Deconstructing the Mystery of the Orient Express

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If you’d rather not have the latest adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” ruined, we suggest you see the movie before reading this article. 

Mastering the mystery genre is like performing a magic trick. It’s all about deception.

In a magic trick, the magician leads you to believe one thing is happening when, in reality, the real trick is happening behind his back, where you’re not looking.

That’s exactly how the mystery at the center of “Murder on the Orient Express” functions.

The deception in the mystery of the film comes not from the murder itself, or from the point of view of the audience — all of that is fairly standard. No, the deception is a result of clever writing.


When the story begins, the audience settles into the shoes of the main character: Hercules Poirot. We, for lack of a better phrase, see the world through his eyes and, therefore, know what he knows. Or so we think.

See, when watching mystery films, most audience members will be prone to simply follow along with Poirot, just barely keeping up as he learns new information and discovers new evidence. They might start out with the hopeful thought that they’ll figure it all out before the characters do — and the cleverest among them just might — but 10 or 20 minutes in, most will fall behind. This is where the screenwriter sets his trap.

By knowing that the majority of audience members will likely be just behind Poirot’s detective work, screenwriter Michael Green is able to deceive them.

First, take some of the dialogue.

“There is something about a tangle of strangers pressed together for days with nothing in common but the need to go from one place to another and never see each other again.”  

“The murderer is with us.” 

“The real killer is right here. One of you people.” 

“I cannot find the crack in the wall. Why does one of them elude me?” 

Notice the word choice: murderer, killer, one of them. All singular words, which lead the audience to believe that there is a single killer.

Even the first quote, spoken by Mr. Bouc, misleads the audience to think that the passengers of the Orient Express don’t actually know one another when, in fact, they do.


The second clever deception of the audience comes in the form of carefully revealed backstory. It is only after Poirot and Bouc discover a half-burned note in the murdered Ratchett’s compartment that the tragic story of the Armstrong family is shown onscreen.

Up to that point, the only mention of the Armstrong case is when Poirot asks the courier in Istanbul if the case he is being called to work on deals with Cassetti. With absolutely no knowledge of the hidden backstory to this murder mystery, as Poirot tells the Armstrong story, the audience is left to fall further and further behind.

This trick comes down to timing. If, for instance, the Armstrong footage had been shown to start the film, the audience would have been in a completely different mindset to “solve” the mystery with Poirot. But without it, the audience is left at a disadvantage, which is actually advantageous to the screenwriter hoping for the big reveal at the climax of the movie.

When Poirot speaks with Mary Debenham for the second time and presents her with a list of 10 unanswered questions, it is she who says that there very well may be an eleventh question that holds the answer to the rest.

If “Murder on the Orient Express” had a thesis statement, this would be it.

The entire narrative hinges on the fact that there is an eleventh question that neither the audience nor Poirot are aware of. It allows the screenwriter to insert misleading dialogue, clever red herrings, and clues that don’t entirely make sense.


And therein lies the key to writing a great mystery. You must know the answer to the eleventh question, even if your main characters don’t know it exists.

Then, and only then, will you be able to write a Hercules Poirot worthy reveal.

The Front Porch Lifestyle

Originally published on


It was already dark when I arrived in New Bern, tired after a full day of traveling from the West Coast. My driver was a soft-spoken man who waved furiously and shouted my name when I walked out of the airport. I’m good at many things, but small talk isn’t on that list, so the 45-minute drive to Atlantic Beach — where I’d spend the rest of the weekend — was quiet.

In between our spurts of conversation, I studied my surroundings. Something felt familiar about the place I was in, even in the dark.

The non-descript area we drove through was a welcome change from the heavy traffic of Los Angeles I’d grown used to in the last few months. For long stretches, we traveled along a nearly-empty, dark road, nothing on either side except the black outlines of trees. The small towns we drove through were exactly like my hometown in Ohio. 

Growing up, my family often took daylong drives into the middle of nowhere. We just drove, with no real destination in mind at all. We’d talk, stop for picnics around lunchtime, and comment on the houses and views we saw.

I distinctly remember how my mom fixated on other people’s front porches. We loved our house, and my grandparents’ house, but neither had a real front porch. We’d set chairs up right outside the garage, hang out on the swing in the yard, or sit out back by the pool. But we longed for a front porch.

The “front porch” became an ideal for us — a goal, really, something to aspire to. We still talk about it. One day, we’d love to have a really big, wraparound front porch. With a swing or a rocking chair. Maybe both. 

The streets of Beaufort, North Carolina, are lined with gorgeous old houses with perfect front porches.  

While on a tour of Beaufort, our guide told us all about Blackbeard, the downtown area, the history, and nearby attractions, but I just kept snapping photos of those homes.


I learned a few other things during my weekend on the Crystal Coast. 

Kayaking is just as fun if you take it slow. 

Sometimes trusting the chef is the best idea. 

If you try to find wild horses on an island, it’s quite possible that you’ll end up aimlessly wandering through brush and following anything that sounds remotely like a pony. 

Bourbon peach french toast tastes as good as it sounds. 

Mornings on the beach are always worth it, even if the wind ruins your hair and the rain stings your cheeks.


And there are a lot of rocking chairs in North Carolina.

They line the halls and the moving walkways of the airport in Charlotte. You can find them on front porches and at restaurants, lazily inviting someone to take a seat. 

I think rocking chairs epitomize the Crystal Coast lifestyle — a lifestyle I was familiar with, but didn’t have a name for until I spent time in North Carolina. 

It’s laid-back and easygoing. It’s filled with beautiful sunsets, cool breezes off the water, friendly people, and plenty of time to just sit and enjoy the view.

It's the front porch lifestyle.

Coming to North Carolina felt a lot like coming home.


I was invited to North Carolina by the Crystal Coast Tourism Board. All opinions are my own.

The Trick to Getting Ensemble Movies Right

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Every movie and TV show has a cast of characters of varying importance. And while the vast majority of TV shows these days feature ensembles, it’s rare to see a movie that does the same.

The key difference is fundamental to each medium.

In TV shows, there are an endless number of possible episodes and stories, meaning that the writers have plenty of time to develop and expand their characters’ personalities. There’s no need to reveal everything in the first episode, because that would ruin the fun for the following seasons.


Film, on the other hand, is limited. Writers have two, maybe two-and-a-half, hours to introduce all the necessary characters, establish the setting, get down to business with the plot, and tell a full, complete story. Unless you’re working with a franchise, which, quite frankly, isn’t the norm, there usually isn’t enough room for an entire ensemble of characters.

But, there are instances in which filmmakers have hit the ensemble target right on the mark. The most notable is Wes Anderson, whose entire repertoire of films seems to feature successful ensembles. His most recent movie, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” juggled no less than 13 important characters. “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “Moonrise Kingdom” both had just shy of that number.

Look carefully at Anderson’s movies and you’ll discover the key to managing an ensemble cast in a feature film — purposefully controlling how the characters are portrayed.

Anderson deftly populates his scripts with outlandish, singular characters. Some have personalities unique only to themselves (Monsieur Gustave and Steve Zissou), some are defined by their actions (Zero Moustafa and Captain Sharp), and still others are characterized by what they do or do not say (Sam, Suzy, and Eleanor Zissou).

It is in the way these characters interact with one another that makes an ensemble successful, something Anderson seems to understand more than most. He uses his characters to characterize and explain one another, and then lets the actors embody the people they’re playing to create a wholly new character.

In “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Jude Law explains his own character, and Zero Moustafa’s, to the audience. Mr. Moustafa then explains the personality of M. Gustave who, in turn, introduces a younger Zero to all of the other characters.

No two characters are the same in a Wes Anderson movie, nor should they be in any ensemble feature.

Each character in “Moonrise Kingdom” has a dominating quality, something that makes them different from everyone else. Captain Sharp is diligent, while Scout Master Ward is disciplined. Sam is resourceful, Suzy is fierce, Mr. Bishop is quiet, and Mrs. Bishop is unaware. Even the Narrator takes on a personality in the story: wry, when everyone else is serious.


By utilizing casts of individuals who are completely different from one another, then pitting them against each other because of their personalities, Anderson is able to create huge numbers of memorable characters and fuse them together in stories that are easy to follow and come together nicely in the end.

