Midnight Voss: Writer, Reader, Teacher, Professional Malcontent

I have been writing stories since I was eight years old.  More recently, my resume has expanded.  Find out what I can do for you...        ...

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Music Round-Up: Jan-Feb 2020

In the past week, a lot of high profile music has dropped, but life isn’t all Swift and Gaga. Since the beginning of the year, women artists have been putting it out there, and it’s worth our time to see what they’re up to. Originally, I was only going to review the videos dropped in the past two weeks, but I wanted to throw a larger net and catch Sa-Roc, so I just made it a broader stretch of time.

Keep in mind that I’m not the target audience for anyone, and no artist is under obligation to market to me anyway. However, I don’t want these artists to go unnoticed, and once I got started making notes for them, I figured I should do it for everyone.

Rapsody, “Afeni”

Laid over a clear narrative of a black women finding out that she’s pregnant and not getting any support from her partner, Rapsody spits bars on a very direct message asking black men to treat black women better and not project their self-hatred imposed by a racist society onto them. One of the most lucid social commentaries to come out lately, no one can claim they don’t get what Rapsody is on about or that she’s coming out of nowhere. Socially conscious rap ftw.

Furthermore, I’ll say that while I don’t always appreciate the “featured” on women rappers’ tracks, PJ Morton’s vocals blend pretty seamlessly into Rapsody’s work here. Nicely done.

Sa-Roc, “Hand to God”

Sa-Roc is a freakin’ flow MASTER. I don’t know how else to describe it. She rhymes Dracula with octopi without skipping a beat. Coming up after “Forever,” which got a lot of attention and analysis from people who actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to rap, and “Goddess Gang,” which is heart-pumping killer anthem, this track has the mellow of “Forever,” but expounds on a smaller message within one of its verses. Throughout the video for “Hand to God,” Sa-Roc is being posed and bound up, buried and thrown away, and praying before candles, trying to keep from becoming a plastic, fake rapper or pushed out of the game, trying to convince her audience that she is and always has been the real deal and she’s come too far to ever give up.

She’s so tremendously good that it’s hard for me to understand why Sa-Roc isn’t considered the best rapper in the game, and yet here we are. She’ll be going on tour with Rapsody, for which I’m grateful. I snatched up this track as soon as I saw it!

Snow tha Product, “Perico”

This video makes me feel like I’ve had three glasses of wine and some shrooms. And I don’t speak enough Spanish to follow what she’s saying. It seems like a pretty standard brag track: She’s better than those pencil-dicked rappers over there, or something like that. It is just REALLY fun to listen to.

I’ll do a list of tracks that are tight later, but one of my current favs from her is “Butter,” in which she raps about how she’s more interested in getting girls than taking your man, and there’s a break in which some guys come over and won’t believe that she’s out with her girlfriend trying to get home to have some fun. ;)

Taylor Swift, “The Man”

Tay-Tay’s take on Bey’s “If I Was a Boy,” except she takes it in a different direction, by going full drag king to become Tyler Swift and directing the video herself. Ty-Ty is a steam-roller of toxic masculinity, flashing dollars on a stripper, fistbumping only the men in the room, and manspreading all over the subway. Then pissing graffiti onto the wall.

The track itself is kind of catchy, although not as emotionally arresting as “IFWAB” (song and video). It’s pretty standard Swift fare in beat and lyricism. In fact, without the gimmick of the video and the message, it would be forgettable. I won’t be hearing it as I’m going about my day. However, the lyrics pretty strongly reflect some the stupider criticisms that Swift has dealt with during her career. For example, complaining that she writes about her exes and dates too much. Is that not pretty much the topic for most pop musicians?

Other gripes, about how people would let her succeed without constantly questioning whether she deserves it, come a bit close to self-pity and myopia, but are fairly relatable to most women, especially in regards to the way women-led media are often heavily criticized before even coming out. (This sort of ignores how women of color get it but… moving on.) Regardless, unlike some songs like “Bad Blood” or “Look What You Made Me Do,” the tone is not angry, but wistful. All in all, I liked “Bad Blood” better.

