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How to Research Without Falling Down a Rabbit Hole

When you get lost down the rabbit hole of research, Kevin Nelson has tips that may help you stay focused and on track.

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How to Research Without Falling Down a Rabbit Hole

Your protagonist, a fearless warrior queen, besieges her former castle with a rebel army. Her heir apparent is being held captive inside by her arch-nemesis, her husband and king.

“Man the tourniquets!” she orders.


Tourniquets? No, that’s not right.

What are those rock tossing thingamajigs called again?

You search for medieval rock thrower and one minute you’re watching videos of homemade trebuchets and two hours later you’re knee deep in Justin Bieber’s magnificent catalog of hits.

Listen, I get it. We’ve all been there.

Researching for your screenplay can sometimes lead you down a rabbit hole that’s hard to get out of. It’s akin to going to the supermarket and saying to yourself, “I’ll just go in and grab a few things.”

By the time you get to the checkout line, your cart is full, and your bank account will soon be hit with a hefty fine.

[Script Extra: A Starter Guide to Researching World-of-Story]

If you ever find yourself feeling like Dorothy trying to get back to Kansas when you’re researching, don’t worry—that’s perfectly normal.

Clicking your heels might not always do the trick, so here are some other ways that may help you stay focused and on track.


The brainstorming process is when you should allow yourself the most free range for research.

Set aside entire blocks of time at the beginning of your writing sessions to freely research the subject matter of your screenplay. By doing this, you’re not rushing or adding unnecessary pressure on yourself to advance to the next stages of your script’s development.

Despite having less time restraints and more ground to explore, it’s important to constantly take stock in whether the research material is relevant to your narrative.

Relevance should always be your magnetic north.

How does each detail pulled from your research move the plot forward?

Organize your research by making a plan on what elements you need to cover.

For example:

1. Location

2. Time Period

3. Customs

4. Culture

5. Dialect

6. Occupational Details

7. Etc.

Creating a list of elements helps you maintain a schedule so you don’t become mired down in unessential details.

[Script Extra: The Secret to Finding Time to Write]

While Writing

Many great writers advise to push through the rough draft, aptly referred to as the vomit draft, as quickly as possible. The most important thing is to get it all out on the page. Still, sometimes a writer might hit a snag like the trebuchet example above.

Maintaining momentum is key, especially when a writer needs to maximize their output because they unfortunately have to address other responsibilities in lifesigh.

Sometimes the smallest pebble of a detail can cause a ten-car collision and bring the writer’s entire highway of thought to a halt.

How can you save precious time when this happens so you can get back to cruising speed?

Go in, Only Get What You Need, and Get Out

This was my father’s mantra for shopping and it can be applied to writing.

This technique requires sheer willpower and tunnel vision. You can’t allow yourself to slow down or be sidetracked by a sale on something you don’t even need.

This isn’t always easy, and for those with impulse issues there’s always the three-click rule.

Three-Click Rule

There’s no such rule. I’m making it up. Yet, fortifying a wall of discipline can help when you feel the insatiable need to jump between Wikipedia articles for hours at a time.

Only allow yourself to click three related links for your research. If three links leaves you craving for more and you find yourself unable to resist, consider limiting yourself to two clicks per interruption.

Set a Timer

For those who get so engrossed in their research that they lose all cognition of space and time—set a timer.

Having an alarm startle you out of the research zone can remind you to get back into the story.

Use a Separate Device

Keeping separate workspaces for research and drafting helps organize and prioritize your workflow.

If you’re privileged to own more than one device, try using your tablet or cell phone for researching on the fly.

Leave the screen on your preferred resource for information so that you don’t go wandering over to other apps.

Turn Off the Internet

This is good general advice for procrastination in general. By turning off your internet, and/or your cell phone, you’re eliminating distractions so you can focus on your work.

It’s easy to slip away from your duty when there is so much information at your fingertips and so little time to absorb it all.

Instead of constantly taking it all in, unplug the router and hone in on your characters’ journey. Enter their world until you come out the other side when it’s time to edit.

[Script Extra: Download our free tips for fighting writer's block!]


It’s okay to just lay down any ole jargon during the rough draft. Say, if you don’t want to waste time looking up police dispatch ten codes because you don’t want to slow down your flow.

The editing process is the time to polish your words to reveal some real gems.

Go back and fact check everything. All the details of your story should preserve continuity throughout. After all, when you get the facts straight you increase the chance of keeping the reader engaged.

Researching can be either a daunting or enjoyable experience. Either way, it’s a necessary part of the process.

If you find yourself wandering away from your main quest, hopefully some of these techniques will help you find your way back to your goal: finishing that epic screenplay.

What are some techniques that have streamlined your own research? 

Learn tips on crafting the structure of your story in Donald Hewitt's SU class, The Fundamentals of Screenwriting: Give your Script a Solid Foundation


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