From The Writers' Room Featuring Tremontaine

Tessa Gratton on writing Tremontaine S1E11: “In The Shadow of Riverside”

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I sat on this episode for a long time.

It was the episode I claimed immediately when we were doling out episodes back in January of 2016 at the Story Summit. I wanted it because I wanted the scene where Vincent tells Diane you’re better than this and I wanted this duel like my life depended on it. It’s THE DUEL. You know, the one you wait the whole movie for. Emotionally, for Vincent, it’s the culmination of his entire character arc this season—and really, his whole life. What does it mean to him to be a swordsman, and does that mean enough to kill a friend?

THEN as the season progressed, I realized it was going to contain our only Diane/Kaab moment, and that it needed to reflect the amazing scene Melinda and Ellen wrote at the end of Seasons 1 that turned me into a Diane/Kaab shipper (sorry Tess, you’re better off without her).

THEN I realized I got to murder somebody, FINALLY. I put that murder coat on Shade in episode 2 just to be able to point at it in the writer’s room and say “but the MURDER COAT was a PROMISE! We have to shoot that gun!” Pretty sure my fellow writers got tired of my murder gif:

 

FINALLY I also realized, with shock, that I hadn’t written any Rafe scenes, and here was my only chance, in episode 11, and I had to face down the melodramatic young man.

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So with all of this in mind, when it was time to work, I sat on it. I procrastinated. What!?? I’m remarkably immune to procrastination when it comes to writing—most of the time. And while I’d expected writing my last Vincent POV scene to be very difficult emotionally, especially given the intensity of the duel itself and what I knew about the consequences of the scene… I didn’t expect to be so reluctant to murder Arthur!

I mean!

I really was. Poor kid.

It helped, though, that the conversation in the writer’s room about murdering him was so robust and layered. We discussed it:

— from emotional places (is Arthur alone strong enough a character his death will gut readers? How to we expand that? Tie the emotional reveals to Rafe or Kaab? Put them in positions to feel guilt, or only grief? How does it fit into the emotional landscape of this point of the season, when Rafe has already lost Will and the Kinwiinik *spoiler spoiler spoiler*? Is the bait and switch with Micah in peril working to ramp up reader expectations and dread? No, Tessa, you cannot actually kill Micah! Stop asking! You are a monster.).

— from story-telling places (this is the third to last episode, and so after the conclusions in episodes 9 and 10, everything needs to be building back up to the finale, and pointing at the real climaxes, also what we’re layering in for the future. Murder is good, but should it happen at the end of this episode or earlier, how will the fallout from this get in the way of the fallout from the Vincent/Kaab duel and all the Dragon’s meddling? What trajectory best emphasizes the lines of plot we want, and what breaks things down or makes emotional resonance to heavy it crumbles?)

—from political places (what in-world political ramifications will we face, especially for the Kinwiinik, if we murder Arthur in Riverside? How will that ripple out to the City itself, and do we have space to deal with it when there’s so much to burn through in 12 and 13? Can Shade make a display of Arthur so that everybody knows it’s tied to Kaab, or is it better as a subtle signal to her that won’t register to others as anything but a regrettable but common Riverside murder?)

To my gratitude and delight, we also had an in-depth conversation about murdering Arthur on a meta-narrative level, which is my absolute favorite and so important.

We asked ourselves, very seriously, if by murdering Arthur we were creating any kind of racist patterns based on who we do and don’t kill in this season. Not just with regards to season 2 itself, but the over-all patterns of the entire series, from season 1 into Swordspoint especially, and even beyond.

I want to talk about that for a moment, because of conversations I’ve been having online about, well, Star Wars. The original movies were all white, with the exception of Lando, who is great, but a solo (haha) example of a POC in a sea of white intergalactic space humans and aliens. In the newer Star Wars movies, the filmmakers are incorporating many more men of color into the main cast. I think they did that pretty successfully in The Force Awakens, and messed it up in Rogue One (here’s a link to where I explain why, with spoilers obvs). After I wrote that, several people argued that because of the original trilogy being all white, the writers of the prequel Rogue One were stuck. They couldn’t suddenly add POC to A New Hope, so all the POC heroes have to die. If they didn’t, the argument goes, they’d be visible in A New Hope.

Well, I think that’s short-sighted and lacking in imagination. And I can say so from a place of doing it myself right now for Tremontaine.

Swordspoint is all white, but for a very brief, rather exoticized moment in Chartil. The follow-up books are overwhelmingly white, too. That’s one of the things Ellen herself was adamant about addressing when she began Tremontaine. As a first step she refused to have an all-white writing team, and her insistence led to the creation of the Kinwiinik, who’ve become integral to our stories. In season 2, we’ve continued the efforts by bringing in characters like Esha and Shade and Reza, all of whom come from (or are descended from) different non-white races and countries.

I hope nobody thinks that just because the Kinwiinik don’t appear in Swordspoint they’re all going to be dead, or gone, by then or that Esha is dead or gone, or that Shade is dead or gone (though his chances of surviving 15 more years to the time of that book are… low.) The City still drinks chocolate, which comes from the Kinwiinik, and the trade with Chartil is thriving, so of course there are non-white people living in the City during Swordspoint. Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean we had to get rid of them. That’s not an argument for writing them off.

It is hard to revamp the culture of a city once there’s canon established (any writer who’s written a series will have felt this pain). We’re trying really, really hard with Tremontaine to make the City a more inclusive, vibrant place, not just from a queer perspective, which is has always been. But one of the things I was worried about when I joined the team was how these conversations would go. They’d likely be uncomfortable, and how was the team dealing with that discomfort?

Head-on.

When we settled on murdering Arthur we asked ourselves who exactly we were killing this season, and whether it was only POC characters, male and female, if they were gay or bi or what. We hunted for patterns. It’s hard for me to get into the nitty-gritty without spoiling the last two episodes, so suffice to say, we decided that Arthur’s murder was not contributing to a racist pattern because of how many other POC characters we’ve introduced this season who are not dying or being written off, and additionally, not all the white characters in this season will be appearing in any future seasons (for a variety of spoilery reasons that may or may not include murder). If put into the greater narrative of Tremontaine, we’ve killed several white characters previously and certainly plan to kill more. I certainly have one or two specifically in mind if we get to move on to a third season.

It might seem blunt or uncouth to count up and analyze like this, but believe me when I say being blunt and self-reflective about politics, writer baggage/prejudice, and world building is necessary to learning (and unlearning). You have to learn addition and subtraction before you can do algebra. We all uncover unconscious biases in our writing and world building processes because we all come from biased cultures. We must begin with the basics of deconstructing those biased patterns.

Though it’s still occasionally uncomfortable to face and deconstruct our white privilege and power in writing (for those of us who are white), and our colonial perspectives (for those of us from imperialist cultures) as we maneuver through what is already established by canon and the limits of what we can do, that is the work. That work is the point. We write a fantasy world to write about swords, scandals, and sex, yes, but also to tell stories that matter to readers in our real world. That means working to be complicated and inclusive, to correct mistakes and learn.

Of course, we the writers don’t get to decide if we’re doing it well (or even better than I think Rogue One did). That’s up to our readers.

I love this writing team for being willing to think about the murder of one character on so many levels, and that it can spark important conversations about storytelling and politics.

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