That’s a tough line to walk, which means that ensembles movies aren’t impossible, but they are incredibly difficult to get right.

Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” features 11 characters, and “The Prestige” has seven. (His “Dark Knight” trilogy movies have even more … but it’s a franchise so it doesn’t really count.) “The Breakfast Club” has six primary characters and is barely over 90 minutes long, “The Help” includes 10, and “American Hustle” has nine. More recently, the main characters in “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” numbered about seven each.


In some cases, the individuals in an ensemble are just archetypes of familiar characters audiences will know immediately. There’s a reason the characters in “The Breakfast Club” can be easily defined by a simple moniker like “jock” or “princess” — it helps the audience understand and relate to the characters quickly, so that the film can get on to the actual point (showing how they’re all more similar than they are different). In other cases, the ensemble themselves are only an outlet for the story; the individual personalities in “Spotlight” matter far less than the story the film tells.

Either way, the key to packing a slew of characters into the same story is in the word itself: character.

Without distinctly different, oddly specific, or unparalleled personalities, your characters will blend together in the minds of the audience members. It is only when you create true “characters” that your ensembles will succeed.

When Summer Blockbusters Make You Think

Originally published on

Summer blockbusters aren’t usually my thing. I much prefer the more complex, often quieter awards season movies than the action-packed, heavily promoted tentpole films.

Maybe that’s why I was struck by the top three movies of summer 2017 — because they made me think in ways summer blockbusters usually don’t. I’m talking, of course, about “Wonder Woman,” “Dunkirk,” and “Baby Driver.”

(Warning: Spoilers abound)


Throughout the summer, whenever we saw a billboard or preview for the film, my former-history-major boyfriend scoffed at “Dunkirk,” saying things like, “We shouldn’t be making movies that glorify the worst mistakes of WWII.” He might not have seen Christopher Nolan’s latest, but I did.

And I left the theater in utter confusion.

“Dunkirk” confounded me. It was good, but there seemed to be fundamental pieces missing. For instance, why did I not know any of the character’s names? I completely understand that the movie was about war, and the horrors of war alone, but the lack of dialogue (i.e. character’s saying one another’s names) made it incredibly hard to discuss the movie after the fact.

As much as I lauded the structure of the story itself, I couldn’t decide how I actually felt after seeing “Dunkirk.” If the ending wasn’t exactly happy, it could at least be called mildly triumphant. That didn’t sit right with me. It felt too neat, too “tied-up-with-a-bow,” while the evacuation was successful, the event as a whole is regarded as a military disaster.


Back in the car after seeing “Baby Driver,” I made a comment to my boyfriend. “That was like your ‘La La Land.’” He didn’t know what I meant, so I explained. While “La La Land” was everything I loved about the movies, “Baby Driver” was the same for him.

When he asked me what I hadn’t liked about the movie, I listed a few things and then mentioned how I found it ridiculous that Debora was nothing more than the female love interest. She was barely a character, more like just an outline of a damsel in distress. It seemed old-fashioned to me. Hadn’t we moved away from those kinds of narratives, after all?

“You aren’t getting it,” he told me. “Did you enjoy the movie?” I balked. I had, but not in the way I enjoy others. “That’s not the point,” he said. “It’s a car chase movie with good music, that’s all. Don’t overthink it.”

I didn’t really understand at the time, but “Baby Driver’s” commanding handle of genre is unique. It was a car chase movie with good music — nothing more, nothing less. The filmmakers knew exactly what it was, and they used it to their advantage. It was a genre film in every sense of the word, a way of approaching storytelling I wasn’t used to.


I loved everything about the Gal Godot starring, first-ever-female-superhero movie that smashed box office and industry records alike. I hadn’t expected to need a female superhero movie in my life, but I quickly realized I had been wrong.

While everyone else praised the fact that there isn’t a single man in the first 30 or so minutes, I couldn’t stop thinking about the ending — everything that happens in that final battle between Diana and Ares. Months later, it’s still what I think of when someone mentions the movie.

Steve Trevor’s death is what’s known as a “refrigerator death.” I’ll spare you the details about how the term came to be, but it’s a phrase used to refer to any character’s death that occurs only to further the main character’s story. Typically, it’s in reference to female characters in comic books.

But Steve’s death wasn’t a refrigerator death … not really. He chose it. Instead of having “the writing powers that be” act as the cause of death, it is Steve who chooses to sacrifice himself for Diana.

I struggle with this though. I don’t want Steve’s death to be a refrigerator death, but the very fact that the story is written, that there is a writer, means that his death was to further Diana’s story. Whether he chose it or not, someone wrote him. It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg, I suppose. What comes first: the character or the writer?

These three summer movies got me thinking. Not to say that summer movies don’t usually make me think, but certainly not this much, and not this analytically.

Wondering about what responsibility we have in historical storytelling, considering the nature and purpose of genre films, debating the very essence of characters and their actions in relation to the writing — those are really good things to be thinking about as a writer.

Sorta makes you wonder if those summer blockbusters are so thoughtless after all, huh?

The Mystery of Venice


It's vanishing. Gradually ceasing to exist.

"The bottom step used to be at the top of the water," Luke tells me, a simple fact that makes me sad for reasons I can’t explain.

I wonder aloud about how the city was built. He tells me the answer. Wooden platforms attached to wooden stakes driven into the ground. 

I imagine all the wood disintegrating, slowly eaten up by the ever-hungry water now trying to claim the city itself, too. I imagine the city breaking off from its wooden tethers, floating on the surface of the Adriatic eventually sinking under its own weight.

"I want to bring our kids here before it's gone," I tell him. He agrees, even though it'll be years and years. 

The eventuality of its disappearance makes the place all the more tragically beautiful. The water rises, but the city doesn't. 


There’s this sense of mystery, of something waiting to be found.

Maybe just around the corner, or down the next alleyway.

It emanates from the gondolas slipping gently through the water and the boats that hurry down the Grand Canal. It rushes over the bridges and waits in the piazzas. It looms from the Campanile. It seeps in with the water into Piazza San Marco every night, flooding the space normally occupied by pigeons and tourists. It plays from the musicians and twinkles between tiny glass figurines. It stares out from the empty masks hanging in the storefronts.


This mystery hangs everywhere in Venice. There, but just out of reach.

The mystery of what the place used to be and what will come of it soon.

Meanwhile, we snap our photos and rush on our way, barely noticing that the steps are slowly receding further into the water. Or the water is rising further up the steps, inching ever closer.

Venice: the floating city.


When I first arrived, all I could hear was the water. Off the train and into the darkness of the canals, the water slapping lazily against the side of the city.

I can still hear it.  

The way a boat cuts through the silence. The chugging of the waves pushed away from a water taxi. The cut of an oar.

A melodic ripple as you walk through the city — always there, always waiting. Hitting against an aberration, this incredible, magical floating city.

Maybe one day the water will envelop all of Venice. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.

I prefer to think that it won’t.

That, when I return, however many years from now, still seeking an answer to the constant question this place poses, the first sound I hear will be that water, reminding me how mysteriously comforting this world can be.

And like the water washes over the city, the feeling of Venice will engulf me.


The history that hangs in the air. The lingering footsteps of the tourists and locals and the quiet whisper of the city as it settles in for the night. An air full of things unknown, the city beckoning for its story to be discovered.

The feeling of a city suspended, leaving me forever in the moment between mystery and discovery.

What Writers Can Learn from 2017's Confusing Summer Box-Office

Originally published on

This year’s summer selection of new movies at the theaters set a record — and not a good one. The 2017 summer box-office was the worst the industry has seen in over a decade.

Obviously, there is a huge gap between what audiences want to watch and what’s out there to be watched.

Crafty writers will use this time to slip into that gap, using lessons learned from this particularly disappointing but insightful summer at the movies.



The overwhelming success “Wonder Woman,” as well as more surprising performances by “Girls Trip” and “The Beguiled” should scream one very important lesson: audiences are more than ready to see women at the helm.

