Kill the Cat

Posted: March 29, 2015 in Uncategorized

Here’s a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time: books on writing. I want to be perfectly clear here: they’re invaluable. Over the years I’ve read dozens, from How to Make a Good Script Great to Story to Save the Cat and beyond. These books help the new generation of writers (or even the current one, for that matter) learn how to cope with the mountain of obstacles between you and a finished screenplay. Shoddy dialogue, thin characters, structural issues—these books can help fix what’s broken and elevate your writing to new heights. But often times writers rely too heavily on what they read, assuming they’ve been handed “Hollywood’s template” and reducing their story to a series of check boxes. The result is unoriginal, paint-by-numbers storytelling that becomes painfully boring to read.

Get enough aspiring writers in a group to talk about storytelling, and you’ll start to hear the same questions.

“Where’s your Save the Cat moment?”

“About when does your hero approach the innermost cave?”

“Why does your inciting incident happen on page 11 and not page 10?”

There’s a reason working writers don’t raise these questions with each other. It isn’t that there’s no value to them; it’s that we’ve learned what Robert McKee said in the very first chapter of STORY: Writing is form, not formula. The author of each book is offering tips to help fix a problem they can’t see or touch. These rules are meant to be reshaped. Reinterpreted. Changed or discounted completely. But for some reason new writers glob onto them and worry about cramming their story into someone else’s beat sheet.

Am I saying you should write a five-act, 300-page screenplay in 15-pt Marion font? Of course not. Some rules—mostly the structural ones—are helpful ways of keeping your script in a digestible, familiar state that can be consumed in 2 hours. But on the creative side, rules are meant to be broken. Hell, look at Aliens. It takes almost an hour before Ripley even comes into contact with an alien. Did the movie fail because the inciting incident occurred past the ten-minute mark?

Break the rules. Listen to your gut. Write the best damn story you can. Those tips and tricks will be there waiting for you if you need them. But don’t look at them as laws. Your one and only concern should be crafting an entertaining journey. If the inciting incident happens on page 13, don’t freak out. If your hero doesn’t “return with an elixir,” then give me an original ending that sticks with me. The sooner you stop worrying about how to save a cat (and why would you? cats are horrible), the sooner you’ll start developing your own voice and rules.


When I was a young kid back in 1989, I had it in my mind that I would be dead by 2015. Not for any morbid reason, mind you—it was more that I could not imagine an adult TJ running around a world full of flying cars and hoverboards. Like every kid my age, I fixated on Back to the Future II and viewed it as a prophecy. By 2015 we would have holographic movie trailers, our clothes would be inside out, and weather would be predictable down to the second. If only.

Well, 2015 finally arrived, and while we have certainly made tons of advancements since then (a little invention called the Internet comes to mind), things are not as different as Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale led me to believe. Computers have gotten better and smaller, cars have gotten greener, and we have more ways to overshare our lives then ever before. But the bionic implants and Mr. Fusion are nowhere to be found. I wanted hoverboards, and instead I got a million ways to show complete strangers that I am eating a taco—or tell complete strangers that I hate their pictures of them eating tacos.

But rather than lament the lack of gravity-resistant plastic or self-cleaning jackets, I thought it would be more constructive to take an honest look back at 2014 and set goals for 2015. Some are specific to my job, others may be a bit more personal. Either way, I’m committed to succeeding in at least one. 2014 brought me a lot of successes I’m quite proud of—but it was also the most challenging, frustrating, and yes, panic attack-inducing years I’ve ever faced. So let’s look at some of the things I hope to do in order to make 2015 a better year.

Resolution #1: Write outside my comfort zone.

2014 was a great year for my career. I got to write some really fun projects with producers and actors I admire. From the Berlanti folks to the Donners’ Company, I worked with some insanely sharp people last year (special shout-out to the amazing Sarah Schechter). I’ve learned a great deal from all of them.

