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B&N Week 181: How Much Research Should You Do On A Topic?

| June 10, 2014


Welcome to another Tuesday! That means it’s time for me to ask a question, in the Bolts & Nuts tradition!

How much research should you do on a topic?

I am not going to lie: I hate research. I’ve always hated research. Research and I have been arch enemies since I was introduced to the word back in elementary school. Why? Because when you’re forced to do it, research is very boring and dry. Quite often, we’re not interested in the subjects that we’re forced to research. Get some facts, store it long enough to regurgitate it in a cogent manner, and then forget about it.

However, when you’re passionate about a subject, you can then wax poetic about it for hours on end. With me, it’s comic books and movies, as well as some cartoons. When did Columbus sail the ocean blue? I don’t remember, and I don’t care to, because it doesn’t impact my every day life. Why are we living in America instead of Columbia? Amerigo Vespucci. Almost no one knows his name, because Columbus gets the credit for sailing, trying to find a new way to get to the Indies. I don’t care about Columbus, but a friend of mine does, going back to stuff she read while she was in elementary school.

Now, when you start researching things you’re passionate about, you find yourself asking all kinds of questions. One question leads to another, which leads to another, and down the rabbit hole you go.

Easter is the biggest religious holiday that has recently come and gone. Sure, there were all the usual suspects for movies on that day: King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ben Hur, and more. And here’s me, with my boatload of questions: why don’t the synoptic Gospels line up? If the three Wise Men were also kings, why weren’t they traveling with a caravan? At least have some guards. If one of them was from somewhere in Africa, what was he doing in the East? If Jesus had no money, and the Last Supper was basically a poor man’s meal, why do people look for a spectacular chalice? If they spent so much time with Jesus, why didn’t Thomas recognize him after the resurrection? Why have Catholics taken the last supper so literally (“Do this in memory of me.”) without seeing it as cannibalism? And so on and so forth, ad nauseum.

So, I question, and in asking the questions, I go to find the answers. I research. And in researching, I find things I don’t understand, or find a new take on, and then I go even further down the rabbit hole. And as I research, I find there’s a story I want to tell.

Has that happened to you? You start looking for one thing, and you keep finding answers to questions you didn’t know you had, and when you look up again, your stomach is growling and it’s been several hours since you started? Your history is filled with bookmarks and your browser has a ton of open tabs, and you’ve made copious notes, but there’s still more to learn?

How much research should you do? How much is too much?

As a storyteller, your job is to be dramatic. I’m about to commit sacrilege here, but what this means is that when things don’t fit the way you want them to…you make it up as you go along. As long as you have internal consistency with your storytelling, and you can get away with either skirting the facts or outright lying, then you make it up as you go along.

Now, there are differences. I’ve told the story about the writer who wanted to put the First Lady in the chain of command for government and the military. The only way that works is if the story takes place on an alternate Earth. Since it wasn’t an alternate Earth, I told that writer that it wouldn’t fly, because everyone knows that the First Lady has no formal power in government or the military. That was a lie that the writer couldn’t get around.

Time travel, though…that can be done in a myriad of ways. There are some “accepted” theories, as well as others that aren’t so accepted.

How often have you watched a television show or a movie and said, “That part is so very wrong! How can they even say that?!” Ooh. “Humans only use around 10% of their mental capacity.” I just burned some of you up, didn’t I? Settle down. I said it to make a point.

Things are done and said, lies are told, for the sake of drama. How dramatic is it to state that we use all of our brain capacity, and most of it is storage? That we only keep what we need, and the rest gets dumped to make space for more stuff. How interesting is that? How interesting would the upcoming movie Lucy be if it told the truth?

How interesting would superheroics be if they told the truth? Cars can’t be thrown the way they are, stresses to the human body can’t be survived, and even though Marvel makes a valiant effort to make their explanations sound as scientific as possible, there is a lot of hand-waving and suspension of disbelief going on when it comes to their characters. [DC doesn’t try as hard to make their characters as scientifically viable as Marvel does.]

How much research should be done, then?

Enough to understand the material, and how it will work in the story. That’s all. You don’t need to be an astrophysicist or geneticist or ghost hunter or biologist or an engineer or… You don’t need to be any of that. You just need to understand enough of the material to tell your story well.

This becomes more of a challenge when talking about characters, though. If you want to do a psychological study of Batman, you’d have to pick an era and a writer. Same thing for the Joker. Same thing for each and every character that anyone but the original writer has worked on.

Want to create a violent psychopath? Which is more dramatic, having them do all kinds of things to people, or finding out they were a bedwetter until their late teens, kept hurting animals until they finally got to hurting people. Is the reason behind their actions as important as their actions themselves? No.

Don’t let realism get in the way of the dramatic. Because here’s what’s going to happen: all of that research you’ve done? It isn’t going to make it into the story. Or, at best, you’ve done hours of research, and you only use a couple of lines before moving on to the next part of the story.

Research what you need to in order to get an understanding of the material, ask the questions that need to be asked and get the answers that work best, but unless it is a widely known fact that will kill your story if you contradict it, don’t sacrifice the dramatic on the altar of truth.

That sounds terrible. I know. I’m a person who, when watching a movie or show, tries to count the amount of bullets fired out of a revolver. Often, especially in older movies, it is much more than six. Holding a semi-automatic on its side? It looks dramatic, but it is crap for actually hitting what you’re aiming at. I want the truth, or as close as I can get to it. But the dramatic should never be second fiddle to truth. Truth should be second fiddle to the dramatic.

And this is why we get story “errors.” Most of the general public won’t catch it. Grey’s Anatomy: how much stuff is blatantly wrong in there? Surgeons basically running the hospital? How often does what they say not make any sense to those who know [doctors], and how much of it is pure entertainment to the masses? The show is well researched, but the dramatic is not sacrificed for truth.

Don’t let the truth in research stop you from telling your story. Again, the only time that should happen is if it is a widely known fact. Otherwise, sally forth.

See you in seven.

Click here to discuss in the ComixTribe forum at Digital Webbing! 


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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at for rate inquiries.

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