Discover Magazine has a list of eleven Rules for Time Travelers, which seems pertinent given the double whammy of Lost and the new Star Trek.
I’m largely on board with most of their recommendations, particularly the idea that there are no paradoxes. I’m not talking scientifically here — I honestly have no idea how to crunch the numbers to prove this point. But in terms of fiction, and screenwriting in particular, I’d argue you need to actively crush any talk of paradoxes or impossible conundrums. They will grind your story to a halt.
I did a little work on Minority Report, a Scott Frank adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story which is enjoyable for its combined Frank-Dickness. Minority Report doesn’t deal with time travel, but rather its pushy cousin called precognition — knowledge of the future. In the story, police use precognition to stop murders before they happen.
But! But! How do you know the murders were going to happen? You changed things. So for every crime, you would need to prove that the soon-to-be-killers were absolutely, unquestionably going to do it. Which seems impossible.
I argued that you couldn’t just answer those questions when they came up. You had to take away that whole class of questions, early and forcefully.
Here’s the scene I wrote:
But it’s not the future if you stop it. Isn’t that a fundamental paradox?
Jad sets the sphere down on the table, needing both hands to explain this.
You’re really talking about predetermination, which happens all the time.
Unseen by Jad, the sphere is starting to roll towards the edge of the table, building up speed.
In fact, it’s easy to demonstrate...
At the last moment, Witwer catches it. Everyone smiles.
Why did you catch that?
Because it was going to fall.
But it didn’t fall. You caught it.
Witwer smiles a little, starting to catch on.
The fact that you prevented it from happening doesn’t change the fact that it was going to happen.
It’s the same with the murders.
The precogs are showing us what’s going to happen unless we stop it.
(In the final movie, it’s Tom Cruise’s character (Anderton) rather than Jad who provides the explanation. And that’s an understandable change: you want your hero to feel in command of the facts.)
In any script, look for scenes in which characters answer questions, and try to find ways to take the questions away. Often, that means backing up five or ten pages, well before the audience has started to formulate their concerns, and finding a way to visualize (or better yet, physicalize) the problem.
The first Jurassic Park does this well, with the animated science lesson setting the ground rules and chopping down poles upon which red flags might fly. Likewise, the first acts of most horror movies are largely devoted to creating situations in which the characters can’t simply escape or call for help. The more artfully it’s done, the less you notice the setup.
Nor can comedies waste time addressing audience concerns. Groundhog Day churns through a number of possible solutions to Bill Murray’s dilemma in a montage that makes you feel certain that he’s tried everything, whether you’ve thought of it or not.
Don’t answer questions. Get rid of them before they’re asked.
UPDATE: The weird thing about running this blog for 5+ years is that I sometimes forget which questions I’ve answered, and which anecdotes I’ve given. I wrote this post an hour ago, but it covers a lot of the same ground as last year’s longer and better essay on How to Explain Quantum Mechanics. Credit for consistency, I guess.