What I feel like I’m missing is a genre detour. Around town, I’m often brought in for action-comedy or adventure. You’ll hear no complaints from me on this one, as it’s every writer’s dream to be able to write crazy car chases and stories about stone creatures that protect humanity. But when I look towards the future (where flying cars and hoverboards do exist, goddamn it), I don’t want to be the writer who falls into a specific bucket and stays there. I love suspense thrillers, horror, and gritty crime stories. I recently watched Locke and found myself wishing I was a part of that movie, despite knowing full well that I would not be the right guy for it.

Now, loving a genre doesn’t mean you should write it for a living. I’m probably far better at action-comedy than horror. But even if it’s just for a fun personal project, I’d like to force myself out of my comfort zone and try a story that is different than my usual fare.

Resolution #2: Get back to graphic novels.

I’ve collaborated with editor Ben Abernathy on two comic books during my career: Ratchet & Clank and Legends of the Dark Knight: A Game to Die For. Since then I’ve wished I could return to comics for a project or two. It’s just a fun medium. So far it’s only been my schedule that has kept me from doing so, but if time permits in 2015, I’d love to get back to it.

Resolution #3: Be a better brother.

My siblings and I have a strange relationship. I have not spoken with my older sister in over two years, and my younger, autistic sister lives in an assisted-living community on the east coast. My relationship with my older sister is sadly nonexistent. More than likely we will never speak to each other again, and I have made my peace with that. But my younger sister deserves a big brother who will Skype her more often, and too many times I’ve put it off because “I have too much to do.” In 2015, I’ll make more of an effort to see how she’s doing and let her know that I love her.

Resolution #4: Trust my gut more.

In 2014 I learned a valuable lesson: always trust your gut. Your brain and heart will often lie to you when it comes to friends, work, significant others, and what movie to watch on Netflix. Your gut never lies. If your gut tells you to do something, trust it. It’s impartial and fair, and will save you a lot of stress.

Resolution #5: Fix my damn work/life balance.

Those of you who read my blog know that my family ran into financial difficulties when I was a kid, and it took us years to crawl out from under the wreckage. Because of this, I am—and will always be—afraid of going broke. When I left Insomniac, I did it for the right reasons (though it was not because of the Ratchet movie, as one article suggested). But going from a full-time employee to a contract writer became the single most stressful thing I’ve ever done.

I started having anxiety attacks, piling more work onto my plate “just in case,” and sealing myself inside the Condo of Solitude so I could get my writing done. I spent every day, night, and weekend writing. I canceled plans. I backed out of dinners. I started new scripts. Meanwhile, outside, the world spun on. As writers, we draw on our lives and experiences in order to fuel our stories. For whatever reason, I forgot that and decided I should dwell in my condo like the Hunchback of Sherman Oaks.

In 2015 I’ll try to get out a bit more. I’m already looking for a dog so I have a reason to go outside everyday. It’s time to rediscover life outside my house.

Resolution #6: Get in shape, eat better, etc.

Self-explanatory here. We could all use this one, but it’s double-true for those of us who sit behind laptops all day.

Resolution #7: Blog/engage more.

I’ve been a slacker about blogging and interacting with my followers. So, I’m sorry! It’s my fault! It’s not you, it’s me! Etc. I promise that in 2015 I’ll do a better job of managing this blog. For Twitter, I’ll do a better job not just tweeting (which I probably do too much of), but engaging. Answering questions. Talking to followers. Maybe snapping a selfie or two. Just kidding…

* * *

And there you go! Those are my resolutions for 2015. Have resolutions of your own? Think anything here is insane and begging for a snide response? Well that’s what comment sections are for! Just please remember I am somebody’s son, so keep the vitriol to a minimum.



Hey Everyone,

Quick post tonight, just to let those of you interested know I will be streaming Sunset Overdrive tonight with BioShock Infinite Lead Writer Drew Holmes starting around 8pm (Pacific Time). Come watch us be terrible at video games despite working in the industry for over a decade.

