Archive for July, 2012

Jul 29 2012

16 Comic Book Scenes Probably Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Published by under Comic Books

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Guyism has a list of the 16 creepiest comic book scenes. Some of them are okay in context–e.g. in Daredevil 209, Daredevil pushes a girl down an elevator, but he knows that she’s a robot assassin. Some of the other ones are just plain creepy.

3 responses so far

Jul 24 2012

Common Pitfalls and Cliches for Superhero Teams

1. Superheroines who only serve as a love interest. Do this thought experiment: if you had to cut all of the romances in your book, are there any characters you’d want to remove? If so, I would recommend that you give those characters more to do and flesh out their conflicts, personalities, and goals/motivations. Giving the character some unique purpose independent of romance will make the character a more compelling love interest and, more importantly, a more compelling character. I’d recommend checking out Mystique, Black Widow and Elastigirl here.

  • RED FLAG: The character doesn’t talk about things besides romance and/or have a notable effect on how the main characters approach the central plot. (For example, a three-dimensional character might have conflicts with other characters about a major goal, whereas a trophy love interest usually goes along with other characters on how to deal with the supervillain).

 

2. Characters with one-dimensional personalities. If 90%+ of a character’s personality can be summarized in a single idea (e.g. “super-soldier” or “nice guy” or “angry/vengeful”), I would really recommend going back to the drawing board and making the character unexpected in some way. For example, Tony Stark isn’t just another super-scientist. Yes, he’s brilliant, but he’s also charming and his main flaw is a lack of restraint. That makes him more memorable than another brilliant-awkward-meek scientist.

 

3. The tank. If a character’s main role in combat is rushing at the enemy, I would recommend mixing in at least some minor powers so that the character’s fights will be less monotonous.

 

4. The brat. This character, possibly a child, rarely has much impact on the plot besides complaining, getting kidnapped, and/or drawing the useful characters into trouble. If you have a character who exhibits these negative/annoying tendencies, please balance it with something useful he brings to the table. For example, the Incredibles’ Dash actually helped out in fights, required little hand-holding from adult characters, and made fewer grossly stupid/irresponsible decisions than, say, Hal Jordan in Green Lantern. In contrast, Scrappy Doo was inept comic relief largely unable to contribute to the team accomplishing its goals. In The Taxman Must Die, the intern* is a bit more morally and legally flexible than most of the main characters (federal agents), and a budding Moriarty can find a role in a story about superpowered shenanigans.

*He’s also the nephew of a main character, but the nephew vehemently denies that this is relevant to his landing a federal internship in grade school.

 

5. I would recommend against individual capabilities which overlap too much. For example, it’d probably be easier to find a distinct role for Robin if he had some capabilities that Batman didn’t.

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43 responses so far

Jul 24 2012

Stephan’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please see the comments below. Thanks.

12 responses so far

Jul 24 2012

Iron Man Virus Hits Iran?

Hackers with a Stark-like appreciation for AC/DC have apparently let Iran know about their musical tastes. “[Iranian nuclear facilities] have been hit again by a bizarre attack forcing nuclear plant workstations to pump the song Thunderstruck by heavy metal band AC/DC through the speakers at full volume.”  Among other things, this would suggest that the scene in Avengers where Tony Stark hijacks the PA system on a helicopter (to blare AC/DC) is plausible.

4 responses so far

Jul 23 2012

Sera’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please see the comments below. Thanks!

26 responses so far

Jul 22 2012

Superhero Nation’s RSS Feed

Published by under Navel-Gazing,RSS Feeds

You can read and/or subscribe to Superhero Nation’s RSS feed at Feedburner. If any other services ask you for the feed URL, it’s available at http://www.superheronation.com/feed/ . Please let me know if you have any questions.