As a writer, the next step is easy. When considering your characters, think about making them female. Obviously if the story calls for a male character, there’s no need to make a change that would negatively affect the story. But if the role would typically go to a male actor and you write it for a woman, female audiences everywhere will fully support you. If this summer proved one thing, it’s that the future of film needs to be female.


In a summer that saw the fifth Pirates movie, another Spiderman film, and quite possibly the worst Transformers movie yet, it was the stories that offered new takes on old formats that did best.

Take “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic that would have been just another war movie if not for the innovative story structure. “Wonder Woman” was the first superhero movie with a female lead, and “Baby Driver” put a new, oddly specific spin on the heist genre. Even the rom-com game saw a new player in “The Big Sick.”

The takeaway? The genres will always stay the same, but our stories and the way in which we decide to tell them have the possibility to be innovative, fresh, and intriguing.



Ahem, we’re looking right at you, “The Emoji Movie.”

As much as we may love sending upside-down smiley faces and thumbs ups to our friends, shockingly (read: not shocking at all), no one wanted to see a movie about emojis. Seems like common sense to me since there’s no solid narrative about the animated figures in text messages, but with Hollywood these days, you never know.

If you’re going to attempt to tap into the zeitgeist for story material, look carefully for a storyline first. Good examples in recent years that have used the zeitgeist for inspiration include “The Big Short,” “Concussion,” “Inside Out,” “Spotlight,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and “Zootopia.”



You only need to look at “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” to see this point proven, but this summer also saw “Despicable Me 3” and “Spider Man: Homecoming” do well, too. Audiences will flock to franchises again and again if the stories are good enough.

Otherwise, you could fall into the hole that swallowed “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” the fifth installment of the Johnny Depp-led series. Though it did well financially, in no way was the newest Pirates movie widely regarded or even buzzed about. Even worse, take “Baywatch,” or “The Mummy,” remakes that garnered little interest and even less clout at the box office.

The point is, if you’re going to do a sequel or remake, make sure it’s justified and the story is solid before you waste your time writing.


Oh, the things we can learn from “The Book of Henry.” Namely, know what your story is about. One of this summer’s flops was the Naomi Watts-starring family/medical/mystery/thriller/drama, which made it very clear that the writers had tried to smash three different storylines into one. Spoiler alert: It didn’t work. The same lesson can be seen by looking at “Transformers: The Last Knight,” the trailer for which was a confusing few minutes that left me wanting to stay as far away as possible.

Of all the summer movies, “Baby Driver” knew what it was to a tee. It was a heist movie with great music. It didn’t try to be anything else — and that simple fact worked to its advantage.

If your story is a mystery, let it be a mystery. If it’s a medical drama, great. If it’s a family comedy, perfect. Just don’t try to make it every single kind of story in less than two hours.


Finally, if there’s one thing this summer can teach writers, it’s that there is no typical success story for summer movies anymore. Blockbusters flop; animated movies do okay, but not amazing; indies become hits.

So take risks and write the story you want to see on the screen come July. Thankfully, the confusing, non-conclusive results from the 2017 summer box-office have blown the potential for next summer (and many summers to come) wide open. Take advantage of the gap while you can

The Issue of White Hats: "Scandal" and What a TV Show is Really About

Originally published on

Ask someone what any TV show is about and they’ll likely respond with the central plot surrounding the main character. In the case of “Scandal,” that answer would be, “It’s about Olivia Pope, who fixes other people’s scandals but is also having an affair with the president.”

When “Scandal” debuted in 2012, that’s what the show was about. But, over time, it’s become so much more than that.

Today, as “Scandal” enters its seventh and final season, the show is about limits. Specifically, the events that lead to someone making a decision they can’t come back from, a decision that fundamentally changes who they are. To put it in “Scandal” terms, the show is about what causes someone to take off their white hat, and how they manage to put it back on again.

That’s not to say that’s what “Scandal” is about in each episode. The episodes themselves may be about the White House, one election or another, Olivia’s kidnapping, B613, or any of a slew of specific stories. But what I’m talking about requires you to look at the broad strokes and consider the series as a whole. To do that, you have to examine character arcs across the seasons.

Take Quinn Perkins. In the pilot episode, Quinn is the new kid in the office. She’s naïve, always trying to catch up to her coworkers, and shocked by what Olivia will do to keep a secret from coming out. She wears heels and bouncy ponytails and still looks at everything in Washington D.C. with doe eyes. But by the end of season six, Quinn is a badass. She runs OPA, isn’t afraid to pull a gun on someone, and is the moral compass for everyone else in the office.

That change in Quinn — what took Quinn from timid to confident, quiet to outspoken — happened in a single moment. In season three, when Charlie inadvertently sets Quinn up to kill the man her associates at OPA are looking for, she is forced to make a choice. Either she comes clean and goes back to Olivia, or she covers up what happened. Quinn’s choice — to cover up what she did — changes the entire course of her character. From that moment on, she has to wrestle with what her white hat is and how to keep it on.


Look at the big picture, then zoom in. You’ll find a similar moment for every major and minor character on the show.

It happened when Harrison stood up to Papa Pope. A few seasons later, it happened to Papa Pope when he shot Sandra. For Fitz, “Scandal’s” POTUS, it was when he killed Verna. Sally’s moment was when she stabbed her husband to death. James’ came when he defied Cyrus and insisted on being “Publius.” Huck’s was when he kidnapped his ex-wife’s boyfriend. Abby’s moment was when she told Fitz that Cyrus had been meeting with Frankie Vargas and stole the Chief of Staff job.

These are the moments in which the white hats came off. Whether the motivation was ambition or power, revenge, jealousy, or pain — the hat came off and each of these characters had to work to put it back on.

That brings us to Olivia Pope: leader of gladiators and champion of the white hats.


Olivia has seemingly taken her white hat on and off throughout the series, but if you look just a bit deeper and examine her motives, there is a distinct shift. It happens when she kills one of her supposed captors after being kidnapped in season four. That decision, regardless of the fact that it was born out of her need to survive, spun Olivia onto an entirely new path. It made her a bit more selfish, a bit more reckless, and it brought her to the position she holds at the beginning of the final season — the most powerful woman in the world.

Much like Shonda Rhimes’ other long-running series, Grey’s Anatomy, “Scandal’s” true meaning is revealed over time. In “Grey’s,” when one half of the central couple interest in the show was killed off, many questioned why the show even continued. But “Grey’s” isn’t about Meredith and Derek’s relationship — not at its core. It’s about perseverance in the face of extreme difficulty.

“Scandal” is the same. What started as a political drama about a fixer in love with the most powerful man in the world has become a series about black and white and the many shades of gray in between.

That’s exactly how we can learn from a show like “Scandal.” Start with characters and a premise, then use those characters to explore something deeper, something more meaningful. The characters, and the story, will ultimately be better for it.

I suspect we haven’t seen Olivia put her white hat back on yet — as it is with all good series finales, I think the best is yet to come.


Understanding the Relationship Between Plot, Character, and Story

Originally published on


A writer plots, a film can be plotting, and a plot can make or ruin a story.

Plot can be a writer’s best friend or worst enemy. Think about it too much and it ruins your screenplay, but get it right and your story can become one of the very best — those movies where the plot is seemingly non-existent.

That idea is false, of course. All movies have plot. As a writer, you control the plot, and not understanding what plot is and how it functions in your story is like trying to write a screenplay without knowing how to format a script.

But what is plot, actually?

It’s a phrase thrown around a little too often, and whenever I’ve tried to figure out what it really means, I’ve been left a bit dumbfounded.


Plot is hard to understand and even harder to do.

The technical definition, as dictionary definitions often do, leaves a lot to be desired. Plot, by definition, refers to the main events of a play, novel, or movie, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.

But story expert Robert McKee defines plot as “the writer’s choice of events and their design in time.” Syd Field refers only to “plot points.” Still others talk of plot patterns, some confuse plot with theme, and there are few who use “plot” and “story” interchangeably.

Plot, in actuality, is not that complicated. I like to think of how John August and Craig Mazin explain it:

In a film, there are three things. Character, story, and plot. Each is related, but certainly not the same. The story is what emerges when your characters move through a plot.

