passed. You could read all 500 pages, but that will take forever.
Instead, it’s smarter to read the chapter titles, first, to identify the ones you need to read and the ones you can ignore. This can easily be done by reading the table of contents, located on the first few pages of most books. The table of contents is just a section that lists all of the chapter headings, so you don’t have to flip through everything.
You just read the titles, find the ones that are relevant to what you’re searching for, and boom! Now you just narrowed your search down from 500 pages to about 10-20 pages of reading. And to confirm if the chapters are actually the right ones to examine further, read the end of the introductory paragraph. Generally, that’s where the author will place their thesis, or the point that they’re trying to prove or expand on.
But you can narrow that reading down even further by checking out the sections within the chapter, which are generally titled as well, though not always. Regardless, most paragraphs start with an introductory statement that explains what the paragraph will touch on.
So if you need to get even more specific information about a narrow part of the lawmaking process, you could go to the chapter that covers lawmaking and then narrow down your search even further by reading the sub-section titles or the first couple of sentences in each paragraph.
That’s how you go from needing to read 500 pages to only needing to read a few. And yes, this is also how most articles are structured, such as this one. They’re structured this way, specifically, so that it’s easier for people to narrow down the information they need to extrapolate.
So if you find yourself stressing over having to read tons of books to learn about x,y,z, don’t because that isn’t necessary. You can read a whole lot less if you just narrow down your questions and focus on the main titles, sub-section titles, and introductory paragraphs.
So that’s the basics of fictional writing research. I know, it’s a bit of a dry topic, but it’s really important for writers to understand how to do it because more often than not, we’re writing about people and places that are so far removed from our lives, we have no choice but to dive into reading material in order to land it authentically on page.
And with the proliferation of information, truth has never been more valuable. I mean, sure, we work in the realm of made-up stories, so we do have a bit of a pass when it comes to accuracy. However, because people, today, are so fixated on the truth, it’s vital that you do the necessary research to make your story feel truthful.
So if it’s a story about spousal abuse, don’t just imagine what you think it might be like. Actually dig into it by reading up on first-hand accounts from trusted sources, watching videos from experts in the field who delve into the psychology behind abuse, and maybe even interviewing survivors of these situations.
Not every story needs in-depth research or any, at all. But…It also never hurts a story if you do your due diligence and research because a story can never be too authentic. However, it can certainly be too inauthentic. Anywho, hope this article helps, and as always, best of luck in your creative endeavors!