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Jul 21 2012

Tips on Writing a Superhero Team

1. I’d like to see each of the following from ideally every superhero on a team:

  • A personality, including at least one notable flaw.
  • At least one unusual decision, ideally one which reinforces something unique about the character. For example, Stark is less socially restrained and more curious than anybody else on the Avengers, so it makes sense that he cattle-prods Bruce Banner to test whether Banner will turn into the Hulk. If you’re having trouble giving characters unusual decisions, the characters probably do not have sufficiently distinct personalities yet.  Additionally, each unusual decision should have some consequences for the plot and/or character development. Cattle-prodding Banner creates conflict between Stark and the more polite Captain America and helps develop Banner’s limits.
  • Individual goals and motivations. Hopefully, these contribute to some protagonist-vs-protagonist conflict. For example, see Beast-Mystique and Magneto-Xavier in X-Men: First Class.
  • A notable relationship with at least one other team member and ideally some effect on a relationship between two other team members. (For example, Magneto’s relationship with Mystique drives a wedge between Mystique and Beast and Bruce Banner’s treatment at the hands of Tony Stark builds a conflict between Stark and Captain America in Avengers).
  • Some role in the story besides just 1) superpowers and/or 2) being a love interest. If the only thing the character brings to the story is his superpowers, you’d probably be better off either fleshing out the character’s personality more and/or moving the superpowers to a character that’s actually interesting.

 

2. It’s not necessary to cover individual origin stories or the formation of the team, as long as we see motivations and character development elsewhere. Some common setups here:

  1. The members develop superpowers (usually because of the same cause) and/or form the team (usually because of a common threat/enemy, opportunity or interest)–e.g. most superhero movies.
  2. A single character (usually the main character) joins an already-established team–e.g. Soon I Will Be Invincible.
  3. The team is already established and we instead start with a new mission or problem confronting the team.
  4. The main character interacts with the superhero team, but isn’t actually on it–e.g. Bob Moore: No Hero.

 

3. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing a superhero team is space considerations. Here are some ways to save space.  
  • You will probably have less space for side-characters outside the team. In the interest of saving space, I would generally recommend versatile side-characters that can interact with most of the teammates rather than side-characters that are limited to interacting with just one or two of them. For example, how many interesting moments has Alicia Masters had with anybody besides the Thing?
  • Giving antagonists less screen-time and relatively simple schemes will probably help. If you’re deadset on major antagonist-on-antagonist conflict (a la Dark Knight), I’d recommend going with 1-2 superheroes.
  • Splitting a large superhero team into separate squads can make scenes more efficient.
  • Eschewing secret identities. With really large teams, I’d be careful with alternate names altogether (even if the second name is public, like Ben Grimm and The Thing). If you have 10+ names for 5+ characters, it will probably surprise you how many of your readers cannot reliably remember who is who.

 

4. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to quickly develop a large cast, I’d recommend using 2-4 superheroes on the main team. The most common problem I see with superhero team stories is that the characters are too one-dimensional. Eliminating and/or merging characters will help buy you time to develop the remaining characters and make them more interesting. If you are absolutely sure you want more, make sure that each character contributes enough to the plot to warrant his/her space.

45 responses so far

Jul 21 2012

Superhero Demotivationals

Iron Man Demotivational Poster

 

Batman Riddler Demotivational Poster

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Jul 21 2012

Writing Prompt of the Day

Published by under Writing Exercises

Prompt 1: Start a story with this line: “Nobody ever complimented [character] on [fill in the blank], and he/she wanted to keep it that way.”

 

Prompt 2: Start a story with the main character acting proudly about something which most people would regard as a failure or a point of shame.

2 responses so far

Jul 20 2012

A Profile in Badassery

Published by under Badassery

One of my initial responses to Dark Knight was that Jim Gordon’s role bordered on the ridiculous, especially early on (the commissioner goes on a SWAT raid into the sewers?). However, Gordon looks plausible if compared to the actual Gen. William Dean, a U.S. commander at the Battle of Taejon in the Korean War.