If we dissect that sentence and turn it into a simple math equation, it looks a lot like this:


And while screenplays are obviously more nuanced than that simple equation, it helps to see the elements laid out. For it is character that comes first, not plot. That’s essential. The plot and, consequently, the story stem from the character(s) at the heart of your screenplay.


For example, in the 2015 film “Brooklyn,” the story (about a young adult’s struggle with adulthood as an immigrant in America) and the plot (a move from Ireland to the U.S., dealing with homesickness, falling in love, experiencing a tragic loss, returning home, etc.) are the direct result of the main character: Eilis, a shy Irish immigrant.


Take “Avatar,” the 2009 hit. Jake Sully is the center of it all. Because of the actions he takes, we get the plot (first, trying to infiltrate the Na’vi people of Pandora to gather information for the military, then, when he learns their real intentions, to turn against his own people and fight for the Na’vi) and the larger story (about true identity and what it means to have a home somewhere).



Or, look at this year’s “Wonder Woman.” The character (Diana) moves through the plot (meeting Steve, going to London, getting involved with WWI, trying to stop the bad guys and save mankind, etc.), which tells the overall story (about truth and how what we believe in impacts our actions).

These three elements — character, plot, and story — all impact one another implicitly. Change the character and the story is completely different. Tweak the story and see the effects ripple through the plot.

Bottom line, know your character first, then decide what journey they are on, how they will react to various elements of the plot, and what the story will be. Ultimately, understanding plot itself is about understanding character.

Photographing Daily Life in Paris

Originally published on

Ayako Bielsa’s Instagram bio is a simple, single sentence. “Daily life in Paris, sometimes Tokyo, and beyond.” 

Her photos, too, are simple, yet they capture the elusive quality of her adopted city. Paris, after all, is a bit like a butterfly — both beautiful and hard to pin down.

Ayako strolls the cobblestone streets on the hunt for suitable subjects. Maybe she will find a building’s façade perfectly lit, maybe the perfect pattern of street lamps. She tends to decide where to go at the last minute, letting her feet do the choosing or just following her mood.

Paris is full of hidden charm. Narrow, cobbled alleyways. Lovely courtyards. There is inspiration everywhere, and Ayako takes full advantage of it.

She photographs early in the morning, when the light is constantly changing and the streets are empty. She heads out in the rain, when the cobblestones are wet and colorful umbrellas are held high. She scrutinizes angles and constructs frames, then waits for something to pass by. A woman walking her dog, a vintage car, a man on a bicycle — a way of photography at the intersection of inevitability and chance.

Occasionally, she see an image in her mind ahead of time. Notre-Dame with cherry blossoms, autumn leaves at the Place des Vosges, or backlit figures walking across the Pont Neuf. Sometimes the composition turns out differently — the weather, time frame, or atmosphere not matching what she imagined. But every now and then, she photographs exactly what she had envisioned.

Photographing Paris becomes a kind of ritualistic poetry for Ayako. Each shot is a new attempt to capture the air, the light, the season, the stories within Paris. 

Even after six years, Ayako still makes new discoveries. It is, after all, a city full of stories, constantly being reborn at the start of each new day.

A Photographic Personality

Originally published on

“I think a photograph is one of the best ways to inspire someone to travel,” admitted photographer Dan Tom. 

Dan doesn’t like a lot of attention. He’s one of those people who is much more comfortable behind the camera, out of the picture, composing the shot, rather than in it himself. 

Photo courtesy of Dan Tom (@dantom)

Photo courtesy of Dan Tom (@dantom)

Being a photographer just fits his personality.

Nine years ago, Dan traveled to South Africa on a mission trip with his church group and was tasked with documenting the journey. With his point-and-shoot camera, he took photos of the volunteers, the children in the orphanage, and the environment. He started to realize what made a good photo. 

Back in Los Angeles, Dan got his first SLR camera and started documenting his life. He’d capture the food he ate, the people he hung out with, the places he went, the streets he walked on — there was always something interesting to shoot.

He created an Instagram account and got his first iPhone. Slowly, he started to edit his pictures. He discovered a few helpful apps on his phone and used other Instagram accounts for inspiration, always wondering how people got their photos to look certain ways. Over time, he gained a following. 

Dan keeps things simple. His photos aren’t “minimal,” per se, but they tend to have a main focus or subject. He wants you to feel something when you see his work.

Photo courtesy of Dan Tom (@dantom)

Photo courtesy of Dan Tom (@dantom)

Photo courtesy of Dan Tom (@dantom)

Photo courtesy of Dan Tom (@dantom)

Photo courtesy of Dan Tom (@dantom)

Photo courtesy of Dan Tom (@dantom)

Now that he’s a photographer — and he does consider himself a photographer now, though he still works full-time as a graphic designer — Dan sees things differently. He’s observant, always noticing the little things. He’s aware of composition, color, and light in a way he never was before. He’s also become more of a morning person. 

He also understands that the thing he’s passionate about most can actually become his career one day. He hopes to keep traveling — to keep documenting the world around him — until it’s his full-time job. 

“It’s important to broaden your experience and grow as a person,” Dan said. “Because that will all have an impact on your photos and the way you see the world.”

Photo courtesy of Dan Tom (@dantom)

Photo courtesy of Dan Tom (@dantom)

See more of Dan’s photos on Instagram.

The Simple Thing Disney Gets Right, but Most Writers Get Wrong

Originally published on


The art of film has come a long way since 1937, the year in which Disney’s first full-length feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” was released.

Innovations in technology — everything from the machines writers type their stories with to the cameras used for filming to the way in which movies are distributed and consumed — have completely changed the entertainment industry. Though storytelling has definitely advanced and become more nuanced, one thing remains the same. Disney storytellers get it right every single time. And the secret to their success?

They keep it simple. 

Aladdin Screencaps 1.jpg

For, at the heart of every Disney story is a simple, uncomplicated desire, and in turn, that desire drives the entire movie. Not sure what I mean? Let’s start with the example of my favorite Disney flick, “Aladdin.”

If you consider the story of “Aladdin,” there are a lot of intersecting parts. A “street urchin” dreams of living a life of luxury, a princess yearns to explore beyond the palace walls, the king’s advisor schemes to become all-powerful, a genie grants three wishes (but only to his master, whose identity changes at least twice), several cases of mistaken or hidden identity are thrown into the mix, and almost everyone is lying to one another. It’s complex.

But if you zoom in to look only at the protagonist, the titular Aladdin, the story becomes inherently simple.

Aladdin grew up as an orphan on the streets, always scrounging for food and struggling to get by. He’s forever stealing food from stalls in the market, and is always getting caught and having to run away from the guards. His is a life on the go, but, when he returns to the rooftop he and his monkey side-kick Abu call home, he reveals what he really wants.

“Riff-raff, street rat,” he sings. “I don’t buy that. If only they’d look closer. Would they see a poor boy? No siree. They’d find out there’s so much more to me.” Aladdin doses off while staring at the huge Agrabah palace and musing that, if he only lived there, his troubles would be gone.

It’s simple. Aladdin’s desire is to be seen for who he is — fiercely loyal, witty, someone with a good heart.

Dive into any Disney movie and you’ll find the same thing.

Marlin’s desire to protect his son in “Finding Nemo.” Belle’s desire to experience more of the world than her little town in “Beauty and the Beast.” Tiana’s desire to fulfill the dream she shared with her father in “The Princess and the Frog.” Moana’s desire to save her island, Woody’s desire to be loved by Andy in “Toy Story,” Hercules’ desire to know where he came from, Rapunzel’s desire to leave her tower and see the lights released on her birthday every year.


Then, as always … there are complications.

Not “complications” meaning a “complicated” story though — there’s a difference. Many writers mistake “complication” for “confusion,” and devise plots and subplots that lead to nothing and leave audiences wondering why they bothered to buy a ticket. No, these complications come when one character’s desire conflicts with another’s, whose conflicts with another’s, and so on.


Let’s go back to our original example. Every single complication that arises in “Aladdin” is because of conflicting desires. Aladdin’s desire to be seen for who he is, Jasmine’s desire to marry for love and not wealth, Jafar’s desire to attain power, Genie’s desire to be free, Sultan’s desire for his daughter to choose a husband — all conflict and cause the problems that are the story of the movie.