Kesha, “High Road”

Coming out after some absolutely ethically bankrupt court decisions, Kesha’s “High Road” celebrates moving on from assholes by um, I guess going to have a party out in the desert at an abandoned waterpark in the desert. There’s shots of wildlife and at one point… chickens. At one point she’s in a Miss America crown sitting in the back of a pick up filled with the balls from a ball pit.

Okay. I’m not wild about this video. It’s kind of messy and all over the place. That may be the aesthetic they were going for, fallen Miss America/outsiders. But whatever. I really enjoy the song itself. In a way, Kesha is not as inclined as Swift to just put out song after song about herself, even though her latest tracks suggest she’s been compelled to comment on all of the press surrounding these events, or at least use her music to process some of it. “My Own Dance” does this more so (while still being fun), and “Praying” very famously did in a raw way. This track is a good mix between commenting on her new direction as an artist and the kind of songs people can enjoy and have fun with which she has always said she wanted to do.

All in all, I think both strategies are worthwhile, and Kesha is underrated.

Lady Gaga, “Stupid Love”

“Born this Way” and “Perfect Illusion” joined a thruple with “Edge of Glory” and gave birth “Stupid Love,” a bouncy pop track that cries out to be loved, dammit. If the sound didn’t give you enough bubblegum, Gaga wears pink top to bottom in the video, including her wigs.

The concept is that the world is overcome by division, and while others passively pray to make things better, the “Kindness Punks” fight for it. So they dance battle in the middle of a wasteland, trying to make things better. It’s like if Fury Road became a musical.

The positives of the song are that, in spite sounding a mash-up of Gaga’s early work, the messages of love, shedding shame, letting people see you, and protecting yourself from pain via love are decent. And sounding like a mash-up of Gaga’s early work… it does evoke a lot of nostalgia. This song will be in your head forever, and I’m sure it was designed specifically to be an anthem for gay and young people in the way her earlier works were.

(Doesn’t mean I don’t wish we could get more experimental works from her. Sometimes, I think I’m the only person who liked Artpop.)

The video has a lot of movement and reads clearly as a concept, but it isn’t terribly deep. There was a time when I waited to see the next one because there so many layers of symbolism, and since then, Janelle Monae has far surpassed her in the futurism department for videos. In the end: I expected more?

Doja Cat, “Say So“

While everyone else is jacking off to 80s nostalgia, Doja Cat takes us all the way back to the 70s, complete with period outfits and fonts, and cinematography mimicking home videos from the time. And of course, by the end of the video, they head out to the disco. In interviews, she describes the choice as something she built up from the song, so it really was a sharp way to make her video completely cohesive with her song.

Apart from the visuals (which are just… neat), I really enjoy the smooth vocal of the main hook in contrast with the bars that Doja throws into the middle of the track. It’s infinitely re-listenable.

In short: Sa-Roc, autobuy. Kesha and Doja have extremely enjoyable tracks, and Rapsody continues to queen. Okay song and video from Gaga, but I’m expecting more from the next releases. Swift is… Swift. In pants.

Friday, January 10, 2020


Captive by Madeline Dyer is a volume of poetry produced from her therapy writings as she worked through OCD and psychosis induced by Autoimmune Basal Ganglia Encephalitis. As the title suggests, this disorder causes brain inflammation, and this book circles on her feelings and experiences during this time.

Thematically, we see several clear messages regarding disability and mental/physical disorders arise. Often, frustration and helplessness come not only from Dyer’s illness, but also as a response to the way she is treated by various individuals in the medical profession, as her condition forces her to go to the, repeatedly for help. Instead of getting help, she is dismissed, refused tests, and made to feel that she is just seeking attention. In that way, this volume of poetry is very timely, as there have been a number of studies coming out on how women are not believed by doctors in their pain.

