The Challenge of Writing A Time Travel Story

    The best time travel movies have one thing in common. The portal to the past or future is believable. Back To The Future is the best example of a believable way to go back in time. If you've seen the movie you know that the character played by Christopher LLoyd takes a DeLorean automobile, soups it up and with some bells and whistles enables Michael J. Fox to go, well, back to the future.
     If you haven't seen the movie what I've just said won't be a spoiler. As the title implies, Michael J. Fox is definitely going back in time, it happens pretty early on in the movie so nothing has been ruined for you.
     I bring this up today because I'm reading Stephen King's new novel 11/22/63 which is a time travel story. The basic premise is that a guy goes back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK.  It's much more than that, but you should read the book and take an incredible ride. As usual, the story is amazing and I literally can't put the book down.
     My only beef is the portal Mr. King has chosen for his main character to do his time travel. I won't say what it is here, but I expected more from the master. Simply, it's too easy. One of the things I was looking forward to was an imaginative portal so I sighed in disappointment when I found out what it was.
     OK, there. I'm throwing a little pinprick at a giant.
     Once Mr. King gets his protagonist and us into the past, then he shines. The rules he invents made me smile at how clever they were.  For me, next to having an imaginative portal, the other challenge of time travel stories is the do's and dont's a character must follow. In 11/21/63 Stephen King dazzles us with how things work.
     I'm assuming the book will be a film and it'll be terrific. My only wish is that whoever writes the screenplay takes some creative liberties and finds a better portal.

The Most Important Reason To Complete A First Draft Of Your Screenplay

     This is so fundamental it's ridiculous, but a screenwriter can never hear it enough times.
     You finish a first draft to see how good or bad your screenplay is. If it's more good than bad, you commit to completing a second or third or fourth draft until it's finally done. If it's bad you have 3 choices:
     (1) Decide if it's worth rethinking
     (2) Put it aside for the time being and let the idea germinate
     (3) Junk it permanently
     Don't be ashamed to junk it permanently. It's better to cut your losses before you get even further into the miasma of trying to make something unworkable work. Kind of like the economists say: don't put good money after bad.

A New Screenwriting Book Worth Checking Out

     As the author of one book on screenwriting and another on filmmaking (The Portable Film School), I'm always wary of the competition. To be honest, there are lots of good books for new or newish screenwriters. None of them are really bad. It's just that some are really good. Superior. 
    All how-to books on screenwriting pretty much say the same things, but in different ways. It's like there are 100 books on Italian cooking, but at the end of the day, the recipes they teach are all dealing with the same ingredients. The key is the author of the Italian cookbook. He or she has a uniqueness, a certain style, a way of making difficult tasks seem easy or a way of making an experienced cook grow. 
     Viewing screenwriting books is the same. Some writers need lots of handholding, others want to be motivated, then there are those who like tough love. Whatever a screenwriter needs can be found out there. You may have to go through a few books or ask friends for recommendations, but you'll find 2 or 3 that will be a good fit. 
     "Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You can, Too!"by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon delivers on several levels. It's informative, entertaining as hell and gets into the craft of writing screenplays in a way that inspires. I've been a fan of these guys since Reno 911. I think Thomas Lennon is an amazing comic actor. I've heard him (and them) interviewed and these are two guys who know their way around Hollywood. This is a very solid book for any screenwriter. 
     As I said in the title of this review, their book isn't as good as mine, but it's damn close. BTW, they are not paying me anything to say all these nice things.