  • He personally saw combat in some of the most brutal fighting during the war. According to his Medal of Honor citation, “he personally and alone attacked an enemy tank while armed only with a hand grenade.”
  • “He also directed the fire of his tanks from an exposed position with neither cover nor concealment while under observed artillery and small-arms fire. When the town of Taejon was finally overrun he refused to ensure his own safety by leaving with the leading elements but remained behind organizing his retreating forces, directing stragglers, and was last seen assisting the wounded to a place of safety.”
  • After being captured by the North Koreans, he repeatedly attempted to escape and did not reveal any information to his captors about Operation Chromite.
  • Dean in his own words: “No man honestly can be ashamed of the Medal of Honor. For it and for the welcome given to me here at home in 1953, I am humbly grateful. But I come close to shame when I think about the men who did better jobs some who died doing them and did not get recognition. I wouldn’t have awarded myself a wooden star for what I did as a commander.”

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Jul 20 2012

Donating to Victims of the Aurora, Colorado Shooting

I have not yet been able to find any donation efforts specifically for the Aurora, Colorado shooting, but the National Organization for Victim Assistance accepts general donations here. I’m not familiar with NOVA’s track record, but the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance lists them as a federal resource–in contrast, I’m a bit wary of charities which spring up in the wake of a disaster and haven’t yet impressed professionals in the field.

3 responses so far

Jul 20 2012

Dark Knight Rises Was Really Strong

Published by under Superhero Movies

 

Some initial thoughts (with some spoilers):

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54 responses so far

Jul 16 2012

Learning Writing Skills from Green Lantern

(Please see the movie before reading this review).

 

1. The two minutes of voiceover/narration should have been cut. First, do we really need to start the story with the backstory of the Green Lantern Corps? It would probably have been more natural (and less pretentious) to cover this in a conversation with Hal Jordan (probably when he meets up with the Corps on Oa). As it is, I think this information is a distraction from Hal, contributes to a disjoint between what the aliens are doing and what Hal is doing over the first 30 minutes, and is redundant with the two other scenes recapping the purpose and history of the GL Corps.

1.1. When you’re introducing a character and/or organization to readers, I think it’d be more effective to show them in their element rather than through lengthy exposition. We’re later told Abin Sur is a “great light” of the Lanterns, but we never actually see him do anything impressive. Similarly, rather than introduce the GL Corps with a speech, I’d much rather see them doing a typical-but-interesting job (the GL equivalent of a hostage situation or a high-stakes bank robbery). Since the defining characteristic of the GL is supposed to be fearlessness, it’d be better to have them do something memorably courageous than to show them panicking as they face Parallax. Fleeing isn’t the most intuitive way to establish a corps founded on bravery. Moreover, we don’t actually see much fearlessness from the Lanterns over the course of the movie.

 

2. The relationship between Hal and his father was one-dimensional and did not help develop Hal or the plot. This felt like a very forced way to work courage vs. cowardice into the plot. “You’re not scared, are you, Dad?” “Let’s just say it’s my job not to be.” Ick. Here are some more effective examples of family cameos.

  • Ellie, the main character’s wife in Up. In just a few minutes, each character shows how much they mean to the other. (Spoiler): When she dies, viewers really feel the main character’s loss, whereas Hal’s dialogue with his father is so lifeless that there’s no emotional heft. In contrast, Up’s Ellie-Carl scenes help develop why the main character is lonely and surly for most of the rest of the movie and helps set up some of the immediate conflict between the grouch and the cheerful Boy Scout he gets trapped with. Speaking of which, the Boy Scout’s relationship with his family is also emotionally effective—I’d really recommend seeing this movie if you haven’t already.
  • Batman’s relationship with his father mixes respect and conflict. Ra’s al Ghul points out that Bruce trained to become something like the opposite of his father—if the father had been as physically tough as the son became, they all would have survived Joe Chill. This is more interesting than JUST having the character try to fill his father’s footsteps (a la Hal Jordan). I also like that various other characters try pulling Wayne’s legacy in different ways (e.g. Ghul accuses him of being useless and mocks his philanthropic work, Joe Chill falsely claims that he died begging for his life, Batman risks disgracing his father’s name by cutting himself off from high society, and Joker implicitly disagrees with the elder Wayne about whether Gotham is worth saving, etc).
  • The mother of Kick-Ass has an aneurysm and dies while eating breakfast. This adds some ghoulish comedy and helps reinforce that the main character is lonely and sort of messed-up. It also plays on the comic book trope that the character’s parents will always die in some plot-relevant and meaningful way. Not bad for ten seconds of screen-time.