So, what’s the winning combination? What’s the recipe for success? Once again, it’s simple:

All of Disney’s complications are born directly from the characters themselves.

That not only creates authentic storytelling, but also ensures that the stories themselves are exactly what they should be — about the characters.

Disney’s figured out the key to successful storytelling, and it lies right in the characters. By giving each of their characters a simple desire, and putting the protagonist’s desire at the heart of each of their movies, Disney is able to create nuanced, complex stories that have layers of meaning. All stories — animated or not — should strive to do the same.

Humanity through Portraits: The Faces of Places Project

Originally published on

Photographer Zach Murphy is always introducing himself to people when he travels, which works to his advantage in two different ways.

The first is obvious. See, Zach usually introduces himself in order to ask someone if he can take their portrait. It helps him to meet people, to have some kind of interaction with those he photographs.

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

His project, Faces of Places, tackles the topic of basic humanity through portraits of people around the world. It’s a little like Humans of New York, but relies more on the visual of the person and the environment surrounding them than something they say. 

The idea came to him during a year-long volunteer trip to 11 countries around the world. Zach developed a deep fascination with how similar yet how different human beings can be. He noticed that, while we all share a basic humanity — a desire to survive and take care of our families — our cultural differences and the physical landscape we are born in creates vast diversity.

He saw the same theme time and time again, across countries and continents, so he started documenting the people he saw. 

Zach has thousands of photographs, enough to fill two (soon to be three) photo books. His idea was to create something tangible that you could flip through to see hundreds of faces looking back at you. As you turn the pages, there would be subtle differences in skin color, clothing, and physical appearances, but the smiles would be the same.

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

His travels have taken him to over 65 countries, and every trip thus far — to Australia, Northern Africa, or South America — has had some kind of theme or dominating lesson. 

That’s the second way introducing himself has been beneficial. In telling people who he is and what he’s doing, Zach has solidified those things in his own mind. 

“Every time you introduce yourself, you’re telling people your dreams, ambitions, and passions. When you’re constantly reminding yourself of those things, it pushes you further to become that.”

So when Zach introduces himself to someone, he’s reminded of who he wants to be: a travel photographer. He takes the portrait and adds it to his Faces of Places collection, which then motivates him to travel more. 

It’s a seemingly neverending circle of introductions and portraits — both of which exist because of the other. And Zach doesn’t plan on breaking the cycle anytime soon.

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Zach’s first two books are available for purchase on his website. His latest, “Circling the Sahara,” will be published soon. You can see more of his photos on his website or Instagram.

You Had Me at Hello: The Art of Character Introductions

Originally published on

When it comes time to debut your character for the world — er, audiences — to see, it’s no easy task. You’ve created the character. You know everything about them, and the viewers know nothing.

First impressions are important, so I studied some of my favorite movies and dissected the ways in which the main characters were introduced. You’d be surprised how much that introduction says about the character and the story itself.



Main characters — Mia, Sebastian

Type of introduction — The non-interaction

“La La Land” begins with the now well-known “Highway Scene,” a nearly five-minute-long musical number which doesn’t even feature the two main characters. Right after this though, we are introduced to Mia and Sebastian, both sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the overpass. Mia is rehearsing lines for an audition and Seb is rewinding and listening to the same string of jazz notes over and over again — indications of their dedication to their passions, details that become very important later in the story.

The first part of the film (“Winter”) shows the same day from Mia’s perspective, then Seb’s, ultimately leading to their first interaction, in which they don’t actually interact at all (Seb brushes off Mia’s attempt to talk to him after hearing him play at the restaurant).

This type of introduction works because “La La Land’s” central story is about two distinctly different individuals who impact one another’s lives for only a brief time. The audience needs to have ample time to get to know each of the characters before they meet and their stories entwine.



Main characters — Harry, Sally

Type of introduction — First encounter

Nora Ephron’s rom-com begins with the two protagonists’ first interaction. We meet Harry as he is bidding adieu to his girlfriend, a goodbye that includes a long and oblivious make-out session. Sally then drives up and coughs to interrupt them. Their mutual acquaintance (Harry’s then girlfriend) introduces them and, after another bout of kisses, Harry gets in the car and they take off for New York.

The key to the entire movie — Harry and Sally’s differences — is set up in the first scenes. The audience witnesses the way their personalities are seemingly at odds with one another: Harry kisses his girlfriend goodbye while Sally lays on the horn to get their attention; Sally explains how she’s meticulously figured out the road trip ahead while Harry digs around in the back seat and spits grape seeds out the window; her optimism at her future in New York is met by his cynicism.

It’s a typical set-up for rom-coms, but one that admittedly works perfectly in this case. Ephron introduces us to characters who have such opposing personalities they can’t imagine being with one another but, of course, that’s exactly why they will be in the end. It is this contradiction that supports the entirety of the movie, and it is shown in the very first scenes.


Main character — Dom Cob

Type of introduction — En Media Res (in the middle of things)

Christopher Nolan’s fifth feature film begins with Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cob, lying at the edge of the ocean. Waves crash around him as he blearily looks around. He sees two children playing in the sand, but it’s initially unclear if this is memory or reality. Then he is prodded with a gun and picked up by several guards who take him to an ornate palace to meet with an older Asian man.

Cut to the same location, but both Dom and the Asian man are younger and cleaned up — it becomes immediately clear this is another time. From there, Dom and his colleague go on a mission to steal something.

“Inception” drops audience members right in the middle of the action (en media res, as the classic Latin saying goes). We aren’t told what’s going on, or who exactly it is we’re watching, but two things are immediately clear because of the way Dom is introduced:

First, that he is the protagonist of the story. The opening shot of the movie is of Dom’s face, indicating right away that he is most likely the central character. The following scenes follow him (and him alone) through the action, reinforcing the audience’s immediate assumption as to who their main character is.

And second, the slightly confusing vision of Dom’s children playing on the beach sets up the main question of the film — What is real? This question is brought up and answered again and again throughout the movie, right up until the final shot before the credits, and the doubt is planted in the audience’s mind in the very first encounter with the main character.


Main characters — Duncan

Type of introduction — Interaction with antagonist

The first shot of “The Way Way Back” is of a rearview mirror, where we can see a middle-aged man looking into the backseat. This man, Trent, is trying to get the attention of the teenager in the backseat, Duncan. We see that Trent is facing one way in the driver’s seat and Duncan is facing the opposite, looking out the back window in the way way back of the station wagon. Then comes the question.

“On a scale of one to 10, what do you think you are?”

Duncan’s reaction to this question tells the audience everything they need to know — that Trent is the bad guy, the bully, the antagonist. This is only reinforced by what happens next. Duncan answers that he thinks he’s a six, and Trent says that he sees Duncan as a three. What follows is another minute or two of bullying that ends with Duncan ignoring Trent and putting his earbuds in for the rest of the ride.

This initial interaction between protagonist and antagonist establishes both the central conflicts of the movie — the difficult relationship between Duncan and Trent, and Duncan’s lack of confidence in himself.



Main characters — Rick, Ilsa

Type of introduction — Through other characters

In the 1940s classic, “Casablanca,” it takes nearly a third of the movie before we are introduced to both main characters, Rick and Ilsa. There are shots of Rick’s cafe, scenes with his employees and customers talking about him, and other characters conversing about both Rick and the mysterious visitor who will be arriving with a beautiful woman (Ilsa) that night.

Rick commands the situations around him, made obvious by the way he is first introduced to the audience — signing a check. Then we see him moodily sitting over a chessboard, where he nods at the doorman to give approval to let certain customers into the casino room. His actions in the following scenes confirm what we’ve already heard about him through the other characters, that he, “sticks his neck out for nobody.”

The key to understanding the protagonists and the events in Casablanca is in this subtle set-up. The other characters introduce Rick, and make us believe certain things about his personality. Then, when Ilsa arrives with Laszlo, he breaks all of these rules that have been set up in the first 40 minutes of the film — an action meant to unconsciously signal to the audience that Rick is not what he seems.



