From The Writers' Room Featuring Tremontaine

The Creative Forces of “The Boys in the Basement”

When I look back over the posts I’ve written on my previous visits to the Writer’s Room, I see that I’ve written about the intersections, some intentional, some unexpected, of my Tremontaine episodes with the real world—especially in terms of politics. So though I’m writing this two days after off-term elections that saw a repudiation of the Trump agenda, I’m going to resist the temptation of drawing any parallels to my episode, “Every Face a Forgery.”

By the way, isn’t that a killer title? I owe it to my brilliant colleague Tessa Gratton, who came to my aid when, despairing, I whined to the writing team on our Slack channel that I was at a total loss for an episode title. Tessa, like the awesome writer and editor she is, rummaged around in my manuscript draft, and guess what? The title I was desperately searching for was already there, written into a scene with Riverside’s favorite forger, Tess. All I had to do was dig it out, polish it up a bit, and bingo: kick-ass-title achievement unlocked!

So in this post, I’m going to leave politics aside and concentrate on some inside writery baseball, because I know that a lot of Tremontaine readers are also writers or aspiring writers. I’m also an aspiring writer—I think all serious writers are, or must be if they hope to continue improving. What I’m going to address here is something that took me a long time to understand as a writer. The full ramifications of it are still unfolding in how I approach storytelling.

Even harder to accept was the idea that I could peer into my scary inner spaces without violating some taboo…

Simply put, you’ve got to trust the unconscious, anarchic, creative forces that Stephen King calls “the boys in the basement.”

Writing is a mysterious process, so much so that throughout history, writers have been extremely superstitious about it, and many still are today. We won’t set down a word without our lucky pen. We need our favorite mug, positioned just so upon our desk (I pause to sip from my chipped Warp Speed Star Trek mug). We must burn incense to invoke the muse. We must spill the blood . . . Wait, did I say that part out loud?

You get the idea!

One of the hardest things for me to acknowledge as a beginning writer was that there is no muse, no magic, no external source for the wellsprings of inspiration: it all comes from within. Even harder to accept was the idea that I could peer into my scary inner spaces without violating some taboo that would cause the wellsprings of inspiration to dry up or tempt the writing gods to some even more dire retribution. I was afraid to pull back the curtain on my creative process, afraid that I would expose the angry Great and Powerful Oz or, worse, some huckster from the land of E Pluribus Unum.

The whole story is already there in the germ of its originating idea.

But in fact, what lies behind the curtain is an ally, not some force to be feared. The “boys in the basement” are eager to help us write our stories, if we will only listen to them, and the proof of that lies in the raw material of our stories themselves. It’s in the ideas of our stories, and in the words of our stories, and in the characters of our stories that the “boys in the basement,” so to speak, smuggle their contraband across the border of consciousness.

Whenever I’m stuck on a point of plot, I don’t look to an external solution. Yes, it can be helpful sometimes for a guy with a gun to come through a window, but more often I find that the solution is inherent in my story premise or in some aspect of a character I haven’t sufficiently explored. The whole story is already there in the germ of its originating idea.

Same with that bugaboo of writers: theme. I’ve learned not to attempt to impose a theme on my writing. Instead, I let theme emerge organically out of what I’m writing. Most of the time I’m only aware of it very late in the process. Sometimes I’m never aware of it at all. But the “boys in the basement” are. And they invariably leave clues to help writers find their way.

“Every Face a Forgery.” Yes, it’s a nice turn of phrase. Some sweet alliteration there, and a poetic rhythm . . . But beyond that, it absolutely nails the theme not only of the episode, but one of the themes that has run throughout all three seasons of Tremontaine: everyone wears a mask; everyone is pretending to be something or someone they are not . . . and there is a cost to that. Even Micah, in this season especially, must come to grips with this complicated truth.

Yet when I wrote that phrase, I wasn’t consciously thinking about theme. I was thinking about the scene taking shape on the page and the plot line of the episode that remained to be written. I was in the moment, not at a judicious remove. But even so, the “boys in the basement” gave me what they knew I needed. They gave me my title. They gave me my theme . . . with the eagle-eyed help of Tessa, who reminded me of the truth I had, for a moment, forgotten: our stories are smarter than we are.

  • Sarah Smith

    “Our stories are smarter than we are.” Oh yes. Thanks, @Paul Witcover.

< >