Although her experiences are specific to her life and having a disorder that is very rare, people who struggle with chronic conditions will be able to relate to a lot of elements exhibited here. As Dyer crafts her poems, she blurs the lines between metaphor, hallucination, and literal occurrence, taking the reader with her as she relies on natural imagery, but then describes actual hallucinations. As she discusses her illness, the ever-shifting relationship between her and it unfolds: at once a monster, a captor, a tormentor, a friend, and sometimes, an object that she diminishes into a humorous image (a dancing beetle) to take control over it. She describes it as the one that whispers to her how to be safe, will never let her to be free, and lies to her that it is her only friend.

There is also a sense of claustrophobia created by the poems when read together. Dealing with mental illness, whether induced by a physical cause or not, can be incredibly isolating. Whether it is due to your loved ones growing tired of your needing help, or you pushing others away, doesn’t really matter. In the end, part and parcel with all of this is feeling very alone with your illness.

It’s easier to process this volume as a whole rather than a selection of poems, but I’ll mention a few that particularly resonated with me.

“Things People Say/Things I Want to Say”
Again, I think it helps to read this volume in one go, but if you have to take a break, make sure to read these two together. They reflect how people talk to those with mental illness and things Dyer is struggling to communicate.

“but my tears feed it [the monster]
and my breaths
are the beat of its wings”

“Men in White Coats”
One of several poem detailing her complex relationship with doctors and the fear that’s been inspired by hospitals.

“I’ll run away,
don’t make me go
to a prison too white
with screams as loud as silence
and whispers that cut.”

“There’s Nothing Wrong with You”
In this poem, I recognized the feeling of going to a doctor, and having that doctor shocked when I cried that my results showed nothing. Anyone with chronic problems knows that a negative test is good for what they tested for, but you are still sick and still in pain, and something is wrong. They just haven’t found it. And when you spend a huge amount of money for tests that find nothing? Hello. I’m gonna cry.

“I see my soul, pink, inflamed, fleshy,
reduced to a watery, flat nothing
in the doctor’s hands.
Hands that are supposed to care
but his hands are callous because his mind
is set and he’s not willing to believe me
and research my symptoms to save me.”

“The Beetle from My Mind”
“Little legs and little arms.
A briefcase, glossy shoes, and a top hat.
A monocle, because he thinks it looks so cool.”

Personifying her psychosis as this little beetle that she dresses up and tells to dance, owning the space of her mind. It’s just such a great concept, and I think others who deal with mental illness and disorders can definitely relate to visualizations that help them cope with the bullshit their brains are trying to pull.

“My Hands”
There’s an element of body horror to not recognizing parts of yourself and feeling vulnerable and unable to be an actor in your own life. That’s what struck me about this one. When the monster is most in control “a parasite, reaching with long, sweet limbs.. he pulls the levers and my fingers obey.” This really pulls the reader into the terrifying feeling of losing of control.

Losing connection with your friends through the process of trying to keep your head above water during an illness like this… It’s just crushing. It emphasizes the sense of isolation because it isn’t all at once. The longer it’s dragged out, the more painful it is.

“But the wasp thrives after leaving its poison,
and I am wasteland, watching friends evaporate,
lost in the grid.”

Honorable mention: I just like “An Apology to the Ponies.” Dyer has Shetland ponies. I liked this one.

I will say, in the beginning, I had some difficulty parsing the meaning of the poems as they were.  I think that this could’ve been resolved for the reader by putting “Sometimes, I Get Really Good Days“ first to make it easier to ease into the volume and follow Dyer’s poems. At the same time, I sort of value the struggle to find meaning in an experience that is so different from my own. For me, with anxiety and depression and chronic pain, a lot of my issues don’t even come close to Dyer’s, and cognitively putting in the work to understand her words is very important. By the end, I thought, “Oh no, it’s over.”

And you know that makes a powerful volume of poetry. I definitely recommend giving it a try.

I received a copy of this ebook for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, December 13, 2019


Human-sized furry creature sitting at a diner table.

Answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?

In the third installment of Blumhouse’s monthly horror movie installments on Hulu, Pooka! is the story of a struggling actor who gets a little too into his part as the titular Pooka, and begins to spiral, as he loses track of who he is outside of Pooka.