Main characters — Tom, Summer

Type of introduction — Via omniscient narrator

This indie favorite begins with a shot of a man and woman sitting on a bench. An engagement ring is clearly seen on the woman’s finger, which is when the omniscient narrator butts in and introduces the story. “This is a story of boy meets girl,” he says.

There is vintage and modern footage of both Tom and Summer, while the narrator explains their characters. He tells the audience the main conflict of the story — that Tom grew up believing he’d never be truly happy until he found the one, and Summer doesn’t believe in love at all.

The short beginning scene ends with a deceiving sentence. “You should know upfront, this is not a love story.”

The introduction is meant to put the audience in the same situation as Tom himself — we see an engagement ring and assume the two characters end up together, establishing disbelief in the narrator’s final sentence before the story begins (similarly, though Summer tells Tom she doesn’t believe in love, he falls for her and believes they will be together). By starting the story in this way, the events of the movie (and the overall point of the story) impact the viewers to the same degree they impact Tom.


Main character — Gil Pender

Type of introduction — Voiceover Dialogue

We hear Gil before we see him. As the opening credits roll over a black screen, Gil talks to his fiancee, Inez, about his love for Paris. He emphasizes his adoration for Paris in the 20s, especially in the rain, something Inez immediately scoffs at. With just the inflection in their voices, it is clear that Gil and Inez don’t see eye-to-eye, a conflict that is central to the fantastical story.

When we do see them, standing on the picturesque green footbridge in Monet’s Garden, Inez says that Gil is in love with a fantasy. He responds that he is in love with her, but this line falls flat after what we’ve already heard. Skepticism at their relationship continues when they return to the city for dinner with Inez’ parents, only to see that Gil is clearly the only one truly enjoying their time in the City of Lights.

This type of introduction works for the story because, though the plot (the fact that Gil occasionally goes back to Paris in the 20s when a clock strikes midnight) isn’t introduced, the main conflict is — Gil’s inner conflict about his love for Paris and the direction of his life.

It is also interesting to note that Woody Allen’s 2010 movie actually begins with a two-minute montage of scenes from around Paris, which can be written off as unimportant far too easily. This montage not only sets up how crucial the location is to the central story, but also establishes the location as a character itself. In all of Gil’s romanticized talk of Paris throughout the movie, the city becomes a supporting character, one that is introduced before any of the human characters.


Main characters — Zero Mustafa

Type of introduction — Story within a story (within a story); Meta-storytelling

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” relies on a hefty amount of exposition to introduce its main characters. It employs a technique best known from “The Great Gatsby,” in that the narrator is not the protagonist (or even part of the film’s core story, for that matter).

The first shot is of a memorial statue for the “Author,” who we see in person in the next scene, speaking from his desk about where stories come from. “The incidents that follow were described to me exactly as I present them here,” he says. Then we go back to when the Author was a young man, staying at the Grand Budapest Hotel.

There, he is introduced to an elderly man with a lively face and perceptible air of sadness. The Author is intrigued and, when the two meet properly in the hotel’s thermal baths, the elderly man, Zero Moustafa, the owner of the hotel, invites the Author to have dinner with him, over which he can tell him how he came to own the hotel. At the dinner table, he begins his story and the movie flashes back once again, to when Zero was a young man and working at the hotel. This is where the time in which the events of the movie actually take place.

This “meta” way of introducing the characters and beginning the story establishes the pace of the film, and feeling that the movement of story is, in a way, more important than the characters themselves. The plot, the characters, and the story itself are second to the chaotic ride that is the film — the point is to immerse audiences in the resplendent world Wes Anderson has created, and that is done, first and foremost, by introducing viewers to a story, inside a story, inside a story, inside a story.


When deciding how to have the audience meet your characters for the first time, make sure you choose an introduction that furthers your story in some way or subtly signals something important.

Whether that’s dropping the viewers right into the action, having an omniscient narrator do the introductions for you, or putting your protagonist up against your antagonist, the first encounter with your characters should be both memorable and telling.

After all, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.


Morocco Three Ways: The New Yorker

Originally published on

Morocco was sensory overload.

It was overwhelming, almost too much to process in the moment.

Now, months after their time in Morocco, Lisa can close her eyes and see the country. She can feel it, too, in a tangible way.

She aches for a place she only knew for a week and a half.

Lisa and her friends, Daniel and Adrienne, spent 10 colorful days exploring Morocco.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)


The dusty buildings. The ambience from the light filtering into the souks. The rooftops, with cats jumping across them. The ornate carpets and handcrafted scarves.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)


The countryside. The immense fields they glimpsed on car rides and train trips. The tiles in their peaceful riad.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)


The city built into the side of a hill, the color of relaxation. The Jardin Majorelle, an explosion of foliage among deep hued buildings once home to a fashion designer.


The friendly parrot in their riad. The way night settled over them as they crammed into a hot train compartment, laughing and talking en route to Tangier. Flickering candlelight.


The muted hue of camel fur. The Call to Prayer echoing through the alleyways and squares from unseen speakers. The light while they watched the sunset on their last night in Fes.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)


Crisp napkins placed on laps while they tried tagine and drank mint tea. The snow, falling slowly while they dined with a Berber family in the Atlas Mountains.


Tiny bowls of strawberry ice cream and small sugary spoonfuls. Smiles. Laughter. Quiet moments with close friends.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Photo courtesy of Lisa Weatherbee (@jungletimer)

Pink and white and green and grey and yellow and red and blue.


Lisa knows that they only scratched the surface during their 10 days in Morocco. There are more colors to be seen there, but she’s accepted that feeling of being unfinished.

After all, it gives her a reason to return.

Daniel Pierruzzini, Adrienne Pitts, and Lisa Weatherbee traveled to Morocco in the spring of 2017, and documented their trip on Instagram using #AParisianAKiwiAndANewYorkerInMorocco. You can see more of Lisa’s work on her website.

This story was written based on three separate interviews conducted with Daniel, Adrienne, and Lisa. Check out the other two stories in this series — The Kiwi & The Parisian.

Morocco Three Ways: The Kiwi

Originally published on

Adrienne always held off on visiting Morocco for one reason or another.

It was on her list for over a decade until, in the spring of 2017, she met two friends in the airport in Marrakech and they took off on a 10-day trip through the north African country. Choosing to travel there with Lisa and Daniel turned out to be the best decision she could have made.

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Pitts (@hellopoe)

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Pitts (@hellopoe)

Though Adrienne gravitated naturally to taking portraits, she had to approach things a bit differently in Morocco, a place where people often aren’t comfortable with being photographed by tourists.

Instead, she started shooting everything else, and found that the beauty wasn’t just in the dereliction.

The beauty was in the details:

Trying new food at the restaurants Lisa so expertly selected.

An overnight train from Marrakech to Tangier, the three of them stuffed into a cramped compartment with a Spanish man, eating cookies, laughing, and squishing themselves onto bunk beds that were far too small.

Turning around to find Lisa happily selling oranges with one of the juice vendors in Djemma El Fna, the main square in Marrakech.

Drilling their young Berber guide with questions about his life while trekking through the Atlas Mountains.

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Pitts (@hellopoe)

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Pitts (@hellopoe)

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Pitts (@hellopoe)

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Pitts (@hellopoe)

The final evening in Fes, knowing they’d never forget the way the light felt as they watched the sunset from a park on the outskirts of town.

All the cats.

The candlelit nights in their riads, when the trio would talk and edit photos until sleep overtook them.

With Adrienne, Daniel, and Lisa, it was never about “going to get the shot” while they were in Morocco. Whatever they found along the way was good enough.

Morocco was nothing like Adrienne thought it would be, yet exactly like she’d imagined.

It was perfect.

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Pitts (@hellopoe)

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Pitts (@hellopoe)

Daniel Pierruzzini, Adrienne Pitts, and Lisa Weatherbee traveled to Morocco in the spring of 2017, and documented their trip on Instagram using #AParisianAKiwiAndANewYorkerInMorocco. You can read Adrienne’s blog posts about the trip on her blog, and see more of her work on her website.

This story was written based on three separate interviews conducted with Daniel, Adrienne, and Lisa. Check out the other two stories in this series — The Parisian & The New Yorker.

Morocco Three Ways: The Parisian

Originally published on

Three cities in 10 days. A whirlwind. 

