How Much Research Is Too Much?


As I’m working on the novel adaptation of my screenplay Maelstrom, I’m finding that I need to do a lot more research than I did for the script. Movies are pretty straightforward—the only thing you can write in the screenplay is what shows up on screen and is heard on the soundtrack. It’s pointless to provide backstories of characters or situations unless they’re dramatized, and since you have a pretty tight running time, every scene should be dedicated to advancing the story rather than fleshing out details that otherwise are inconsequential.

With novels, you have a little more flexibility. Maelstrom opens in the Amazonian rain forest of Peru. The characters are a sociologist and her photographer boyfriend who are investigating a newly-discovered native tribe who until recently had never been exposed to modern civilization thanks to deforestation caused by illegal logging. They come across an animal that also had just been discovered that is dangerous in surprising ways. In the script, a couple pages were dedicated to these characters in this setting, which essentially just sets the stage for what’s to come; however with the novel, I can’t just hand-wave these issues, otherwise it’ll come off as false and shallow.

Regarding this, I needed to research the following:

  1. The Amazon;
  2. Small towns in Peru;
  3. Illegal logging;
  4. Newly-discovered tribes in the rain forest;
  5. Newly-discovered animals in the rain forest;
  6. Animals with characteristics like the fictional one appearing in the story;
  7. How sociologists (and photographers) deal with contact with primitive peoples.

This is quite a bit of research for what will end up being a single chapter in the book. However, if I don’t have a working knowledge of these things, I will not properly be able to write about it. As the saying goes, write what you know. Similarly, if I just make things up, someone out there will see through it. I can’t stand it when I read something (or see it in a movie) that clearly shows the writer did not do his homework.

For instance, when the first book in Disney’s Kingdom Keepers series came out, I thumbed through the book. Since I was living in Orlando at the time and had worked for Disney World, I was curious how the author depicted the city and the park. It quickly became clear to me that the author most likely had never set foot in Central Florida, and certain did not know what a middle school in Orange County was like based on his descriptions. That infuriated me. Disney couldn’t afford to send him on a scouting mission to O-town?

From the writer’s point of view, the problem is figuring out when research gets in the way of the story. In my scenario with Maelstrom, I don’t want to bog down the story with superfluous details—especially when it’s the first chapter of the book. There needs to be a balance between being accurate in basing your story in reality and keeping your reader interested in turning the page. The first chapter introduces the inciting incident and lays the groundwork for what’s to come, but it can’t be so burdened with factual data that it’s a chore to slog through.

In my case, most of the research applies to the opening chapter, but of course so many books require research for information throughout the pages. Michael Crichton was proficient at researching a topic—usually something scientific—and weaving it seamlessly into a rip-roaring adventure. With his novels, you never felt like you were reading a text book, but there was always a sense that he knew what he was talking about. In fact, in State of Fear, he provided a bibliography of research materials (in that case, he was firmly anti-Global warming, so the research he did gave his viewpoint some credence rather than just spouting political propaganda).

Another factor regarding research is the amount of time it takes to learn new information versus the time needed to actually write. Gathering data is great, but if it’s not going to be applied effectively (or at all), then it’s a wasted effort. This is a lesson I’m learning.

Hopefully, the research I’ve done for Maelstrom will help make the story come to life and provide depth to it, but will not get in the way of the adventure.