From The Writers' Room Featuring Tremontaine

Building Layers of Tension and a Bonus Cut Scene

I’ll begin with a confession: This is the only episode of both seasons I’ve worked on Tremontaine that I’ve not enjoyed writing. Even in season two when I murdered Arthur, though I avoided the moment, mourning the poor kid, writing that episode was exciting, fun, and I reveled when that moment finally came.

Though S3:E6 has several character moments I wanted to write (Esha and Reza meeting, Rafe taking Reza on a swordsman hunt), when I was working on it, from outline to first draft, I couldn’t quite enjoy it.

I also believe that if a writer is bored or uninterested in a scene, that comes through on the page and readers will sense it

I told myself over and over to cut myself some slack because the same month this episode was due, I was going through some intensive final revisions for one of my novels, and that was eating all the joy from my life. That’s definitely true, but I also believe that if a writer is bored or uninterested in a scene, that comes through on the page and readers will sense it. An unengaged writer makes for unengaged readers. That was the last thing I wanted, so regardless of what was going in my creative life I had to dig.

I sank into Reza’s point of view, letting myself get lost in his take on the Land, imagining how a commander from a hostile empire would examine the City and its people, asking how the Land has managed to remain so isolated for so long, when other nations like Cham and Chartil and Binkiinha have been trading (and invading) so long. I fell into the Sword and Cup, going a bit wild with my descriptions of the betting board and how it might work (because surely there’s a lot of wagering that goes on in a city where so much culture and economy relies upon swordsmen!). I created way too much back story for a new, mysterious spy. I gave Tess the Hand a leisurely post-coital afternoon, achieving some personal revenge. Oh you don’t remember that scene, well, there’s a reason:

I dug so hard, and sank so deep in order to find my joy, I ended up turning in a first draft a few thousand words too long. (That Tess scene was the only one that didn’t tie in to the rest of the plot and emotional through-lines, so it was the one I cut wholesale. Everything else I trimmed and rewrote on a line-level.)

I still didn’t love the episode—I couldn’t feel the tension of an emotional through line.

The problem was, when it came to those revisions, even though I’d found moments that made me very happy (Rafe’s horror at Reza’s casual violence, Joshua’s glee at the graffiti, “My life for your life,” and “Make yourself safe, Ms. Heslop.”) I still didn’t love the episode—I couldn’t feel the tension of an emotional through line. That’s what I want from short fiction (and from novels, but novels have a hundred-thousand more words to weave it): a tension between emotion and plot that I couldn’t locate here, not overall.

At the time, I was fairly certain the entire episode was going to fail. All I could do was trust my co-writers and editors to tell me if I was truly screwing up.

Still, it plagued me: how could I write something technically fine and proficient enough, satisfying other readers, but still unable to latch into my heart?

Before my final revisions, it was Delia Sherman who gave me the answer. In our Slack she wrote: “It seems to me that this episode is about the space between the past that haunts each of the characters and the futures they are looking to (Rafe and Esha and Diane) or trying to figure out (Reza, Tess, and Kaab). Everybody’s in flux, a little undecided, a little unsure of themselves. The emotional arc of the episode tends towards certainty and integration, even though it’s a fragile one–and since it’s almost at the center of the season, this makes perfect sense. These people are growing to be ready to move on, but circumstance and conflicting agendas are likely to get in their way.”

I don’t know how to write that kind of thing!

I stared at her words, aghast because she was so right, and I hated it! The episode wasn’t about connections, it was about fragility and the delicate balance between readiness and lack of action.

I don’t know how to write that kind of thing! I’m the one who created Shade, Florian, and Reza, and you know what they have in common? A huge lack of subtlety. A willingness to throw themselves into action whether it’s good action or terrible action! I’m the one who melts when I have to write Diane dialogue because she’s too shrewd and refined for me.

As I revised, as I cut and deleted and rewrote, I kept Delia’s genius in mind. I challenged myself with it, and that is what piqued my interest. Could I make an episode about the potential to act, rather than action, feel grounded in emotion, feel tense? Isn’t that what potential is? Tension? Could I find explosive moments of tension and emotion where different characters’ potential grated against each other? This is how the opening Diane/Kaab scene got trashed and rewritten, because before revisions, there was no tension there at all. I only found it by thinking about what precipice they each approached, and how to draw lines between them for when they inevitably leap over.