 

3. Main character Hal Jordan makes his first appearance 6 minutes into the movie. While I think it’s generally interesting to try scenes without the main characters (e.g. Dark Knight’s ferry scene), focusing on minor characters to the exclusion of the core of the story is probably unsound. I can’t think of any reason to start with the aliens here rather than either 1) starting with Hal and covering the information about the aliens later, probably when Hal meets the aliens or 2) starting with the aliens doing something which directly involves Hal. For example, it might make sense to start with Abin Sur as he’s looking for a Green Lantern—this would help develop what was so impressive about Hal that he caught Abin Sur’s eye.

 

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53 responses so far

Jul 12 2012

Learning Writing Skills from X-Men: First Class

(Please see the movie before reading this review).

 

1. A lot of the relationships really work, but the characterization would likely have been stronger if several characters had been removed. In particular, I think Xavier-Magneto and Hank-Mystique-Magneto alone were worth the price of admission. In the ten-minute training sequence, we see some really interesting threads, but they aren’t explored as fully as they could have been–for example, there’s a hilarious bit where Xavier and Hank only barely trust Havoc’s accuracy, but nobody ever mentions his accuracy again after that. Instead of having him prove his accuracy by shooting down Angel later on, it might have helped to force him to try a highly-dangerous trick shot to save an ally. Havoc gets a few lines being an ass to Beast, but again it didn’t really go anywhere. Cutting some of the minor characters might have helped buy more time for these plot threads to develop. Between Darwin, Angel, Havok, Banshee, Riptide (the unnamed tornado villain), Azazel (the demonic villain) and maybe Moira, 4-6 could have been easily removed.  In particular, introducing Darwin just to kill him immediately strikes me as a waste–he didn’t make enough of an impression for people to care about his death.

 

2. Notably, action plays a secondary role to character development. If you’re writing a superhero story which isn’t mainly about combat, I think First Class is probably the most helpful example from Hollywood so far.  I would definitely look at how the characters interact, how character traits are developed, and whether you would have subtracted and/or added characters.

 

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20 responses so far

Jul 12 2012

Great Reasons to Consider Skipping Over a Superhero Origin Story

Here are some signs it might be best to spend 0-2 sentences covering an origin story (how a character becomes superpowered and/or why he becomes a superhero).

 

1. The origin story doesn’t do much to develop characters, conflicts or the setting. For example, Superman’s origin story doesn’t do much to build up his distinguishing traits. Additionally, in most cases his backstory doesn’t do a great job setting up the conflict. In contrast, it’d be relatively difficult to tell a story like X-Men unless we had some idea what mutants were.

 

2. There are many superpowered characters and developing each individual origin would be too inefficient and/or incoherent. If you were inclined to, you could do a mass origin (e.g. X-Men or Wild Cards) and/or describe how the team forms rather than how the characters developed their superpowers. Neither of these alternatives is necessary, though—if the teammates’ interactions in the present develop the characters and establish their motivations, we don’t need to know the events leading up to them becoming a team.  (Similarly, in most stories about police departments and military units, most of the teammates have been teammates for some time).

 

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7 responses so far

Jul 10 2012

Learning Writing Skills from The Avengers

As always, please see the movie before reading this review.

 

1. The conflicts within the team and between the teammates and Fury/SHIELD were impeccable. One aspect which lends depth to the conflicts is that most of the character have intelligent reasons to disagree and the writers don’t push viewers to side with one protagonist or another. In contrast, the Fantastic Four’s squabbles are usually driven by someone (or everyone) being an idiot, which mainly leaves me wanting to punch everyone. The scene where the Avengers confront Nick Fury over what he’s been holding back from them is vastly superior to anything in the FF movies.