Be Your Own Mentor

     Whether it's in life or in the context of pursuing a career as a screenwriter, the presence of a mentor is important. Nobody does it alone, without guidance, without someone to motivate you or push you or talk some sense into you. If you're lucky enough to have someone who cares enough to want to inspire you to do better or to overcome those demons that have immobilized you and are preventing you from completing the first draft of your screenplay or getting the energy to start that rewrite, you're a fortunate person.
     But some of us don't have a mentor. Or we had one or two, but we were too arrogant or insecure to listen to them. Add to the mix the fact that you're no longer in high school or college and finding potential mentors becomes increasingly narrow. Or you're too egotistical to want to listen to anyone.
     But I'm not here to judge. I want this to be a judgment-free environment.
     Let's just say that you would like to have a mentor, but the pickings are slim.
     What do you do?
     As the title of this post says, be your own mentor.
     Learn how to inspire yourself, to push yourself, to get focused and to face the harsh reality that your career is not moving forward (let alone your screenplay) and the only person to blame is you. (I know I said I want this to be a judgment-free environment, but don't think of those last 7 words as judgement, but rather fact.
     Just as you know when you've eaten too many Mallomars at one sitting or had too many Margaritas or behaved irresponsibly in some situation, you also know when you're not writing. You know what it's like to turn your frustration outward, when you should be turning it inward. By looking at yourself in a critical way, if you have the guts, you'll pinpoint what's preventing you from writing at all or completing your script.
     There's nothing like a little fire in the belly to jumpstart a day at the computer. And there's nothing like some solid introspection and self-analysis to bring you to a moment of clarity.
     It's real easy for all of us to bullshit our way into or out of anything, but that's negative behavior. No mentor worth his or her salt will ever BS you. Mentors tell the truth, whether we want to hear it or not. And, guess what, we don't want to hear it.
     Compliments are nice, but it's the stuff we don't want to hear that will help us move forward.
     If there's no mentor in your life presently and if you don't see anyone on the horizon, it's time to take charge and get the job done yourself.
     Special thanks to JTC

A Few Words About Dialogue

     Dialogue can be lifelike or artificial. Lifelike is how people really talk. Artificial is sanitized lifelikeish dialogue. Much of the dialogue on bad TV sitcoms is artificial. Everybody's funny (in real life everyone isn't). 
     Write how people talk. Two goofball slackers in their Twenties will talk differently than two devout nuns in their Fifties. In real life a clever person will say clever things. A dull person will not. In real life a clever person will be consistently clever or witty as he goes through each day. In your screenplay, most of the time we see him, he should be the clever, witty guy -- if that's the character's dramatic purpose. If you're writing the character for comic relief or to be a buddy/confidant to your protagonist, his job is to say or do funny things. We don't necessarily need to see the dark, sad or unhappy aspects of his life. Sitcoms are good examples of this.
     Characters should speak in what appears to be their natural, everyday language, but they must avoid the repetition and digression of ordinary conversation.  What they say must be carefully designed to move the story forward. 
     Characters in every form of fiction tend to be drawn from real life. Your success as a screenwriter will depend on your powers of observation and on your ability to portray what you observe. Characters are also drawn from what you read and what you hear.   
     Astute, observant screenwriters note the peculiarities, eccentricities and the special qualities of the people around you. Sometimes you'll create a character accurately drawn from a single living model. More often you'll use combinations of personalities that have moved or intrigued you to create a totally original character.

The Curious Case of Parallel Thinking

     There's nothing more frustrating and disconcerting than to be nearing completion of a new script that has an amazing premise, something you feel is totally unique, only to learn that somebody else has already written and sold a similar story.
     Your immediate reaction is to assume that somebody stole your idea.  Yes, of course, that's a natural assumption. But if you've never met the person and you do some digging and discover that he wrote the script two years before you even got your idea, then you know he didn't steal it.
     It's just an example of parallel thinking.
     Two (or 5, 10 or 1,000) people have the same idea.
      Stand up comics go through this all the time when it comes to jokes. A stand up in New York reads something in The NY Post about a talking parrot who recites Shakespeare. Another stand up working in Atlanta reads the same story. Five other comics in Los Angeles also read the same story. And every one of these comedians write a joke about a parrot who recites Shakespeare. They try out the joke that night and it gets huge laughs. Over the next few weeks they each use the joke and sooner or later one of them will hear from a friend that so-and-so comedian is using his talking parrot joke.
     Of course, nobody stole anything from anybody because parallel thinking took over.
     This is a fairly common occurrence, especially when it comes to either high concept ideas or ideas taken from the headlines.  Last week  the movie "30 Minutes Or Less" opened. It's about a pizza delivery man who has had a bomb rigged to his body by a couple of bad guys. If he doesn't successfully rob a bank the bomb will go off and he'll be killed. This is a comedy. However, a few years ago there was a real life story about a pizza delivery man who had a bomb rigged to his body and, well, this wasn't a comedy. The bomb blew up and the guy died.
     Sounds to me like the authors of the movie got their idea from this actual incident. In an article I read they claim that they'd never heard of it. OK. That's what they say and maybe they didn't. But it was a story that made national headlines. Is it fair to say that other screenwriters were  inspired to write a script based on the real incident? I think it's fair.
     I know a bunch of writers, myself included, who wrote a script only to find that something just like it is in production or development or has been sold which, of course, kills any screenplays like it.
     That's just the way it works.
     Don't automatically assume that someone has stolen your idea.
     Is there any way around this? Not really, other than to make sure you don't spend an inordinate amount of time writing scripts. If you took 3 years to write something and then found out it's dead in the water, it'll be a lot more painful than if you spent 3 months on the project.
    So, write fast! Or at least faster!