My Internet connection has been unpredictable lately, but barring any complications it should be pretty fun. And yes, we will answer some questions, should you have any (and should NDAs permit us, of course). 🙂



Comiccon came and went, and my body is still paying the price. Between the miles of convention floor walking, the nights out with friends, and the days shuffling around the Gas Lamp District, it’s safe to say I’m ready to take a 360-day vacation from SDCC. A few things I learned this year:

  • My friend Shawn has a lovely singing voice.
  • Moscow Mules could be the greatest thing ever.
  • Married dudes love talking about all the women they’d be hooking up with if they were single. (AKA Hypothetical Player Syndrome)
  • Weird Al has recorded about 123,847,844 songs and I’ve now heard every one of them.
  • The mere presence of Meagan Fox is enough to sap the cool out of me and my entire group of friends.
  • The Rock’s greatest one-liner could be “Fucking centaurs.”

So, on to the scavenger hunt. Thanks to all who submitted ideas through twitter, the blog, FB, etc. It definitely helped get me onto the convention floor more, so I’ll be doing it again next year. There are a few I couldn’t post here because apparently videos are a pain in the ass, but here are the rest:

@VernaVernisa asked me to find someone with a kilt, fedora, and katana. Couldn’t find anyone with all three, but here’s a random guy in a true kilt:

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Had a few people ask me to find cosplay from Watchmen, and I was determined not to run to the Rorschach well. I think this guy nailed it as The Comedian.

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“Find Kevin Conroy.”

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“Find Jar Jar Binks.” – I had fun with this one.

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“Find Deadpool.” I wish I could post the video I tweeted of the Deadpool dance-off. Trust me on this one – it was awesome.

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“Find a cast member from The Avengers.” Here they are! Yep, gaze upon the splendor of Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Sammy L! (cut me some slack on this one!)

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“Find the Insomniacs.” Here’s Mr. Ryan Schneider at the Sunset Overdrive area.

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“Find Troy Baker.” Found him. And his hair was magnificent as usual.

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These weren’t on the scavenger hunt but I thought they were worth sharing.

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To the follower who asked me to get Ken Levine’s thoughts on seamonkeys, he decided not to attend the show because of something he called a “deadline.” He must be writing some little indie movie or something. But fear not! I reached out to him anyway, so I’ll post whatever response he provides.

Thanks all!


Hey Friends,

Every year for the past five years I’ve gone to SDCC, and every year I leave feeling like I haven’t seen enough. While everyone who’s been to Comic Con will tell you that it’s an outrageous, entertaining experience, they’ll likely follow that up with “and I had to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.”

The reaction is a natural byproduct of the convention atmosphere: too many people, too much heat, and too many booths and vendors vying for our attention. It’s a 24/7 assault on the senses, and it gets a bit overwhelming – especially when a good third of the attendees have been in the same cosplay for three days straight in 90 degree weather. Do you know what a wookie costume smells like after three days in San Diego? I do. And I still shudder at the memory.

In order to encourage myself to explore as much of the convention as possible, I decided it would be fun to try a scavenger hunt. The idea is simple: you give me stuff to look for, and I’ll find it at the convention and post photographic evidence to my blog when I get back. This doesn’t have to be something in the convention hall itself. It can be anything comiccon-related:

  • Cosplay
  • VO actors
  • Video game professionals
  • Celebrities (not Chevy Chase – long story)
  • Swag/Memorabilia
  • Panels

…or anything I haven’t thought of that won’t get me thrown in jail. If I get enough suggestions, I’ll post the list to my blog and do my best to get as many of them as possible. And if you happen to be going to the Con, please feel free to join in!

Add your ideas in the comment section here, and share with whoever you like!


The Men Who Kill

Posted: April 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

Hey Folks,

As you might remember, I left Insomniac Games last July to focus on features. Back then I was sure working out of my house every day would cause some kind of psychotic break. I was equally sure said break would occur within the first six months. You can imagine how pleasantly surprised I am to find myself in late April without a tin foil hat, or men with giant butterfly nets knocking on my door. And even better – there are new projects on the horizon.

