Out of Control


I was talking to a writer friend of mine about how characters sometimes take on a life of their own. In my experience, sometimes they do things that can help the story. Sometimes they screw shit up. This is where writers come in and reign them fuckers in. But there’s a balance between letting the story flow naturally to wrangling it via Deus ex Machina.

This happened when I was rewriting the ending of my second book. In my first draft, I had killed off a supporting character. Workshopping the book had revealed a lot of weaknesses that I needed to shore up. During my rewrite, I was looking for an opportunity to off this character. But as the new ending progressed, the situation required him to remain alive because I needed someone to complete certain tasks and goals. I could have killed him off, then used a no-named character to fulfill these tasks, but the scene wouldn’t have any emotion. With that I was forced to keep this character alive. After he had completed his tasks, I decided to have him escape death. On an intellectual level, I had already killed off a lot of the supporting characters, so keeping him would be a great way to have some continuity going into the third novel.

An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere —Gustave Flaubert

I’ve written how heavy handedness in storytelling can be a huge problem. Most people can feel that manipulation, which can take them out of the story. And I think writers, including myself, sometimes forget that being a good wordsmith, the mechanics of language, the structure of story only serve to spark the most powerful machine on the planet: our minds.

When we watch musicians, their tools of the trade are their instruments. When reveling in the performances of dancers, actors, singers, and professional wrestlers, we’re admiring the human body as instruments. But as storytellers, our tool is the imagination.


Consider the saying: a picture is worth a thousand words.

How many words is the imagination worth? Simply put, enough to spark it.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I started a new writing project. For the past 15 years, I’ve been living in a fantasy world of my own creation. Longer if I consider that I’ve been dipping in and out of it since I was in high school. The challenge is that I have to describe everything that isn’t familiar to this world. That’s part of the reason why fantasy novels tend to be longer than normal fiction.

My new story takes place in San Francisco. And that’s refreshing because I can use words like office and bedroom and car and street without having to fully describe every single detail. I still have to show what’s important, ground the reader in the setting, but a lot of the heavy lifting is done by virtue that I’m using the real world. The challenge for me is giving enough detail to spark the imagination, but not so much that I bog the reader down.

So let’s explore this sentence: She entered her bedroom. If I don’t write another word about the bedroom, the reader will automatically picture their interpretation of a bedroom: bed, side table, armoire, bay window, sex swing...sorry. That’s my version. Putting no details whatsoever can be a mistake, especially if this is the main character’s room, because using the environment can be a great way of showing what this person is like. Is she messy? How expensive is her taste? A plant and it’s health can be used to symbolize the progress of the character arc. I can set the lighting to represent her mood. Pictures can illuminate her interests, passions and loves. These are the kinds of details that readers are likely to want because it helps tell the story without writing on the nose.

Working in a writing group is helpful because I can see where we all fall short in telling our story, or where we do a great job. So much of what we like in art is based on how it makes us feel, which is incredibly subjective. But we as writers are trying to spark the imagination and invoke emotions, all the while making sure the mechanics and structure of our writing are sound without confusing the reader. A small task, wink wink.

My writing group was featured in a podcast, showcasing how we work, answering questions about writing, storytelling.

Cobra Kai

In my last post I talked about why sequels can suck. When a character moves through their arch, they start from who they are, having a trait such as not believing in oneself. The plot will continually challenge that notion until the character realizes what it means to truly have faith in themself. And if the writer is good, then the story will test the staying power of that new trait.

Therein lies the problem for sequels that I discussed in my last post: The character has become the person they should be. So how does a writer continue that character's story in a sequel, while still having an arch to traverse?


One of my favorite movies from my childhood is The Karate Kid. On the surface, Daniel, the main character, seems to be confident in himself. Right after moving across the country with his mother, he makes a new friend who invites him to a beach party. There he sees a girl that he likes and doesn't have a problem charming her. Her ex-boyfriend, Johnny, spots them, and he tries to force a conversation with her. Daniel stands up to Johnny and receives a beating for his efforts.

As a character, Daniel has attitude, confidence, and is unenlightened. How can someone have confidence and lack enlightenment? That's what so intriguing about Daniel.