This definitely isn’t the worst horror movie I’ve ever seen, and therein lies the problem. I felt like this one had more potential, but it does need more work. Problematically, I’m more on the narrative side, and I wouldn’t know how to balance the cinematography and other elements that were good with editing the script as a whole.  

Pooka! has its optimum potential as a story about an abuser realizing the logical outcome of his behavior, but as a coherent film, it is hindered by several major issues: 1) It is trying too hard to hide the reveal with confusion despite having given it away, and 2) it is trying to do and be so many things that the abuser angle becomes a secondary note to the wackiness.  It’s about commercialism, but also a bad father/husband who ended up killing his wife and child. It’s an homage to both A Christmas Carol and “An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge.”

Below, are tons of spoilers, but since this has been out for a year, we’ll deal with it.

Sunday, November 24, 2019


Gilbert the Goat

Falling INN Love. Get it? There’s an INN, and the protagonists are falling IN love while they fix up the INN. It’s an INN they’re falling IN love IN. Get it?

Okay. Goofy pun aside (and apart from repeatedly explaining to my girlfriend why Gabriela should be a softball/Home Depot lesbian caught in a warring BnB plot with Charlotte and end up with Shelley), this is actually a decent movie. I had low expectations based on the title as well as Netflix’s general ridiculousness in picking up terrible romcoms and limited series that are maybe the worst written nonsense in existence.

Falling INN Love (get it?) is about Gabriella Diaz, whose life falls entirely apart in the span of a day. She loses her job due to the company collapsing, and then she realizes her boyfriend has no intention of committing to her at all (doesn’t hurt that he’s also bossy and annoying). So she enters a contest to win an inn in New Zealand. She wins! And she goes to New Zealand to check it out. Apparently, it needs a lot of work, and she’s as stubborn as the goat that lives on the property, so she decides to stay and fix the place up to sell.

Unlike The Princess Switch and The Xmas Prince (and sequels), the male lead isn’t a vaguely symmetrical piece of cardboard. Jake is kind of cute. He has a life, as a contractor who keeps bees (I assume as a hobby?). He’s funny, not aggressive or arrogant, and while he butts heads with our protagonist Gabriella at times, he isn’t negging her on purpose. Ye gods, if I have to see one more dumbass male lead being written as “edgy” when he’s really just a dick.

Anyway, moving on, I really enjoyed the side characters. The setting of a small town in New Zealand doesn’t sound like much on the outset, but everyone is so nice, and they all have their own thing going on. Way better than the endless string of fake European countries that seem to have ten residents. I even ended up liking the Bitch character Charlotte, because she has really clear motivations, and she was never really that mean. Her goals just conflicted with our protagonist’s goals, and she made some poor choices.

Furthermore, and this part struck me, I don’t remember the last time I watched a romcom and was genuinely laughing, not AT the film, but in response to JOKES. I suppose that reveals me to be the black-hearted creature I truly am, but most romcoms in movie style are not that funny. They rely on cringe humor and half-assed “sassiness” in their characters. For Falling INN Love (get it?), the characters have their quirks, but not in a way that feels stereotypical or forced, and Gilbert? He’s the real star.

All and all, Falling INN Love (get it? Okay, I’ll stop, I swear.) is sweet, actually romantic, funny, and very rewatchable. Honestly, for improvement, I have only a few suggestions on what might make it better.


Unlike most of the movies in this genre, the heroine actually has a pretty good reason to leave her home, boyfriend, and job (although technically her company collapsed). Thus, the audience is not being asked to suspend their disbelief too far on this point. At most, the stretch comes from the amount of money it would cost to renovate this house. So, plot-wise we’re only looking at certain tension and pacing improvements.

By the middle of the movie, when Gabriella and Jake are actively working on the inn and we get numerous moments of them arguing about how much of the old structure to keep vs how much modernization is needed, their chemistry and the fun of the movie really hits its stride. Unfortunately, it takes us a bit to get there, and their relationship before this point felt a bit off.