The Future of Story Conference Is Approaching! Get On Board

     Finding the right story to tell is the hardest part of being a screenwriter (or any kind of writer). Compared to nailing down the right story, writing it is easy. (That’s easy with BIG QUOTES because nothing about writing is easy).
     But without a story that you’re in love with and passionate about you’re kidding yourself. You’re a boat without a rudder.  When you start writing something that you only like or think you might be able to get into over time, you will drift. As you slog through the first 10 or 15 pages you’ll hope that once you get into it you’ll find something to draw you in.
     But most of the time that doesn’t happen.
     That’s why there are false starts.
     Same with relationships. If you’re a guy your whole approach to romance is defined by how much you’re attracted to the woman. If it’s an instant attraction -- and if it’s mutual --  or if it’s love at first sight you’ll behave in an entirely different way than if you just ask out a woman for the sake of trying to find someone to have dinner with on Saturday night.
     If you find yourself rudderless with the script you’re working on help is available soon. I’ve personally contacted many of you over the last few weeks about The Future of Story Conference on Saturday, August 27th in Los Angeles presented by Michael Wiese Productions and C3: Center For Conscious Creativity.
     Authors of some of the best-selling and most popular books on screenwriting and the film  industry will be there. It’s a one day affair that will give you enough advice and motivation to either finish the script that’s been driving you crazy or start the next one.
     For more information check out this link:

My Article For Comedy Writers At

     I know a lot of comedy writers.
     Some are funnier than others both in daily life and on the page. More often than you’d imagine, the funniest scripts are written by men and women who aren’t that much fun to be around. They can “write” funny, but not “be” very funny during normal life. Some are downright boring while others are depressed and a drag to be around.
     Likewise, some of the funniest writers I know are hilarious when they’re hanging out with friends or one on one, but they aren’t funny on paper. Because they were so funny, early in their careers they tried writing comedy, but they realized after a few not-very-laugh-filled scripts that comedy wasn’t their forte.
     They shut the door on writing comedy and found their niche elsewhere. But that doesn’t apply to someone who can actually write funny stuff.