Confidence is the trust in one's own ability. The plot shows us this. Robert Mark Kamen, the original screenwriter, knew what he was doing. Daniel's ability to make a new friend, to charm a girl and stand up for himself are signs of confidence. Confidence, however, doesn't guarantee success. So when Daniel fails by losing that new friend, the fight, and the ability to show his vulnerability to the girl, doubt seeps inside and eats at him. So what does he do? He tries to learn Karate from a book and checks out a Karate school called the Cobra Kai. He's trying to shore up his doubt by out-Karateing Johnny.


Mistah Miyagi is Spiderman.

Mr. Miyagi has made a deal with the Cobra Kai that Daniel and Johnny will settle their differences at the All Valley Karate Tournament. Months of training fly by as Miyagi instructs Daniel. Daniel confesses that he doesn't feel like he's learned enough Karate. With a knowing smile, Miyagi says to trust in the quality of the training, not the quantity. This is important because the solution to Daniel's problems isn't to know more Karate. Nor is it to be stronger. Nor be faster.

Miyagi has always taught from a place of truth. That one must be fully committed to the task. Hard work done well is important. Balance in life is essential. Miyagi is an enlightened individual. He's detached from silly things like winning and losing. His only concern is that Daniel knows himself. That his truth lies within.

Sweep the leg.

Daniel does well in the tournament and makes it to the finals. This is where the plot tests how well he's learned his lessons. The Cobra Kai sensei instructs Johnny to cheat, so he sweeps the leg, forcing Daniel to forfeit the bout due to injury. Will he be satisfied with the current outcome? Or will he choose to fight injured?

This is a movie goddammit! So he chooses to fight injured.

Miyagi looks at his wounded student. "No need fight anymore. You prove point."

"What, that I can take a beating?" Daniel says. "Every time I see those guys, they'll know they got the best of me. I'll never have balance that way, not with them, not with Ali...not with me."

Not with me. And here we find out that Daniel is enlightened.

Now. How does a writer create a character arch who is enlightened?

Thirty-four years later, Cobra Kai.


I was concerned that the YouTube Red series, Cobra Kai, was gonna suck ass. So much of the promotional commercials show Johnny as the sympathetic/protagonist and Daniel as a douche. That would be like doing something ghastly, taking a totally optimistic character and making him completely pessimistic—ahem—Luke Skywalker—cough. Thank baby Jesus that didn't happen—sneeze—sarcasm.

The writers for Cobra Kai continued the mythology of Daniel and Johnny. Their core character traits are still intact.

Daniel has become a car salesman. He owns a chain of car dealerships. The writers showed that that level of comfort has softened Daniel. His focus is on the good life: riches, providing for his family. What he didn't have himself: A loving father and material wealth.

Johnny's still an asshole, but from what I gather, he hasn't had a lot of opportunities throughout the past 34 years to grow into the person he should be. He started on that path when he congratulated Daniel for beating him in the '84 All Valley Tournament. The life of wealth that Johnny had came with severe costs—a stepfather who hated him.

What I love about these two characters is the gray area they venture in and out of. Both of them make good and bad choices. So my mind is always trying to categorize who the good and bad guy is. This is mirrored in the young cast of characters. The writing plays with my sense of expectations. Sometimes the story fulfills it. Other times it switches things around.

The biggest point is that Daniel and Johnny felt real because their core character traits have remained true. The nostalgia, the incredible storytelling and good acting made this series a joy to watch. Often times I forgot that I was a writer and was pulled into the story. That's a good sign. Because when I'm critiquing a story that I'm reading or watching for entertainment, it means the writing hasn't done the job of pulling me in.

Bad Boys


The Black Panther leaped into theaters, breaking records from ticket sales to having the highest rating on Rotten Tomatoes for a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. And it proves that a predominantly black cast can sell a film.

I'm a huge fan of Ryan Coogler and have a man crush on Michael B. Jordan. Living close to Oakland, I heard about the incident at Fruitvale Bart Station. Seeing the movie Coogler wrote had an affect on me that I still cannot express in words today.

Going to school in the San Francisco Bay Area has taught me that all peoples are created equal. But this was a very intellectual idea, meaning I had yet to internalize this fact. It wasn't until I had started dating an Egyptian Muslim woman—read: highly conservative—that my eyes and heart were truly open. I had met her Arab friends, traveled with them, laughed and cried about their issues, and I came to know a truth. They want the same things that most hot-blooded Americans want: Happiness, security, friendship, love. They enjoyed great food, loved dancing, found the drink to be intoxicating, and even dove into sex freely. Though, many of them avoided eating bacon.


