Everything Is Research

Everything Is Research

Do you ever sit at home reading a book and just knowing you ought to be doing something more useful, like your homework or tidying up or even just reading an Improving Classic instead of the YA novel about vampire hunters that you have in your hand?

Do you ever watch TV and feel like you’re wasting your life because you should be writing or practising for your music exam or learning that French vocabulary you were given for the holiday?

Do you ever think you can’t watch a film because you have ‘more important things to do’, or you have to wait a while before reading a book because you have ‘books you need to read now and that one’s just for fun’?

Screw that.

See, as I mentioned before, I was reading Monkeys With Typewriters, and Scarlett Thomas uses half a million examples of films and books and even TV to explain various types of plot structure, characters, and other aspects of writing. To show whether or not they work, or how they can work in an unusual way, or whatever. She dissects them in the same way you or I might be forced to dissect the plot structure of an Improving Classic in an English Lit lesson.

Why are you reading that YA book in the first place, anyway? Because you love young adult books — because it was recommended to you — because someone thought you’d like the character — because you’re looking for inspiration — you see, if you write YA fiction, you need to READ around the genre.

What good is an Improving Classic to teach you how to write a teenager’s emotions realistically? What good is a Victorian Gothic novel to write a 21st-century contemporary romance? Sure, they can teach you to write, they can teach you to plot, but you have to read your genre too. It’s not a waste of time. It’s not less important. It’s research.

And then TV. TV’s great, especially with shorter episodes, because you can see how different structures work, and how to hold someone’s interest in an overlying story arc (e.g. series five Supernatural, aka SAM YOU HAD ONE JOB NOW IT’S THE APOCALYPSE or series one of 2005-era Doctor Who, aka WHAT IS THIS BAD WOLF THING TELL ME). Of course, less good TV can also teach you what not to do.

But TV’s also great for characters. There’s no narration, there’s no exploration of their inner thoughts, but we know how they think and therefore how they will behave anyway. Why? Because we see it. Watching TV and watching the characters and how they interact is a great way to learn how to show instead of telling. If you watch a scene and think, “That’s great character development,” try and think how you would write it. I see things very visually in my head when I write. It’s difficult, often, to put them into words. So practice on TV, where you can watch the exact same thing over and over again (if it’s a recording — I prefer DVDs to live TV anyway), and try and describe the scene.

So you’ve learned to work on characters and story arcs. Was that a waste of time? Was watching that show just lazing about doing nothing? No. Exactly. (Even if you’re not a writer, just a reader, I always watch Supernatural dubbed in French, with English subtitles. It’s now practice for learning French at school. Well done Miriam, you’ve made it useful.)

Or what about films? Films, especially adaptations of books, are great. It’s really easy to turn a film into a book, but harder to turn a book into a film. That tells you that they’re different. Look at what gets left in and what gets included when a book is adapted. Look at how writing is interpreted. And again, study dialogue. Study characters. If it’s an original film, rather than an adaptation, imagine how it would be written. If it’s an adaptation, get the book and find out. Did they show it? Or has the director adapted the visual from what the author tells the reader? Could the author have shown it instead of told it, or does it work as it is?

Reading books, whatever genre, can be tiring. It’s hard to force yourself to read every single day if you’re exhausted. When you’ve been working all day, perhaps at school or in an exam or something, are you more likely to read for an hour or watch an episode of your favourite TV show?


People tell you it’s a waste of time. It’s not. Not unless you waste it. Not unless you watch it without thinking.

Everything is research. You just have to learn to see it that way.

13 thoughts on “Everything Is Research

  1. You hit the hammer right on the button with this one, Miriam. I’m always fascinated by how TV shows or films can show the vast seas of personal emotion within each character without even describing a bucketful. The way they can set up a scene by having two characters walk into the room and say, “It’s been two years since the gopher accident. Aren’t you going to move on?” That just gave twice the amount of information at half the price, as compared to a paragraph of setting. I’m trying to figure out if you can do the same thing in narrative, or if people like the paragraph of setting better than a line of dialogue. I often wonder these days if we should just write a book adaptation to the five-hour movie (300 pages) we have running through our head. Should we just describe the actions and expressions of the characters, not their thoughts? Should we express necessary infodumps through more concise blocks of dialogue? Should we move on from that gopher accident?

    You also mentioned structure. Structure in movies fascinates me. I’m probably going to post on the most popular structure I’ve seen, but I think you’re speaking the truth in this case– stories, however off-topic, are research. And life is a story. French lessons are not.

    1. Ehehe, but French lessons are research for writing stories later … probably. Characters are going to need to know how to speak another language at some point and it’s useful to know how one goes about learning it!
      Yeah, I totally agree. At the same time, there’s something beautiful about narrative a lot of the time, and it can convey depth that would take a LOT of dialogue to show. Sometimes it’s the simplest way. But quite often, the way TV does it is the way writers should, but are too lazy to.
      I see everything as movies in my head…but rarely do the characters have faces. Only a couple of them for whom I’ve chosen a potential actor… :-)

      1. I keep telling myself that someday I’ll have a philosopher or a doctor character who needs to speak Latin.

        Unfortunately, I always come up empty when I look for books with narrative depth. Especially third-person limited ones. I don’t know what it is. Any suggestions?

        Indeed. Once I was watching sports and they showed one player’s face almost constantly as his team was losing. Eventually, I got bored and wrote a description. That’s the best description I’ve written, just because I knew the face.

  2. Funny, I was only thinking about this the other week and came up with the same conclusion, everything is research if you think about.
    Also, I absolutely adored the Rose era/Bad Wolf arc of Dr Who, I remember crying when they were saying their goodbyes on the beach at the end of that season, and going, ‘and its name translates to Bad Wolf Bay!!! That’s so great!’ *sniff, sniff* Haha.

    1. It was indeed a good story arc. As was the Vote Saxon one and the bees disappearing. Recently, I’ve felt the story arcs were a little heavy handed. But that’s another post.

  3. Perfect post. I always tell people I never mindlessly watch TV (which is mostly true – there are times when I’m so exhausted that it really is mindless). I’ve used TV to study acting, and photography (so interesting to check out the framing and lighting of various shots!), and of course, storytelling. Everything is fodder when you’re a writer

  4. Nice post! I hardly watch TV so I don’t really pick up any thoughts on how to tell stories from those, but I read quite a bit and this makes me feel slightly less guilty about not writing during that time.

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