     Let’s say that’s you.
     In my experience as a writer and teacher, I’ve learned that some comedy writers (like some people) are naturally funny while others have to work at it.
Think back to your childhood. Remember the kid who was the class clown? He (it was pretty much always a he. Funny girls were considered to be weird. And guys, how intimidated are you by a witty, funny woman?) irritated the teacher and generated giggles from classmates not so much by making witty remarks, but mainly by doing goofy stuff, making faces and slap-sticky things.
     I went to middle school with the same group of kids. There were the smart kids (not me), the athletes (not me), the cool kids (definitely not me), the outcasts (fortunately not me: that was to come during high school), the gen-pop (kids who were just there, usually well-behaved and religious) and the two kids competing to be class clown (one of which was me).
Competing is a generous word. There was no competition. The other kid, Joey, was hands down, the funniest kid in class. I was a distant second. Really distant. Looking back, kids laughed at me more than because of something funny I did or said.
     Joey was cute and had a killer smile. I was kind of geeky-looking and when I smiled my face wrinkled up in a way that made me look like I had Progeria (a rare abnormality marked by premature aging, grey hair, wrinkled skin and stooped posture in a child). Joey was charming. I wasn’t. All the girls had crushes on him and all the boys wanted to either hang with him or be him.
     Nobody wanted to be me. I didn’t even want to be me.
     What I wanted was to make my classmates laugh (attention, duh!). The problem was that Joey was a natural. I wasn’t. He would open his mouth and most of the time something clever came out. And when what he said missed the mark, he had learned to ignore it and move on to the next ad lib.
     I didn’t know what an ad lib was. I didn’t know what being witty or clever meant. At some point, I started to realize that unlike Joey, I would have to work at getting laughs. Work very hard!
     Which brings us back to comedy writing. At some point you decided that you wanted to be a comedy writer. For me, it was in my early 20s. I started out writing plays, specifically, comedies.
     That’s when I realized that my writing career was a re-creation of my childhood desire to be class clown. Instead of competing with one Joey who didn’t have to work that hard at getting laughs, I would be competing with lots of Joeys to whom comedy writing came, if not “easy,” certainly “easier.”
     Once again, that “work very hard” mantra began ringing in my ears. I’m convinced that most of us have to work at it.
     Being a comedy writer isn’t just a matter of writing funny dialogue, bits or set pieces.        There’s a whole other level to confuse you.
     What kind of comedy do you write?
     You’re at a party, in a bar or somewhere and you’re talking with someone you just met. You let it slip that you’re a screenwriter and the person asks you what kind of stuff you write.
     Someone who doesn’t write comedies might answer without a moment’s hesitation in the following way:
     “I write – “Thrillers. Action. Sci-Fi. Adventure. Mysteries. Independent. Horror. Drama.”
These writers are lucky. They know their identity as a screenwriter.
But if you’re a comedy writer your answer might not come as easily. What would your answer be? That you write: Comedies? Comedy/dramas? Serio/comic? Dramedies? Dramatic comedies? Romantic comedies? Buddy comedies? Bittersweet comedies? Comedy/adventures? Sex comedies? Dark comedies? Farce? Parody?
Pinpointing the type of comedies you write is important, especially if the person who asked what kind of screenplays you write is an agent, manager, producer, development executive or somebody in the business who might help you.
     The industry has changed. Knowing the kind of comedy you write is a way of creating your brand. Maybe the old school term for branding is just as good: pigeonholed.
In television you’re either a sitcom writer or you write hour-long drama. You might eventually do both, but you’ll break into the business as one or the other.
Before Alan Ball wrote Six Feet Under and True Blood, he wrote for Grace Under Fire and Cybil. He made the transition, which also included a little detour into screenwriting called American Beauty. Same with Terence Winter. Before he wrote for The Sopranos and created Boardwalk Empire he wrote for Flipper and Sister, SisterJudd Apatow is known for a certain kind of comedy. So are Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers. So are The Farrelly Brothers, Adam Sandler, Diablo Cody, Kevin Smith and Dana Fox. 
     Woody Allen is in a genre-bending league all his own.
     There are four stages of his career. (1) Fun, goofy comedies: Bananas, Take The Money and Run and Sleeper. (2) Comedy/dramas: Annie Hall, Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose. (3) Dramatic/Comedies: Stardust Memories, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Radio Days. (4) This is the most difficult to pinpoint. Even diehard Woody Allen fans, of which I am one, have found his output over the last 15 years to be inconsistent. His best films are a mix of comedy/dramas and dramedies (Deconstructing Harry, Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Whatever Works). His lesser successes are more difficult to pinpoint (Anything Else, Cassandra’s Dream, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger).
     And then in the summer of 2011 comes Midnight In Paris which has him at the top of his game.
     Now we should all be so lucky to have careers as long and productive as Woody Allen. Even if his best work is behind him, he leaves a tremendous legacy. I bring him up simply to illustrate that though he began his screenwriting career writing lowbrow comedies he aspired to greater heights and achieved it. As of this writing he’s written more than 40 screenplays.
     What about you? You’re writing comedies. Are you able to narrow it down to the kind you write? It’s important to your career that you know so when someone who can help you asks what you write you can be specific. But maybe you don’t know your genre of comedy or you’re not sure. You may still be finding your voice.
     Do you want to be known as the screenwriter who writes raunchy, vulgar, stupid stuff (that might get you a huge deal and a house in Malibu) or do you want to be known as the writer of witty, clever, smart comedies? The kind that get nominated for Academy Awards.
The ability to write raunchy comedies and dick jokes is a certain kind of talent that might get you in the door. If you’re relatively young, your life experience might still be in the adolescent/frat boy vein. You can outgrow that if you choose. Maybe you won’t want to. Maybe that’s all you’re capable of. If that’s the case, you’ll be branded as a one-trick pony.
But as you get older you might want to change your professional image. Woody Allen came a long way from Bananas to Crimes and Misdemeanors. But if you start out wanting to write comedies that are grounded in reality and filled with wit and intelligence, you’ll be positioning yourself on a higher plain.
     You’ll be the screenwriter others aspire to be. And that’s nothing to laugh about!