  • Don’t skimp on setting up plot beats.

The only actual flaw I see in the movie itself is that from Gabriella’s first “meet cute” with Jake, she is inexplicably antagonistic with him. We don’t see her being antagonistic with her dick coworkers, or with her boyfriend. She’s actually very appeasing in nature, and it works to her benefit with the townspeople of Beachwood Downs.

It really seems as though she and Jake are at odds in this part because they are supposed to be at this part of the story. The structure of this romance doesn’t follow early heat slam-bam plot, but the romcom overcoming differences. This means that, while we probably expect them to have a problem with each other at first, it does need to be set up properly.

I would argue that the first part of the movie, during which we set up Gabriella’s character, she should be more formidable with her coworkers rather than letting them walk over her and during the fight with her boyfriend, he call her a stubborn control freak. Either he should in irritation, or her friend should in a loving way. We need some grounding for this layer of her character. Otherwise, it seems like her personality flips the minute she sees Jake.

Again, Jake is a pretty nice guy. Not a Nice Guy. He’s just helpful and only teases her a little when she knocks things over and makes a mess. We need more of a reason for her to be so combative every time she sees him, since (refreshingly) he hasn’t done anything to make her angry. He does run into her suitcase with his car, but that was as much her fault as his.  A little work in setting up their early dynamic would iron out this kink.

  • Don’t forget to let the narrative breathe.

As Sherry Thomas (Author of The Lady Sherlock series, The Magnolia Sword, etc.) pointed out during her 2019 RWA panel on pacing, it really only has to be “good enough.” The opening needs to be good enough to get us to the rising action, the middle has to move us to the, and the ending has to bring things together. (I’m paraphrasing a lot. Go see her talk.) A lot of authors obsess over their openings because they know that editors are going to toss their manuscript out of the pile for arbitrary reasons and conflicting advice. So it makes sense to fret about the pacing.

Falling INN Love’s pacing is good enough. It works as a movie. However, to make this story optimal, I would have advised that Netflix invest in this project as a limited series. Unlike some of Neflix’s other limited series, Falling INN Love  has a well-established cast of characters, running jokes, a clear through-line for its main arc, as well as subplots that could be explored throughout a series of maybe 6-8 episodes. You have our main couple, a side couple with Shelley and her admirer, Charlotte’s shenanigans, the gay couple that run the cafĂ©, and of course, Gilbert.

I can easily see this running for a season and being rather popular. I don’t know that they had the money, but with such a well done setting and cast, Netflix could EVEN have done one of its favorite things: Had a two season show. Except, you know, planned it from the start so people don’t attack them on Twitter.

The main reason to expand a narrative like this, even though I think the movie did a good enough job for its format, is a principle that sometimes gets overlooked in fiction: Letting the narrative breathe. If After failed becausse it is almost nothing but interstitial moments, Falling INN Love thrives because it uses them to build cause and effect style on one another until we reach our conclusion. Drawing from that strength, it could easily shift from a movie to a short series allow for that narrative breathing, that careful building of character interactions. 

Even if you aren't writing something that has a lot of connective tissue, the scenes still need to have a sense of cause and effect. Don't let things happen just because they have to happen at this point in your script/manuscript.

But that's just my take. Anyway, mostly enjoyed this one. As always, if you have suggestions something you'd like me to try to "fix" with my overly opinionated ranting, drop me a line. See you next time, cuttlefishes. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

POETRY REVIEWS: You Can't Kill Me Twice

Charlyne Yi: Dark haired woman with winged eyeliner
and silver fish pinning her black cloak together.

Every time I see Charlyne Yi in something, I’m always surprised and then delighted. I’m pretty sure I saw her for the first time in Knocked Up, which I didn’t particularly enjoy despite a general good job all around by the actors, but I knew her best for Ruby in Steven Universe. Then, later, she voiced the lead in Next Gen (so cute) and played Lucifer’s nerdy little sister Death/Azrael (seen above, with Death’s fishies). And that’s just the acting side of things, because she’s also a comedian (which I knew) and a composer/musician/artist/writer/director (which I did not know). And then I saw her book come up on Netgalley.

