From The Writers' Room Featuring Tremontaine

Tessa Gratton on writing Tremontaine S2E9: “The Heart a Liability”

tre_sii_ep_09_ebook_600x960Look I know everybody wants to hear about Vincent and Reza, and I’m happy to spend way too much time talking about them—when I took over their storyline I started to write up a quick guide to answer the “what exactly DID happen in Chartil” question for the other writers to work with and accidentally wrote a 12,000 word novelette about it. Believe you me: if you catch me in a bar, I’ll never stop talking about Reza and Vincent. Vincent and Reza.

But I’m going to talk instead about how I put together the frame and flow of an episode.

I’m not an outliner. When I outline a novel by plot, I lose interest in it, because if I know all the twists and turns, what’s the point of co-writing this story with my imagination/subconscious? But working on Tremontaine necessitates copious amounts of outlining. At the Story Summit we outline the entire season. Then as we move into the writing portions of each act, we outline our individual episodes and have detailed discussions bout the outlines themselves, sometimes even revising the outlines! It’s an alien way for me to work, but totally necessary.

When I sat down to outline episode 9 (my first since episode 2, which is quite a jump with regards to plot but most importantly to character development), all I had to go on from the Story Summit season outline was:

Episode 9 (immediately after episode 8, but takes place over ~4 days due to travel times for messages and people to and from Highcombe):

The Dragon Chancellor ups the ante. Hes scheduled the vote. Diane needs to solve this problem, and she needs to solve it now.

Vincent and the Ambassador finally confront each other and, of course, briefly rekindle their affair, knowing it can never be.

Kaab is an awesome detective and figures out at the Hot Gay Thieves are responsible for the thefts (possibly catching them in the act or seeing how they are moving the stolen goods or both), but her celebration is short-lived.  Kaab wants to basically declare war or the thieves but Tess argues that that is not how things are done in Riverside.  Their domestic conflicts finally come to a head and they break up (Kaab is more dumped than dumpee).

At the end of this episode we see Diane at arrive at Highcombe.

That’s 137 words that it’s my job to make into a 12,000 word episode. (Note that we’d not even named Reza or Florian and Shade when we made this outline).

How do I even begin? Luckily, I had a few things additionally to go on: we’d figured out more about Florian and Shade and their plots since writing the season outline, so I knew we could use Arthur here to help Kaab, and I knew now Kaab was in a really terrible place already, desperate because she gave Rafe the key to bringing down her own plot with the duchess and her family. I also knew exactly how the Vincent+Reza thing was going to go down because, as I mentioned, I got carried away writing up their history. And once again, there was zero Rafe in my episode. (I made a note to do everything in my power to write some Rafe into my last episode, determined not to go an entire season without any Melodrama Boy.)

That left me still pretty wide open. I needed what I always need: a cohesive theme to draw the characters together even though most of them would not be appearing in scenes together. I needed a frame for the episode. Given that Vincent and Reza would finally get back together, Tess would break up with Kaab, Kaab would solve the mystery of the Hot Gay Thieves, and Diane would hear about Rafe’s rescue attempt, I was setting up to write an episode with quite a few climactic moments. Moments readers would be waiting for, and moments we writers had also been waiting for. This was a pivot episode: everything was changing. I’m a writer who is more interested in how characters directly change the plot rather than plot at all (plot, pffff who cares!), so I wanted to focus on how and why the characters create and recreate their situations, and how and why they make choices about who they are and what they’re going to do. Situation + choice = characterization, basically.

When I centered on choice, I remembered that the reason Arthur Chel existed at all was because back at the Story Summit Ellen wanted a character to explore second-generation immigrants. We were all into it because a) yay more Kinwiinik and b) Arthur could probably serve as a great foil for Kaab and maybe even Rafe. To be totally honest, in the beginning we didn’t have much of a plan for him other than to keep digging at him and get him in trouble.

This was perfect. Arthur was perfect.

I dove into my outline using Arthur as the starting point: his POV for the first time, to give insight into how his situation created him and walk through his process of making a very firm choice that would be the opposite of Kaab’s. Plus, I love using POV to re-examine characters we know well, and Arthur was a window into a new view of Kaab, Diane, Rafe, and even Florian.

The episode balances around Arthur’s pull between his blood family and his chosen life. All the other choices spiral around that choice: who are you, and what life do you choose? That’s the core question at the heart of Arthur, Vincent, Kaab, and Tess’s actions and development in this episode.

I had my frame, and my structure!

Then I just got to lean in to knife fights and sex. Oh, and Tess’s history with the Salamander, which was one of my favorite scenes to write all season. As a girl who wanted to be a wizard when she grew up, the only constant frustration I have with Riverside and the City is the lack of Actual Magic. Salamander lets me push at those boundaries in mysterious ways, and like Mary Anne mentioned in her notes for her last episode, it’s important to make Riverside Tess’s family, even if she only occasionally realizes it. Tess has a powerful inner life and this was my first opportunity to dig inside her heart and history.

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