Daniel had never visited the country, and neither had his travel companions, Adrienne and Lisa. Morocco was a place they could explore for the first time, together. 

His first impression was of chaos and movement.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pieruzzini (@nadmotion)

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pieruzzini (@nadmotion)

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pieruzzini (@nadmotion)

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pieruzzini (@nadmotion)

Marrakech was harsher than their other two destinations, but Daniel was surprised by how quickly they adapted to the crazy environment of the medina. In no time at all, they began to understand how everything moved and where they fit into it all. 

They quickly began to appreciate the Call to Prayer and the way it echoed beautifully through the city five times per day. These moments were quiet compared to the normally frenetic nature of the city. It was overwhelming at times, and they often escaped to rooftops or other silent spots around the city when they were in need of a break. After all, relaxation was only a cup of mint tea away.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pieruzzini (@nadmotion)

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pieruzzini (@nadmotion)

A train ride later, they were in Chefchaouen — the blue city. 

Blue in color, but in way of life, too. Time passed slowly. Children played in the streets — streets without names, all various shades of the same color. It was calming.

An old man led Daniel to his home, where they shared tea and talked about the man’s life. Though he couldn’t give the man anything, it was enough that Daniel simply listened to his story. A passing moment that never faded from his memory.

And just when they thought they’d gotten good at orienting themselves among the old medinas in Moroccan cities, they arrived in Fes. 

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pieruzzini (@nadmotion)

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pieruzzini (@nadmotion)

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pieruzzini (@nadmotion)

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pieruzzini (@nadmotion)

They chose a guide and scheduled visits to artisan workshops in Fes, tucked away in the maze of thousands of unnamed streets and alleyways. Scarf workshops and leather tanneries and carpet operatives and woodworking studios. They couldn’t help but bring home some evidence of their trip. This city was the roughest, but that edge gave it the biggest heart.

The trio moved at their own pace — taking breaks for mint tea, stopping for 15 minutes without complaint when someone wanted to try to photograph a wall in a way that was just right, eventually developing their own sort of language. A way of communication that only comes when you’ve discovered a good friendship. 

Everything in Morocco was different. 

A place disconnected from the rest of the world, always changing and moving, full of unexpected, rich details. Somehow, Daniel found comfort in the chaos.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pieruzzini (@nadmotion)

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pieruzzini (@nadmotion)

Daniel PierruzziniAdrienne Pitts, and Lisa Weatherbee traveled to Morocco in the spring of 2017, and documented their trip on Instagram using #AParisianAKiwiAndANewYorkerInMorocco. You can see more of Daniel’s work on his website

This story was written based on three separate interviews conducted with Daniel, Adrienne, and Lisa. Check out the other two stories in this series — The Kiwi & The New Yorker.

The Intriguing Dichotomy of Tunisia

Originally published on

In Tunisia, Zach Murphy wasn’t a novelty. He wasn’t hassled, and never felt like a tourist or an outsider. But the environment of the country felt completely foreign to him. 

That dichotomy intrigued him.

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Zach didn’t know much about Tunisia — just that it was flanked by two huge African countries (Algeria and Libya) and that some of the scenes from the “Star Wars” series had been filmed there. He always tries to maximize his travel efforts by booking effective layovers, and after a six-month trip around Northern Africa and the Middle East, Tunisia was on his way back to the United States. 

He enjoys visiting places he doesn’t have many expectations about, likes the discovery aspect it adds to traveling. Tunisia presented a bit of a challenge … Zach just didn’t realize how steep that challenge would be.

Unable to speak Arabic or French (the first and second languages in Tunisia), Zach found himself at a loss. He wasn’t able to order something to eat, let alone have conversations with the locals, and this disadvantage set him back.

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

The heat was unrelenting — sometimes upwards of 120 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, easily the hottest temperatures Zach had ever experienced. He pushed through the most sweltering hours of the day to take advantage of the light for photography, and found himself confounded by the men who were bundled in many layers in the middle of summer. And, several times, because of the lack of internal infrastructure in Tunisia, Zach waited hours on end for a bus to and from certain locations around the country. 

It was frustrating — one of the most difficult places he’s ever traveled — but rewarding, too.

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

When he set out to see the southern part of the country, he stumbled across huge ruins of past civilizations, just waiting to be explored. There were no admission tickets to be bought, no gates or tour guides. Monuments to former empires, seemingly forgotten, were his to discover. The lack of signs and informative plaques made imagination essential, and Zach could feel the rich history of this place as he wandered the ruins. There were layers and layers of history and stories beneath the sand.

In the evenings, when the air cooled and the cities came alive again, Tunisian men would take their seats at street-facing cafes. They’d smoke a cigarette, have an espresso, and observe life going on around them. There wasn’t much chit-chat, but Zach loved being part of the ritual.

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

Photo courtesy of Zach Murphy (@the.traveling.zam)

When I talked to Zach about his recent eight-day trip, he used the words, “the pure exhilaration of exploration,” to describe his love for travel. 

It’s a phrase that seems to perfectly describe what he found in Tunisia — excitement and frustration; history and tradition; the known, and, more importantly, the unknown.

See more of Zach’s photos on Instagram or his website, and check out his photography project, Faces of Places

Always in the Mountains: Roman Königshofer's Outdoor Photography

Originally published on

Roman Koenigshofer was constantly in the mountains for work and couldn’t resist turning his camera toward the landscapes in addition to the snowboarders he was supposed to be photographing. Eventually, he started going to the mountains of his own accord.

Photo courtesy of Roman Königshofer (@rawmeyn)

Photo courtesy of Roman Königshofer (@rawmeyn)

Photo courtesy of Roman Königshofer (@rawmeyn)

Photo courtesy of Roman Königshofer (@rawmeyn)

In the late 90s, Roman created short video clips about snowboarding and skateboarding, which led him to pick up a DSLR for the first time. Now, nearly two decades later, he can always be found near the mountains. 

Outdoor photography is Roman’s lifestyle. He loves being outside, active, and even sometimes, off the grid completely. There is beauty to be found in the outdoors, and Roman is constantly discovering how to capture it. 

The Rockies. The Dolomites. The Alps. The Himalayas. Through his eyes, no two mountain ranges are ever the same.

Photo courtesy of Roman Königshofer (@rawmeyn)

Photo courtesy of Roman Königshofer (@rawmeyn)

Photo courtesy of Roman Königshofer (@rawmeyn)

Photo courtesy of Roman Königshofer (@rawmeyn)

He tries to keep things out of the frame, often purposefully isolating certain elements with his tele-lens and not including the “whole picture” in the photograph. Roman searches for scenes with great light that won’t need excessive post-production editing to be compelling. 

“A good photo doesn’t need much,” he admitted.

Roman hopes that people who see his photos will want to get out and explore for themselves. But he doesn’t want budding photographers to rely on copying their favorite Instagrammers. Instead, he advises travelers to focus less on the “likes” and to discover locations on their own, even if that yields uncertainty about what to expect visually. 

While being in the mountains can have its difficulties at times (not being able to feel your fingers well enough to click the camera shutter, for one), there is a distinct benefit.

“The fresh air up in the mountains is good for everyone,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Roman Königshofer (@rawmeyn)

Photo courtesy of Roman Königshofer (@rawmeyn)

See more of Roman’s photos on his website or Instagram.

6 Tips for First-Time Burning Man Photographers

Originally published on

Every year, a city is built and destroyed in Black Rock City, Nevada. 

Burning Man is a wholly unique experience — a place without any formal entertainment provided, but enough creativity and possibility to make the temporary city a form of entertainment itself. Art is created, then burned. The 10 guiding principles of Burning Man (among them: “radical” inclusion, self-reliance, and self-expression) make it a haven for curious creatives and artists. 

The strange, yet fascinating experience can be tricky to photograph if you’ve never been before, so we consulted Alina Rudya (@rrrudya) and got advice for all photographers heading to Burning Man later this month.


Since Burning Man is a private event, you’ll need to get a press pass if you’re planning on photographing for commercial purposes. 