I loved listening to the Arabic language. To me it sounded lyrical. From what little my ex-girlfriend had taught me of her language, I knew it was rich with meaning and depth. I found it amusing that many of the men were named Mohammed. Apparently, so did they. I've come to love what little I've seen of the Middle Eastern culture and yearn to travel there and experience more.

All of this is to say that no matter what background a person comes from, anyone can relate to them if they wish. Whether they're good or bad. Really? Bad? Read: Segue.

One of the rare things that The Black Panther has in a villain is that he's relatable.

I've always talked about rooting a character to a reader. This means that the reader becomes empathetic to the characters, or, for example, they want that character to succeed. And they'll also feel the character's losses when she fails at meeting her goals. In other words, the readers have invested themselves in the story.

One of the biggest complaints about the MCU villains is their motivations. Or lack thereof. Often they want the world's destruction for no real reason. Save one. Magneto.

My writing workshop had pointed this out to me, describing a scene where Magneto was taken away from a concentration camp when he was a child. This demonstrated how humans are cruel, fearing someone who's different. And what better stage than The Holocaust? So Magneto forms his own group of mutants to defend against the coming war against humans.


In The Black Panther, the villain Killmonger dealt with his father's death at the hands of his own uncle. Then having to grow up in Oakland where black people, such as Oscar Grant, were either oppressed or killed by the white colonizers must have infected him with deep resentment. He's then highly motivated to force the nation of Wakanda to use their resources and arm the oppressed blacks of the world with advanced weapons.

Watching this develop in the theater, I found myself nodding. That surprised me. I'm against weapons of mass destruction, but having witnessed the many real-life injustices black people have faced, I couldn't disagree with the villain. I completely related to Killmonger's ideals. I smiled as I remarked on how my thinking was well led by the writing of Panther.

I also feel that when a writer roots any character to a reader, or viewer, there has to be an element of truth that we as humans can understand. For example, how can a writer show a schizophrenic character being jostled by the many voices in his head? If I write that the voices sounded like hundreds of ghosts screaming at him, then that might not hit the spot. Most people probably have not had this quaint experience. However, if I show that the voices sounded like his mother screaming, his father yelling, his little brother growling at him at every single moment of the day with no way to shut the door, then that might get closer. Here’s a great line from Magneto in X-Men: First Class (2011) that demonstrates this idea:

"You built these weapons to destroy us. Why? Because you are afraid of our gifts, because we are different. Humanity has always feared that which is different. Well, I am here to tell you, to tell the world, you are right to fear us. We are the future, we are the ones who will inherit this earth, and anyone who stands in our way will suffer the same fate as these men you see before you. Today was meant to be a display of your power, instead I give you a glimpse of the devastation my race can unleash upon yours. Let this be a warning to the world and my mutant brothers and sisters out there, I say this: No more hiding, no more suffering, you have lived in the shadows in shame and fear for too long. Come out, join me, fight together in a brotherhood of our kind. A new tomorrow that starts today."

Don't Alienate Your Readers

Should a writer listen to the readers and craft stories with their expectations? Especially in an established series such as Alien? No. But that was one of the biggest complaints for the new film Alien Covenant. More on that later.

For me I've crafted my story with something real to say about the human condition. Outside input would only muddle that message. Trying to convey my message is hard enough as it is.

This leads me to Alien Covenant directed by Ridley Scott. There appears to be a lot of discontent around the net regarding his latest effort. Scott seemed to have ignored the basic timeline of the Alien universe, logical storytelling, and has fallen to using the worst horror cliches since the Friday the 13th movies. Impossible, you may say. Would a skilled filmmaker and storyteller recycle a shower scene where a couple is making out and both are killed? Hell to the No, you scream at me. Unfortunately, yes he did.

However, most reviewers, both who favored and hated Covenant, didn't comment on the most glaring thing that was missing. I can't blame them, though, as there were a lot of things wrong. A huge indication of what's missing is with the casting of James Franco as the captain of the ill-fated ship. He dies in his hibernating capsule right after most of the crew has awaken. This is not a spoiler because it doesn't do anything except beg the question: Why cast such a named actor if Scott wasn't going to use him beyond the beginning? That's simple. I'm assuming here, of course, but Scott was probably banking on Franco dying to get the audience to care. If that's true, then I don't think it worked. At least not for me.