I wouldn’t call this your standard book of poems, although as a musician, Yi can wield a metaphor adeptly. I might rate the book lower, if compared side to side with some of my absolute favorite poets who have left me gasping. You Can’t Kill Me Twice (so please treat me right) isn’t just another chapbook, though. It’s a set of musings, art, and stories. And like the best of all of these, it grows deeply personal.

One thing that Yi does that I’ve not actually seen other poets really do is integrate her illustrations into the meaning of the expression on the page. Yes, you’ll see some interesting pictures here and there in Rupi Kaur and others, but they aren’t critical to the poetry. You can just read the poem and get it. “The Study of Types of Love of Friendship, Family, and Romance” lists types like “The Black Hole” and “The Projectionist” and “The Disassemblist.”

Figure with body parts spread before them, saying
"You're so facinating. How do you work?"

Just making a list without the illustrations wouldn’t give us same effect. Later in the book, in between a few lines of a short poem, Yi deploys her illustrations as well as the space of different pages to have a couple dancing and pulling each other back and forth. One of my favorites is the of image those enormous glasses the optometrist gives you, to look between lenses for which one looks right, and Yi punctuates each with a little circular lens with a drawing: Repression, Depression, and Reality. (I like the little ghost, okay.)

Apart from that, there are volumes of poetry that make me laugh, but reading this, there were a lot of little moments of saying “YES!” and outright snorting in laughter. Yi’s ability to move fluidly between roles makes for volume of poetry and art that is ever changing and doesn’t let you settle. It was a quick read, yes, but very enjoyable.  Her humor is also a moving target. Sometimes it’s a bitter laugh, and sometimes it’s about an egg going up someone’s butt.

Thematically, Yi does address romantic relationships to a degree, but this is by far not the only focus. It’s hard to pin it all down, but You Can’t Kill Me Twice addresses love, loneliness, mental illness, suicide, identity, racism, political violence and scapegoating, building society on empathy rather than aggression, and the cyclical nature of abuse.

It’s a lot, ya’ll.

At the same time, it’s nice to see books of poetry that don’t just revolve around the rise and fall of a person’s relationships. It’s there, definitely, and I appreciate the themes of needing to be a whole person without your significant other, but that isn’t the beginning and end of what you’ll see here. The book is an interesting ride.

I was given a free copy in exchange for an honest review by Netgalley.

(I also wasn't going to do another poetry review so soon, but the pdf goes boom on the 19th when Yi's book goes on sale, so I had to hurry while I had the time.)

Saturday, November 16, 2019


Image of a butterfly with a clipped wing.
Text: "Swallowtail: Poems, Brenna Twohy"

Swallowtail is a short, potent volume of poetry by Brenna Twohy, who comes out of the scene in Portland, Oregon and is finishing law school. An overall strong debut, Twohy's poetry is like a bracing, but refreshing, step into the first winter air. I wasn't expecting it, but god, does it feel good.

Twohy's spoken poetry influences are apparent in her work. The utilization of humor, the pop culture to broach difficult topics, the boldness of those topics. You can hear the lyricism and rhythm as you read through. Twohy also employs some familiar forms to slam poetry, for example, numbered lists and prompts with descending word count. This influence proves a strength for Twohy, who is capable of balancing strikig prose and meaning with the style/gimmicks employed. Furthermore, in her few shorter poems, she is able to deliver the depth of a single thought via a thought provokig extended metaphor.

Swallowtail starts strong. Rather than following the current trends, and parcelling out development in a 3-4 part "journey" (a conceit that usually leaves the front rather weak), Twohy comes out swinging with several poems about rape and abuse. One poem even calls out the complaint that there are too many poems about rape, without recognizing why this is such a common experience.

"Another Rape Poem"
You are staring out at a world on fire complaining about how ugly you think the ashes are.