And it gave me a way into Micah, because Micah is always aware on some level of the layers of tension pulling between people, whether she can explain it or not.

So thanks, Delia, for being so insightful, for saving my episode, and thanks to all my co-writers for bearing with me. Without further ado, the (totally unedited!!!) cut scene:


Down the winding streets of the Hill, beyond the Middle City, past cafes and shops and warehouses, across the cold blue river, and in a bed on the top corner of a leaning tenement, Tess the Hand woke from a terrible dream. She sucked in a breath against the thin pillow, clenched her jaw, and cursed her dreams for being so predictable: the Bridge; a hurled brick; nasty, raucous laughter; her own red hair stained darker by a splatter of blood.

Beside her, Eliza Banks shifted, her pale hand sliding lazily along Tess’s bare back. Sun poured through the cracks of the shutters, illuminating the tiny room. Near noon, Tess guessed, and Eliza ought to be soundly sleeping a few hours more. They’d not stumbled up the narrow stairs to this room until nearly dawn.

Carefully stretching, Tess listened for sounds to prove Eliza slept. She slid out from the wool blanket, shivering as all the skin of her body tightened in the cold room. There was a thin fireplace, but no wood. Either Eliza made less than Tess even suspected, or didn’t usually sleep here over the dark winter nights. The roof slanted dramatically over the bed, and Tess avoided it, recalling vividly from a moment she’s flung her head back in pleasure and her hair slapped against the rafters. Luckily it hadn’t been her skull. She got up, still quiet, and Eliza snuggled into the warm space Tess had left.

Tess grabbed her wool underthings and threw on her shift, carefully dressing in layers of skirt and thick socks, stuffing her arms through the scraped leather doublet she wore in the winter, bound tight with ribbons to press her overflowing breasts smaller. The peplums hung wide and long, spilling over her voluptuous ass to sweep side to side when she walked, and Tess knew the dark green suited her coloring well. She picked up her boots and silently went to the door, setting them down for a quick get-away if need be. Then, Tess the Hand crossed the small space to the tidy worktable under the single window. Sanded smooth enough for fine work, with a small collection of backgrounds stacked on the corner nearly as extensive as Tess’s had been when she’d first started forging on her own. Different quills and inks appeared differently depending on not only the paper but what spread beneath the paper: oak, copper, stone, fine leather, et cetera. Tess lifted Eliza’s stool and set it aside, glancing at Eliza. The woman still slept, lips parted. They’d been eager lips, if unskilled.

Smiling to herself, Tess crouched to the small trunk and pulled a needle and pick out of the leather pocket sewn into the inner lining of her doublet. She picked the lock and opened the well-oiled lid. Though tempted to go through all Eliza’s things, she went for the vials of ink. Oak gall extract, an iron and vinegar mix, soot, wine, many of the items needed for mixing a variety of inks. Three already mixed bottles, and the blackest was the one she most concerned herself with.

Uncorking the bottle, she covered the opening with her thumb and then tipped it over. The tiny circle on her skin was dark purple, exactly right for well made oak ink. Tess touched it to her tongue. The bitterness was exactly right, too. This was Tess’s ink, which meant it was her father’s recipe. She did not know how Eliza had gotten it, but these mixtures were distinct, and the best. Nobody in Riverside could be allowed to steal Tess’s recipes.

Tess stood and poured the ink out across the open trunk and snaked it along the top of the writing table and backgrounds. Clutching the bottle in one hand, with her finger she wrote Let’s do it again some time.

She took a handful of ingredients just for spite and tucked them into the collar of her doublet. Feeling grand, Tess plucked up her boots and pranced down the stairs. The creaking and stomps would no doubt wake Eliza, but she’d do nothing against Tess. Better for the girl to come crawling and ask for help, ask for the recipe or lessons. The green god knew Tess didn’t need or want apprentices, but she’d certainly never abide her work being stolen or chipped away at. They’d work out a bargain, something fair but what kept Tess the Hand at the top.

And look at her: she’d gotten what she needed without a protector, without anybody else doing any spying for her. Maybe it was temporary, and sure, knowing that deadly Reza had her back kept the worst away, and yes, she was having nightmares still about Shade and the Siege, and she knew Riverside could never been controlled or contained—nor should it be. Therein lay its power.

But today, at least, Tess enjoyed flexing her own muscles to get what she needed in Riverside.

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