Be Sure You Know What You've Written

           Often, a screenwriter doesn’t know what he/she has written. What started off to be about one character winds up being about whom you thought was the second lead. What started off as a coming of age story about a lovesick teenage girl obsessed with her teacher turns out to be about him. What was supposed to be a comedy turns into a bittersweet drama.
            Why does this happen?
            There’s no easy answer. It’s just the process of writing. Ideas beget ideas. You can write a detailed outline and maybe even a pretty detailed treatment that follows your original idea, but when you get to script and the characters start coming alive things can go in a direction you never anticipated.
            This is good as long as you known what your creative vision is. It’s when you lose sight of what you’re writing that problems arise.
Similarly, a finished movie sometimes doesn’t know or hasn’t decided what it is.
            Case in point. Early in 2011 there was The Dilemma. I couldn’t wait to see this movie. Big fan of its stars, Vince Vaughn and Kevin James.  Huge fan of its director, Ron Howard. Liked the previous work of the screenwriter, Alan Loeb. The film got uniformly bad reviews. I saw it opening weekend.
            Now we all know (or if you don’t know, you should) how the rewriting process goes, so maybe one or more people got their hands involved in the script. It started off pretty funny so you think you’re watching a comedy. I mean, Vince Vaughn? Kevin James? We’re not expecting Eugene O’Neill here. Then it turns a corner and it gets serious.
Well, a little serious. We’re kind of not laughing, but we’re waiting for things to get funny again. Problem is, it doesn’t. It gets more serious and a key plot point makes us uncomfortable. We’re waiting for some kind of Act Three payoff, but none comes. The story changed gears. And what they gave us bums us out. And it ends, but the ending isn’t even remotely satisfying.
What went wrong with all these talented people involved? Who knows? Maybe they don’t even know. When a studio and talent and a director gets involved, lots can happen.
But when you’re writing your screenplay and you make changes from your original idea, make sure you stay in control. When other hands get involved you often don’t have a say, but when your story is still in your hands, and your hands alone, there’s no excuse to lose sight of what you intended.

Just Wait For The Idea To Come, Right? Wrong!

     Ideas, like opportunities, don't come that often. We have to look for them. Sometimes, if we're lucky, an idea for a screenplay appears out of nowhere. We're walking our dog, taking a shower, overhearing a conversation in a restaurant or an elevator, skimming the newspaper and voila!...inspiration strikes.
     That's cool if that happens, but if we're spending the bulk of our time waiting for that fantastic idea to land in our laps, well, we're going to wait a long time. If the muse isn't striking a chord, we have to look for ideas. How do we do this? Pretty much by making sure our antennae are up 24/7. Be on the look out for ideas from all the different kinds of media. Read newspapers. Read a few of the pop culture websites and blogs. 
     When you're talking with friends or co-workers or strangers, pay attention to what they say. They might innocently relate an anecdote that resonates with you and could serve as the catalyst for your next script.
     Let your mind wonder. Think about your past. People, events, specific incidents that affected you. Sometimes recalling things from our past opens up a door that has long been closed.
     And don't forget about reading. Inspiration breads inspiration. Or going to movies. Sometimes watching a film can jump start your creativity.
     But the most important thing is to always be ready to be receptive to the random comment, encounter or oddball incident that gets you to think, "What if...?"