By placing these poems upfront, Twohy captures our attention and signals to the reader the kind of poet she aspires to be: willing to take risks and very much having something to say. While this volume doesn't have a central theme, the content circles rather closely on relationships and violence, grief and loss, and perception of self/others' perceptions of that self. Whether by intention or by the natural organization, the volume ends with the consequences of the poems before, which include anxiety, depression, and the examination of personal failures as a result of previous emotional abuse.

"In Which I Do Not Fear Harvey Dent"
If you think I am brave, it is because you have never seenme out of costume.

Possibly, Twohy's lawyerly aspirations are what add the extra force to her poetry. Perhaps, it is just the overlap between her experience and her writerly voice. Whatever it is, Swallowtail is a strong, refreshing debut that will leave lyricism singing in your blood, the way it does when you go to a good open mic night.

Twohy's Tumblr
Twohy's Twitter
Twohy's Website

I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

How Not to Write: After (Part Two)

They continue to be two boring white kids on a dock.

Hello, Darkness, my old friend…

Welcome back for part two of How Not to Write: After Edition. In the first post, I spoke about the problems of trying to convert fanfiction conventions into books and movies, and the problems with After’s narrative action to begin with. To this point, I’ve spoken strictly about basic narrative elements that the movie fails to achieve. Today, we’re gonna cover issues of character and theme. Gods help us.

  • Don't pass red flags off as romantic rather than alarming. 

This movie is thematically confused. It doesn’t know whether it is a coming of age story, the first act of a Lifetime original, or half a horror movie before Hardin evolves enough to join Joe of Netflix’s You. It’s supposed to be a romance, but misses most of the important beats in building the relationship between the two main characters.

Substituting red flags for romance doesn’t cut it in 2019. (#sorrynotsorry) You can’t just vaguely hand wave over creepy behavior like this and then claim it’s “just fiction” so it “doesn’t matter.” It’s bad fiction. You need to have a point to a story and something behind your relationships. Hardin needs to either dial back the entitled, possessive, sociopathic dickery… OR RAMP. IT. UP.

A lot of people have spoken about how Hardin as a character is basically an assemblage of red flags glued together with toxic masculinity and spray painted with acting so bad that we question whether the British actor is faking his accent. He negs Tessa the moment he meets her, has rage problems (beating the shit out of someone who isn’t even taking to him and trashing the house), isolating her, and using her as his personal therapist. And that’s before dealing with the raw fact that he pulls a She’s All That to try to get her to fall in love with him and keeps the game going so long his friends even seem to be surprised he’s still doing it.

It doesn’t help that the guy playing Hardin, whether by choice or directing, has less emotional range than Bella Swan. He has two emotions throughout the two movie: Soggy cardboard and sulking ten-year-old. Thus, unless they replace the actor, you’re dealing with a situation in which you have to write around his utter unlikeability. I wanted to wring his neck in the first scene, I swear, and I have discovered that I am not the only one. Get out of her room. Leave her alone. Get a job.

As I mentioned in the first part, the screenwriters also cut out an entire subplot/tension, and therefore, to replace that tension, we need to change a lot of elements. We have plenty of room to actually develop character and theme, but that means the scenes need to escalate via cause and effect. Here are some options:

Lovers of the book might choose to make Hardin more of a challenge for Tessa intellectually. This would require actually writing both of the characters as smart. Rather than creating tension from Hardin when he’s a dick to her, keep the tension going back and forth as they actually engage the other one, proving each other wrong, making each other think harder. The Legally Blonde musical does this with Emmett and Elle, and it’s absolutely adorable when they go back and forth at different times in the story with “Why do you always have to be right?” (Because they are both smart and stubborn and push each other to be more.) However, this writing choice would elevate the movie to be more of what the author wanted by connecting more to the literary references that are integral to their relationship and character. With this choice, Hardin cannot be raising all of these red flags and beating the shit out of people for no reason. As is, Hardin comes off more Mr. Wickham and much less Mr. Darcy.