Scott used that death by having the loyal crew argue with the succeeding captain that they should have some sort of funeral. The new commander denies their request because the ship is falling apart and repairs are needed now. Makes sense to me. Everyone is in a spaceship...in space...where if it falls apart everyone dies. However, the crew gathers below deck anyway and salutes the dead captain as he's shot out into...space.  The filmmaker is hoping the audience will care because the crew was loyal.

The issue is that there are no character traits to separate the many crew members, most of whom end up as cannon fodder. No character traits means no character arcs of any kind. Some of the reviews had touched on this by stating they didn't care that this person or that individual was killed. They may have not known why they didn't care. But it was obvious the writers didn't root the audience to anyone except to use Franco as Franco—not as the captain—breaking the fourth wall, which is the movie screen.

Here's what I think Scott is trying to do:

See this movie star James Franco who's been in everything? You guys like him, right? Well...he dies.

The audience shrugs because they know this is just a movie, and Franco the actor wasn't killed in the making of this film.

At this point the director hasn't pulled the audience into the Alien world. We have yet to suspend our disbelief.

Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston, is his wife—the original captain, not Franco. She cries a lot after his turbulent passing. Again, we don't care. We didn't see them interact as a couple. We don't know who she was. Does she prefer cats or dogs? Something, anything to hook our teeth into.

Now, if the writers had her share a moment with her husband, then it may have opened our hearts and drawn us in:

The ship rumbles, taking on damage. Mother, the computer, wakes the crew. The captain hauls himself from his hibernating capsule. After delegating orders to repair the ship, he pulls Daniels in and gives her a small birthday gift. They had gone into the capsules the day before her birthday, so he was saving this gift for when they woke up after arriving at the destination. The gift is a locket with a picture of them atop the first mountain they had scaled together. She recalls how cold it was that night. And he quips that she didn't complain inside their tent. She looks down at his pants and says that she had to take care of his little friend. He smiles and bites her nose.

On the planet, the crew explores the forest, WEARING SPACESUITS. The captain trips and falls on something sharp, unknowingly infecting himself with an alien virus. The day passes as the mystery grows: Who planted the wheat? Where are all the animals? Why is the captain getting sicker? The crew struggles to find what's wrong, but time runs out. Pain riddles the captain's body. He shakes and screams, giving birth to a xenomorph that rips him apart. Daniels screams, clutching the locket.

OK. Not my best.

Part of writing a story where death is such a prominent and visual aspect is rooting the readers or audience to the characters. Think of it this way: When we hear that someone is killed on the news, we're not really affected by it. We go on our day as if nothing happened. To that person's friends and family, the news hits them like a Mack truck because they're attached to the deceased. And that's the difference. Rooting is important to all stories. But when you begin to kill off characters without getting the readers to care, then they're not gonna care.

My point is, draw the audience in, give us a chance to suspend our disbelief, root us to at least one character, and slap us with tragedy. Badda-bing-badda-bang. 

Pull Me Inside

Can a man truly understand what a woman experiences in life? Or at least know enough to write a fleshed out female character?

Hollywood sure has a hard time of it.

Writing is difficult. You have to be technically sound with your structure and logic and grammar, while artfully using words to build and submerge your reader into a three dimensional world that feels real, and then do a little thing called evoke powerful emotions. A small task.

I decided to attend a writing group because my current one is still on hiatus, but I was out of it. I wasn't paying much attention. But a discussion about an excerpt that had been read caught my ear.

The writer was male and wrote in third person limited from the perspective of the female main character. That in of itself is a tall order.

My girlfriends had described what having painful periods felt like. Not that I asked. I'd even seen some of them coil into the fetal position from cramps. Migraines thumped the inside of their skulls with ice picks. So a whisper from me was enough to end my life. None of their clothes they had worn the week before fit. The world boiled like a hot plate. But I can confidently say that I'll never truly know what having a period will be like. I'd probably forget to wear pads and ruin countless panties. Not that I ear panties.

So never having had female issues, how could a writer of the male persuasion write from a female perspective? I don't know.