 

2. The writing was very fresh and clever. The arc where Loki allows himself to be taken prisoner in an attempt to provoke Bruce Banner into going crazy is a nice play on the (sort-of-tired) trope where a supervillain breaks out of captivity. Additionally, the scene where SHIELD tries to contact Black Widow (who is being interrogated by Russian smugglers) is hilarious.

  • BLACK WIDOW: “This is just like in Budapest.” *She stabs an alien in the head.* HAWKEYE: “You and I… remember Budapest very differently.”

 

3. I believe the main weak point of the movie was the selection of Loki as the main villain—he wasn’t as cost-effective as more limited, terrestrial villains like the Joker, Green Goblin or Obediah Stane. He got better characterization than, say, the alien antagonists in Green Lantern or FF: Silver Surfer, but I don’t believe the movie would have been much worse if all of his lines of dialogue had been cut out. In particular, a character that is based on deception and trickery should develop the plot and characters more with his dialogue than he actually did.

 

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52 responses so far

Jul 10 2012

Real-Life Superpowers: Immunity to Poisons

The Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins (a delightful concept for a scholarly publication, by the way) reported that American opossums produce a protein which leaves them immune to normally-lethal venoms, from sources such as:

  • Cobras, taipans and rattlesnakes, including species they have not encountered in the wild.
  • Ricin
  • Congress
  • Botulinum toxin

Since protein production is directed by genes, a capability like this might be interesting if you’re writing a genetically-engineered superhero or villain.

12 responses so far

Jul 07 2012

Learning from Amazing Spider-Man

(As always, please see the movie before reading this).

 

1. To the extent that you cover a superhero origin story, I’d recommend focusing on things and approaches we haven’t seen much of before. I think it would have helped to either spend less time covering the origin story or make it more different than Spider-Man 1. That said, I thought ASM’s approach to the death of Uncle Ben was smoother and more thematically effective–when Peter has the opportunity to stop the robber, there’s a plausible and immediate threat to bystanders. Peter declines and Ben gets killed seconds thereafter. This makes Peter’s motivation for a life-changing decision (becoming a superhero) more plausible.  In contrast, in Spider-Man 1, Peter gets torn up because he doesn’t get involved in a relatively minor situation with a police officer present, with only a faint connection between Peter Parker letting the robber go and the robber killing a civilian.

1.1. Peter plays a more active role acquiring superpowers. He was only in the laboratory because he stole an ID and figured out how to thwart a keypad. I think the scene develops him more than just getting lucky at the science fair in Spider-Man 1. (Likewise, he makes his own webslingers instead of getting them from the spider-bite).

 

2. Beware the idiot ball–make sure there are believable consequences to actions. Peter Parker displayed his superpowers in public so many times that I think his classmates would have to be idiots not to notice something was amiss. (For example, the NBA-caliber dunk? Or breaking a goalpost with a football? Or lifting enormous Flash Thompson by the neck?)  When characters make decisions, there should be consequences. For example, if the character is reckless with his powers, maybe other characters come closer to figuring out what’s going on. Or at least start asking difficult questions.

 

3. Speaking of consequences, I thought the crane scene was kind of cute. (Peter saves a construction worker’s kid and the construction worker later pulls in favors at the climax to help Spider-Man).  It helps build a contrast between Spider-Man’s decidedly limited means and, say, the lavishly-funded Avengers or X-Men. I think it’s also a more subtle and effective way of showing he’s more of an everyman hero than we saw in previous Spider-Man movies (e.g. subway passengers throwing themselves between Dr. Octopus and a crippled Spidey felt sort of hokey to me).

 

4. I thought it was a bit contrived that Peter Parker just happens to find the love interest working for the villain he’s trying to find. One way to clear out this contrivance would have been to make the two more causally connected. For example, maybe Peter Parker’s trying to figure out how to get to the villain, so he introduces himself to the assistant in the hopes that she’d eventually bring him to work. (This would make the relationship seem a bit more manipulative at the beginning, but he could probably come clean sooner rather than later. I think it’d help that he reveals his secret identity to her relatively quickly–he’s more upfront than most superheroes are).

