I know loads of writers who pore over every writing craft book they can get their hands on, but who nonetheless can't seem to get a story off the ground. Why is that?
They neglect an essential element of craft rarely gets talked about: developing your knowledge base so that you have raw material from which to build interesting stories. This is also called "research."
Research has become something of a dirty word among a certain breed of fiction writer. These folks consistently argue that they write what they know and therefore never need to do such a nerdy thing as check facts. God forbid facts get in the way of their imaginations.
Well, I fear that such thinking is naive at best, and at worst, lazy. It tends to produce copycat, formulaic writing full of plot holes and cliches. Why?
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When writers assume knowledge of their fictional world they don't actually have, they will struggle to develop material. Instead, as Robert McKee describes in Story, such writers will "reheat literary leftovers and serve up plates of boredom because, regardless of their talents, they lack an in-depth understanding of their story's setting and all it contains. Knowledge of and insight into the world of your story is fundamental to the achievement of originality and excellence" (68). I would add that understanding human nature, from how personality develops to what motivates people is essential to developing multi-dimensional characters to inhabit your story world.
McKee rightly warns against using research as a form of procrastination, a way of endlessly delaying doing any writing. Rather, research in broad topic areas ought to be something you do for personal enrichment/brain food and as the need arises. Research is often more portable than creative work. You can read print books, ebooks, and articles while sitting in a hospital waiting room, or while the kids are at soccer practice, or while standing in line at the grocery store.
Below are some areas to learn about about in order to feed your brain with ideas. As McKee notes, "you can't kill your talent, but you can starve it into a coma through ignorance.... Talent must be stimulated with facts and ideas. Feed your talent" (73-74). Research should be the third leg of the material-generation stool, along with imagination and memory (See McKee's excellent book Story for more on this).
The lists below are meant to stimulate your curiosity, not form a guilt-inducing Mensa übermind curriculum. Simply pick any topic that sounds interesting and read one book or explore a few reputable websites about it (by reputable, I mean backed by research, not some hothead spouting off). What new curiosities does it raise about your story world or characters? Read on that topic next.
Imagine how much more pumped you'll be to write when you're abuzz with ideas. As McKee notes, when you have something to say, you can't stop yourself from writing.
Characterization and dialogue
- Body language
- Communication styles
- Gender differences
- Belief formation
- Identity formation
- Intimacy and social bonding
- Friendships and cliques
- Marriage dynamics
- Birth order and personality
- Sibling dynamics
- Parenting styles
- Intergenerational influence and conflict
- Rights and responsibilities of various family roles in history
- Neuro-sensory differences
- Personality disorders
- Mental illnesses
Milieu, Setting and Plot
- Weather Phenomena
- Architecture and interior design
- Effects of poverty and wealth
- Government models in history
- Education models
- Policies and procedures of institutions in your story world
- Laws and ordinances
- Scientific breakthroughs
- Historic events
Tell me: which of these research topics might move your story forward most? Which topics sound fascinating in their own right, and worth reading to stimulate new story ideas?