If you’re only taking photos for your personal scrapbook or to hang on your wall back home, you’re in the clear. Posting on social media (for non-commercial purposes) is fine, too, but if you’re planning (or even considering) using your photos from Burning Man for any kind of for-profit work, it’s better to err on the safe side and get a press pass.


As you’re packing for Burning Man, ask yourself this: Are you willing to sacrifice your expensive camera equipment, or would a smaller camera do the job? 

Though she did have her DSLR with her, Alina found that simply having her smartphone was enough in most cases. Burning Man is such a unique setting anyway, you probably won’t need a several thousand dollar camera to capture your experience in photos.


According to Alina, dust is your number one enemy at Burning Man. Dust storms can appear out of nowhere and destroy your camera if you’re not prepared. 

She recommends buying a plastic, protective case for your gear to protect it from the harsh environment in Black Rock City. At the very least, protect your camera with a plastic bag and lots of duct tape. You’ll thank yourself later.


The Black Rock City bonfires burn at night, and at dawn. Night photography can be a bit more difficult, so Alina recommends using a higher ISO, a tripod, and artistic blur to help take better photos.


Burning Man is a spectacle in and of itself, but it’s also a massive community art experiment. The installations are strange, wonderful, and never the same. It can be easy to get caught up in photographing the art, but all you’re doing is documenting someone else’s work.

Instead, Alina suggests turning your camera on the people. Your pictures will be unique if you capture the interactions between the people (Burners) and the art itself. Keep an eye out for unusual situations and try to capture spirit of freedom at Burning Man. Get up at dawn and make the most out of the light. Pay attention to the people around you and try to create a story that will capture the true mood of Black Rock City.


When it came time to edit her photos back at home, Alina stuck with only minimal changes. She made slight corrections in Adobe Lightroom — adjusting the color, contrast, and sharpness if necessary. Otherwise, she left the images alone. 

“With Burning Man photos you don’t need extra effects because it already looks like you’ve shot on the set of a sci-fi movie.”

In 2017, Burning Man will take place from August 27 to September 4. You can buy your ticket online.

6 Ways to Avoid Writing Dull Characters

Originally published on

The characters we create must breathe; they must be real. But creating life is no easy task. Too often, our characters are only partially complete, mere shadows of true, breathing people. Thankfully, there are ways we can avoid writing characters who will fall flat with audiences.

Don’t make them stupid 

Inexperienced storytellers are likely to create characters with lower levels of intelligence as a way of furthering the plot. Dumb characters can stand in for the audience — asking all the important questions and leading other characters to explain intricacies of the plot, whether that be legalese, medical information, or even trivial fact.

But these characters are hollow, and the audience will be able to tell. Instead, make your characters smarter than you and, more importantly, seemingly smarter than the audience. Intelligent characters force your audience members to remain engaged, to stay active to keep up with your protagonist.

Take Jane Villanueva, the protagonist of “Jane the Virgin.” Jane is a smart, driven writer and grad student. Her superior intelligence serves her character well, given the circumstances of her telenovela-like life, and allows her to be the ‘voice of reason,’ for her family and the audience. Or, examine Leslie Knope, the waffle-loving main character in “Parks and Recreation.” Leslie not only knows more about politics than her colleagues, but probably more than most audience members as well. Leslie’s ideas, caused by her determination to further herself (and Pawnee) moves the plot of “Parks and Rec” along season after season.

Don’t make them all one thing  

Most characters can be categorized as being an example of a certain archetype, but typical qualities shouldn’t be the only defining characteristics of our characters. As human beings, we are always more than one thing. It is our complexities that make us interesting, and complexities will make your characters feel more real.

“You’re the Worst,” FX’s comedy about two cynical people who fall for one another, could have fallen prey to this problem if its main characters had been cynical and nothing else. But the leads are full of contradictions and quirks that make them compelling. Jimmy is skeptical about relationships, but constantly falls in love; he is insensitive, but truly cares about this girlfriend and friends. Gretchen is self-sabotaging, but diligent; she is brash, but loyal.

Give your villains redeemable qualities (and vice versa)

Many superhero narratives create caricatures of “bad guys,” relying on our prior knowledge of the good-guy/bad-guy plot as an excuse for not creating fully-developed villains. But antagonists with redeeming qualities are sympathetic and more relatable, making your story deeper and more complex than the average blockbuster.

Take “Scandal,” Shonda Rhimes’ political drama, which, it could be argued, doesn’t have a villain. All of the main — and even many of the recurring — characters have made decisions and possess qualities that could easily qualify them as the “bad guy.” Even the protagonist, white hat wearing Olivia Pope, (poiler) has killed people. No character is free from flaw or mistake on “Scandal,” and, in their complexity, we are able to feel compassion for characters at their darkest moments.

Don’t rely on specific physical descriptions 

Though you, the writer, might have an idea of what a character looks like in your head, leave the physical descriptions out. Your story — when it finally makes it to the screen — will be better for it. Physical descriptions are limiting, not in the writing process, but in the casting process. When an actor is cast as one of your characters, you want them to inhabit the role. Ultimately, they will be the one breathing life into your character, and you don’t want your story to be limited by trivial physical descriptions such as hair color, height, etc.

When Shonda Rhimes created the Dr. Miranda Bailey for her long-running show “Grey’s Anatomy,” the character description called for a tiny woman with blonde curls. Had the casting director stuck to that description, Chandra Wilson wouldn’t have been cast as the inimitable fan favorite.

There is one exception to this rule, and that’s if a physical descriptor is crucial to the story you’re telling. For instance, in 2016’s breakout summer hit “Stranger Things,” it was important for Eleven to have buzz-cut length hair because it functioned in the plot. Similarly, the cast of plane crash survivors in “Lost” called for an Asian couple and a Middle-Eastern man, as their backgrounds played into the overall story arc in certain seasons.

Don’t choose race/gender simply for diversity

The issue of diversity and representation is justifiably brought up in regards to the entertainment industry. To that end, it’s important to take race into consideration in a meaningful way with your characters, and not simply for diversity’s sake. Making a character Japanese for the sole purpose of parading the fact that you have a Japanese character in your script isn’t the right decision for your story, nor your character.

Instead, use race/gender to breathe life into your characters. Embrace culture in an authentic way. Consider if making a character Latino would give them an interesting or different take on the situation set up in your story. Consider making a character female instead of male, or vice versa – see if it will change the dynamics of the characters in your script.

For example, look at the way Randal’s character functions in the story on NBC’s “This Is Us.” Adopted at birth, Randall becomes the third Pearson triplet, joining his white siblings and parents. Actor Sterling K. Brown recently expressed his feelings on the matter, saying to the Hollywood Reporter, “What I love so much about the show and about the character of Randall is that he’s black on purpose. So many times, for the sake of diversity on network television, there’s going to be a black guy or a Latino guy by happenstance — they just happen to be that. But the fact that he is black and we actually use that to tell the story of a black man being raised by a white family … I enjoy it a great deal.”   

Be purposeful in choosing your character’s’ race, ethnicity, and gender, but for the right reasons. Otherwise, you’ll end up with token characters who serve no greater value to your story.

Don’t reveal every detail 

The worst thing you can do is reveal a character to the audience in their entirety. You want there to be mystery. You want to have unknowns. It’s perfectly fine if you, the writer, know everything there is to know about your character — but don’t play all your cards at once.

Maintaining unknown facets of your characters serves an important purpose in constructing character arc. It allows your characters to grow, your audience to be surprised by certain quirks, and you to create full characters. As people, we’re always changing. Upon meeting someone new, we don’t automatically tell them every single detail about ourselves, so why do the same with your characters?

This can function as a source of comedy, as in “Broad City.” It isn’t revealed until the second and third seasons that Abbi has an alibi that only appears when she blacks out and that Ilana speaks Mandarin, respectively.


In dramas, not revealing certain details about your characters can be a way to structure your story. In Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” we don’t learn until halfway through the first season that Serena played a huge role in creating the dystopian state, Gilead. But once the audience learns this information, it significantly impacts the way we view her decisions.

As a writer, you want your characters to take on a life of their own. We’ve all heard of writers who preach that their characters are the ones making the decisions, not them. But in order to create characters who do make their own choices, they have to feel real. When your script is finished, your characters should not be characters at all, but real, living people.