In early December I had an idea for a new action movie I call “The Men Who Kill.” Well, after a lot of work and some nerve-racking pitches, it sold to FOX last week. I can’t get into the plot just yet, but I can tell you I’m incredibly excited about it. If you care to check out the press release, you can find it here:

I’m excited to have Michael B. Jordan on board for the pic. I’ve been a big fan of his since The Wire, and he’s going to crush this role. Looking forward to telling you more about it. In the meantime, I should probably get to writing this thing!

Until next time!


Hey All,

Below are some of the questions I received through Twitter and the blog. Thanks to all who submitted. I hope to do more of these soon!

— TJ

Kevin Johnson (@kjohnson1585) Question! I’m heading to LA for a few lunches. Any advice on how on (sic) to talk about writing and perhaps seeing an agent? Thanks!

The agent question is one that gets asked a lot, and for good reason – they’re notoriously tough to get. If you aren’t yet established in some form (unpublished, unproduced, etc.) it’ll naturally be tougher. Most agencies don’t take cold calls or walk-ins, and doing so will tip your hand that you’re a newbie—after all, they’ve heard every pitch, line, and excuse from writers trying to make it past the switchboard. If you must, I’d recommend smaller boutique agencies. They’re the ones who are typically more willing to engage a new writer. However, if you are meeting an agent, it’s usually because they’ve already read your stuff and actively sought you out. 

The best way to get an agent’s attention is to submit your screenplay to a screenwriting competition. If it’s reputable, the judges will be everyone from agents to producers and studio execs. Everyone you need to see your script will see it, and it’ll be passed around town to other industry players. If it’s solid, you’ll get a call!

Joey Shiraef (@Jos33phus) Would you say writing scripts for games is more challenging than for film?

Both have their own sets of challenges. Video games may have more technical hurdles (animation time, rendering limitations, the mercurial nature of game development), but film isn’t without its own challenges. There may be far less content in a two-hour movie than an eight-hour game, but there are endless rewrites and budget constraints that will keep you on your toes.

Blain Howard (@Blainh) Why are you so handsome?!

Good genes and an accent that only adds more effervescence to my warm northeastern allure.

Donald Tonello (@DonaldT_32) Any new projects you’re working on that you can talk about?

I can’t confirm anything just yet, but 2014 is going to be really exciting. I’m working on a few new features, and I have a graphic novel concept I’m keen to develop in the coming months. It’s all a matter of scheduling, but I have plenty of new projects to keep me occupied for a while. Hopefully I can share more in early 2014!

 Tim V (submitted through the blog)

How is writing influenced by the fact that the end output is a game with distinct levels rather than a continuous story? What difficulties emerge?

For this one I’ll direct you to an earlier blog entry titled “Why Screenwriters Fail at Screenwriting.” This should give you an idea of the challenges game writers face.

What were the challenges in writing the R&C movie given that it’s based on the origin story told in the original game?

Writing an origin story is challenging because you want to honor the canon originally explored by the source material, but you also want to make the story work for a different medium. What worked for one medium doesn’t always work for another, so I try to target the DNA of the franchise. Meaning, how do fans identify the universe? Do the characters and humor feel consistent with the Ratchet & Clank games? I hold onto this DNA tightly, and for the smaller mythology points, I learn to let go. For instance, Dr. Nefarious may not have been in the first Ratchet game, but for the movie, I had an idea for him I felt made the story more enjoyable. At the end of the day, our goal is to simply make the best movie possible for established audiences and new ones – and having Neffy in the movie just made sense regardless of how events shook out the first go-round.

Who was your favourite character to write for, and why?

It’s a tie between Captain Qwark (Ratchet & Clank) and The Joker (Legends of the Dark Knight: A Game to Die For). Obviously, the two couldn’t be any more different. Qwark is a lovable schlub while The Joker is a murderous madman, but each one exercised a different part of my brain and made me a better writer.

It was you who made Dalton afraid of cats, wasn’t it?

 Dalton isn’t afraid of them – he just hates them. Like me. So, yep. 🙂