Is it possible?


I remember reading Memoirs of a Geisha and completely forgetting that Arthur Golden, a man, had written it. It's been years since I've read it, but I still remember how the geisha hierarchy had created so much drama for Chiyo, the geisha. Details like the flick of her eyes, the color of her lipstick, the lush kimonos still swim in my mind. Everything felt very feminine. Even the experience of having her virginity taken away was horrifyingly memorable.

At this point in the writing group, I had heard about three excerpts from this particular writer in a span of a month. And there were two basic issues with his writing. He hadn't set who the point of view (POV) character was. And the mere mention of her doing something wouldn't work:

  • Marcia set her jacket on the chair.

This doesn't bring us into her mind, her perspective. And this action can be observed by anyone. If a POV character hasn't been set, then it's still vague on who is observing this sequence.

The writer has to pull us in:

  • She remembered...
  • She felt...
  • She found herself...
  • Feeling the cold hard table, she noticed...

These verbs pull the readers in where we see the world from her eyes, her mind, her senses.

The second basic issue could be due to me being exposed to very little of his writing. However, outside of her dialogue, I didn't know what she was thinking. What's rolling around inside that noggin? Telling us what she's thinking would reveal character traits that the reader is starving for. Another writer suggested italicizing her thoughts. But that's not necessary. Let the narrative do the hard work of internal thoughts.

Marcia gazed into the mirror, marveling at how silky her long blonde hair was. Brushing it, she fantasized about this dreamy boy who had passed her by in the hallway. She'd hoped he noticed her because she had washed her hair the night before with a special shampoo that strengthened the individual strands. Breakage during the winter months had always been annoying. Looking at her hair now, she didn't know why he hadn't come and said Hi. Her hair gleamed in the bedroom's light.

Here we know what Marcia is thinking without explicitly indicating that she's thinking.

Just my two thoughts.

Such a Drag

I've harped on how the writers of The Walking Dead had made several mistakes. Lately, the writers have dragged the storylines out so much that it's transparent that they're dragging the storylines out.

With their spin off show, Fear The Walking Dead, there are two main things the writers are doing wrong. One is pacing. The other is rooting. Both are important, but if you root someone to your characters, then making mistakes such as pacing can be forgiven, as we see in The Walking Dead.

Pacing is the rhythm or momentum of a story, or really how those things feel. Like in life, when you're having fun, time flies. When you're bored, time moves like a molasses wave.

Rooting is showing a character in such a manner that the reader cares about that character. We saw this in Harry Potter with the murder of his parents, and when his aunt and uncle forces him to live under the stairs, do all the chores while they dote over his cousin Dudley, then Rowling further rooted us by showing Dudley receiving 38 presents, while Harry drawing himself a birthday cake on the dirt floor.

Excuse me while I cry my eyes out.

Fear The Walking Dead had two seasons, and the story takes place around a family right at the moment the zombie apocalypse begins to engulf the planet. The first half of the season felt like a molasses wave that had been in a freezer for a thousand years. From my point of view, the writers ran into a couple of major issues. One, the characters have never seen a real life zombie, and the show never makes mention that zombies were ever part of the popular culture like it is in real life. So the characters have to learn how to deal with these monsters, which is fine. The other issue is that we the people in the real world watching these fake people in the fake world already know how to deal with real zombies of the fake world. Uh what? The parent show has educated the audience about zombies and how to dispatch them. And that can mess with the pacing of the spin-off show. Big time.

The writers of Fear chose to actually show the family learning how to deal with zombies. But zombies weren't yet the prolific monsters we're used to. So there were barely any within the first few episodes, which meant realizing what they were let alone learning how to kill them took a really long time. It was painful to watch.

The writers could have taken a page from The Walking Dead where Morgan Jones educates Rick, the main character, in the ins and outs of the walking dead. But that wasn't necessary because Fear already had a way of educating the cast. There was a scene where a live newscast shows the police being forced to finally shoot a dead man walking in the head. This could have been the vehicle to educate the cast and get the story moving forward, asking questions like what would you do when the world you know and love falls apart. But that didn't happen. So the writers had to slow things down.

Cue filler. It's filler time. Filibuster. Phili steak sandwiches with no meat.