 

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25 responses so far

Jul 06 2012

Learning Writing Skills from The Dark Knight

(Please see the movie before reading this review).

 

1. The conflicts really help make the relationships memorable. One element which worked out unusually well was the depth provided by protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts (e.g. Gordon conflicting with Dent over who blew a case, Dent respecting Batman but hating Bruce Wayne, Lucius vs. Batman over libertarian issues, cops pressuring Dent to surrender Batman to Joker, Batman vs. Dent over threatening to kill a deranged patient, Dent angry that Batman saved him rather than his girlfriend, Batman vs. a misled SWAT team, Gordon suspecting most of his own unit of possible corruption, etc). The plot has a lot of angles, but each of these conflicts is very easy to follow and is consistent with the character development. I think that the protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts help give all of the characters something to contribute to the plot. In contrast, if (say) the Thing were cut out of the Fantastic Four movies or Violet were cut from The Incredibles, I don’t think the plot would change much.

 

1.1.  Few, if any, superhero movies have accomplished as much with antagonist-vs-antagonist conflict. For example, Joker orders a hit on Coleman Reese, Joker fights with mob leaders, Joker turns on his own goons, and turns Dent into Two-Face (both physically and morally). One reason that the bank heist at the beginning of the movie is so memorable is because all of the antagonists involved are criminals—in contrast, many superhero movies have the superheroes warm up by taking down faceless bank robbers who receive no development.

 

2. The characters generally have complex motivations. Probably the most notable example here was Joker trying to prove that everybody is fundamentally as crazy as he is (and that people are only as moral as conditions allow them to be). It made him much more interesting than just another villain trying to make a ton of money or accumulate power without any particular agenda in mind. I’d also recommend checking out how Batman and Gordon conceal Two-Face’s misdeeds to help keep hope and inspiration alive.

 

3. The use of side-characters is phenomenal. Except for maybe Avengers, I don’t think any other superhero movie comes close in terms of character/plot development or creating interesting scenes. Take, for example, the ferry scene. Batman isn’t directly involved and none of the characters on-screen actually have a name. How many series are there where minor characters could have a compelling scene which develops the plot and the villain? Some other interesting examples where Batman isn’t present:

  • Joker’s opening bank heist. If I had to pick a single movie scene which did the best job of introducing a villain and developing his personality and modus operandi in a memorable way, this would be it. The heist is fittingly anarchic and unpredictable in the best way.
  • Joker’s pencil scene.
  • Lucius vs. Coleman Reese. (“You think your client, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, moonlights as a vigilante and beats criminals to a pulp with his bare hands? And your plan is to blackmail this man? … Good luck with that”).
  • Gordon/MCU fighting with Dent/DA’s office about who blew the bank seizure.
  • Joker in the MCU cell—the cell-phone bomb was a clever touch, but I thought his goading the veteran cop (Stephens) into an imprudent confrontation was most memorable here.

 

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14 responses so far

Jul 02 2012

Signs of a Promising Superhero Origin Story

1. The main character makes a notable decision, ideally one that most other main characters in the genre wouldn’t make in the same position. Ideally, this develops something unusual about your character compared to other protagonists in the submissions pile. For example, one thing that distinguishes Peter Parker from most superheroes is that he’s unusually human, so it’s fitting and memorable that he lets the robber go (which ends up getting his uncle killed).

 

2. The origin story reinforces a key character trait or mood. For example, Parker’s decision helps reinforce that he’s not purely heroic and experiences regular human problems like pettiness. Batman’s origin story helps establish his loneliness and isolation.

 

3. Ideally, the origin is driven by the main character’s actions rather than the character getting passively chosen. Individual effort is usually more memorable than, say, good luck or high birth. For example, Steve Rogers became a candidate for Captain America because he wouldn’t take no for an answer and he won the competitive process by demonstrating cunning and bravery. The plot (and Steve Rogers) would have been MUCH less interesting if the Army had randomly picked his name of a hat.

 

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18 responses so far

Jul 01 2012

Ehrich’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Ehrich is looking for advice on an interrogation scene. Please see the comments below.

4 responses so far