(Then at the end, he’s quoting Wuthering Heights, for some reason. Like, my dude, that book does not have a happy ending. There are other books. You’re nerds. Read some.)

But that’s a direction to take if you wanted to make the story actually more romantic. If it were my choice, I would probably just embrace how terrible he is. Keep the red flags we have and push it further to more current and relatable examples. Instead of the bloody sheets of the original story, have him record them having sex to win his bet. (Welcome to the Gen Z world. They don’t just text.) Have secondary characters confront the problematic way he treats her for added tension. Instead of having the bet revealed after so many boring things have wasted our lives for 2/3rds of the movie, reveal it halfway in, having built up Tessa’s relationships with Landon and Steph. Tessa has loads more chemistry with both of these characters. Tessa describes her life as changed after him. Show us how that is after she’s been with someone so emotionally abusive and unstable.

You could still have Tessa pressured to get back with the dick in the second movie. Just use the toxic elements appropriately, or don’t use them at all. There’s no point in normalizing gross behavior as romantic, and while I wouldn’t deny a fanfic writer the right to write EDGY whumpfic, when you spend about 14 million making a movie, you’re obligated to tighten up the script and make a decision on how to portray this toxic mess of a relationship. This first movie isn’t even a romance. It’s just a mess.

  • Don't try to use basic interests as a character's entire personality. 

As a more minor gripe, a lot of YA books that get picked up by moviemakers don’t put in enough effort to make realistic characters. But since they don’t seem to get this: Reading in itself doesn’t pass for a personality.

Please put down the torches.

Look, here’s the difference. People who love to read have specific things they like. They don’t ONLY like the books that their teachers made them read in English class. They have favorite GENRES. If Jane Austen is their favorite author, they probably have read more than just Pride and Prejudice. Moreover, they have other interests, opinions, motivations, and conflicts. They DO THINGS. (I mean, sometimes we do.) Anyway, the issue is that the movie writers make no effort to flesh out the characters. The only reason Tessa is so likable is the actress’s effort. I don’t even know how this movie cost so much to make when they couldn’t be bothered to have give her a coherent wardrobe. She shifts from cult dresses to a orchestra concert dress, to Bohemian girl. Even Glee enhanced characterization via their wardrobe selections. Figure her out, style her, and use all the dialogue, and visual imagery to strengthen our sense of who she is.

Hardin is even worse. Apparently, he kind of reads (but clearly hasn’t gotten all the way through Pride and Prejudice), but otherwise, he has NO INTERESTS outside of Tessa. His spiritual predecessor Christian Grey played the piano and enjoyed whips. Give the lump of hairgel a hobby.

Character development. Not just for everyone else.

  • Don't isolate your main couple from outside interaction.

Finally, and this will help with the former two issues: These types of stories—since they are essentially fanfics that have Pokevolved—tend to fixate almost entirely on the main couple. This works in fanfiction because your readers come to the story looking to read about how these characters they already know get together under these circumstances. It does not work as well in books and movies based off of them because you need secondary characters to forward the plot and support your characters as they grow. Male and female lead acting like the last two people on Earth doesn’t cut it.

It’s so much easier to move your lead through their journey if they have support, if they engage with the other characters. Cause and effect. Characters drive the narrative. The movie started this with Tessa and her interactions with her mother, and Tessa’s relationship with Steph is touching and entertaining. Landon’s role could have been expanded, as could Steph’s as Tessa gets used to the new world of college. However, these characters disappear entirely for large swaths of the film because After’s creators aren’t telling a coherent story. They aren’t even trying.

Supporting characters can move the action, diffuse situations, make your characters look better or worse. Whatever you want. But if you don’t have them, the world feels empty and false. Again, what works in fanfic doesn’t always work in original fiction. Sorry.

Look, I don’t know how much money this movie series will make in the long run, or if the writers will handle the second and (ugh) third better than they did the first. But they really fucked the dog on this. They made their money back, but I really think they could have done better than to become the latest of this fanfic-to-book-to-deadly-boring-movie trend.