This brings me to their issue of rooting. To us, the educated audience, seeing these people bumble their way slowly down the dark alley of this world makes them look stupid. And it's hard to like stupid people, hence the rooting problem. The family is also dysfunctional, but there's nothing redeeming about the characters themselves.

They're not like Walt White from Breaking Bad. Having being diagnosed with stage 3 cancer, Walt decides to make and sell meth to not only pay for his treatments but to provide for his family after his death. That's a righteous dude.

Back to Fear, eventually we run into a character named Daniel Salazar, who actually has depth. And some redeeming qualities. He has a barbershop and hides his family inside it while the streets of LA are consumed in a riot. The cast finds the shop and convinces Salazar to let them in and wait it out. He questions their motives, fears for the safety of his family, his ailing wife, but also keeps a strong guard against revealing too much about himself and seems way more prepared to deal with the end of the world. Unfortunately, Salazar feels like he wasn't meant for anything more than a supporting cast member.

Because the audience isn't rooted to the main characters, meaning we don't care for them, we become impatient when it comes to the pacing. In other words, we're forced to wait for them to catch up to us. Story should lead us into mystery, into love, into enlightenment. Instead we're looking at our smartphones waiting for something to happen.

To help illustrate my two main points about Fear, I've found one favorable and one unfavorable review. It's not the reviews that are important, but the reactions by the commenters about the show.

Here's a link to a favorable review. Here's what one commenter said:

"i thought they did a fantastic job actually. especially the kid who portrayed the addict & i was on the edge of my seat a couple times through out the show!"

So through a 90-minute pilot, that person was on the edge of their seat twice. And that's good? For a zombie show?

Here's another review with mixed bag reactions from commenters.

Avoid Big Holes

I think one of the pitfalls of partaking in a writing group is that the criticism that we get are like holes in a boat. We hear them and want to plug them up. If they're plot holes, then plug them up. Fast! They'll sink your book faster than the Titanic. Other than that, when would we want to leave holes open?

My fellow writers had all complained that my character didn't have a scene with his wife after a very long and dangerous trip. Even if it wasn't dangerous, wouldn't a husband want to reconnect and make love to his wife after a long journey?


And the fact that everyone in the writing group pointed that out meant there's something to it. So of course, being the captain of my ship—book—I wanted to fix it and plug it up. Then I stopped myself because I was tense. Well, no. Kinda. See below.

Tension in a story is important. I think writers talk about conflict a lot, but tension isn't discussed as much. At least from my experience.

Conflict, in storytelling, is defined as a character having to contend with an element in the story: arguing with another character, overcoming a plot point like Do I date Justin or Justine?, or dealing with his own demons like drug addiction, etc.

Tension is what we as readers feel when we see a character that we are rooting for deal with these elements.

When a little girl has to make a choice whether to go down a dark, dank basement or not, that's conflict. She has to overcome her own fear and the possibility of being eaten by whatever beasts are hiding down there.

If the writer has done his job well and rooted us to this little girl, then we feel tension within ourselves and would prefer her not to go down there because we're imaging ourselves in her shoes. Well, her shoes are tiny, and no my shoes aren't small dammit.

So when my whole writing group wanted my character to reconnect with his wife after his long trip, I agreed. I admitted that was a huge misstep on my part and beat myself up about it. I went to Starbucks and sat down in their cushy bench seat, and tried to imagine that scene.

Nothing was coming up. And no, I don't need to take the little blue pill.

I sat with the 'not knowing' for a while because usually images would eventually pop into my head. But nothing. And that's when I realized that I could rewrite that segment and have my character yearn to be with his wife, but due to the plotting, he can't. I think that raises both the conflict and tension a little bit, adding to everything else that is going on in his world. If I can add layers to the conflict and tension, why not do it?

One of the things we as writers have to be aware of is manipulative writing. A really good example of that is the God's Not Dead movie. The writer, Cronk, manhandles the characters who aren't Christians into villainous cartoons. And of course the Christian characters are saint-like. Not only does he make these characters unrelateable, we as viewers can feel the heavy handedness, the manipulation. And that pulls us out of the story. In many ways that's worse than having a plot hole because not everyone will notice plot holes. And when we do, we can overlook them if the hole is small.

Moral of the story, avoid big holes and assholes, ratchet up the tension, don't be manipulative, and freakin' have fun.