How to Spice Up an Explanation-Heavy Episode

Brian Francis Slattery on writing Bookburners Ep 2: “Anywhere But Here”

In our initial writers’ meeting, Episode 2 was the one that no one wanted to do. Because I really wanted to do a particular episode later in the season (I won’t say which one), I said I would go for it. Team player or conniving jerk? You decide.

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The big reason no one wanted to do Episode 2 is because part of it is the equivalent of setting the table and running errands before a party. There are people and places to introduce that we need for the rest of the story. There are things to explain. And there’s no real way around any of it. Margaret — I’m pretty sure it was Margaret — called it “thankless pipe laying” during the meeting.

But when it came time to write the episode, I didn’t find it thankless. Probably Max feels this way about writing the pilot as well, but it turned out that it was a lot of fun to establish the look and feel of the Black Archive, a place the characters spend a lot of time in. It was even more fun to see how the characters we’d spent time developing would actually talk to each other at home, how they would describe themselves to a relative stranger. It turned out the party started a little sooner than I expected it to.

And then there was the mission itself — Sal’s first — which in our meeting notes was described as needing to feel like an archetypal first mission; the job was to give readers a chance to see what the routines were. But what the mission was, what it would entail, was wide open. During the meeting I asked my fellow writers a question: Did they want the magic to feel familiar, like it was derived from something they’d seen before? Or did they want it to be more like what the fuck…? There was a pause, and then Max gave the answer I was hoping for.

Setting the mission in Spain wasn’t an accident, because it’s my humble opinion that Spanish movies do what the fuck…? like the cinematic traditions of few other countries do. They can’t all be like this, but in quite a few of the Spanish movies I’ve seen, things start off sort of normal, get weird, get weirder, get really weird, and then stop. I love them. So I made Episode 2 a bit of an homage to them. The episode was also a bit of a fan letter to Clive Barker, whose imagination I find particularly heady and also, well, wonderfully gross. I haven’t read nearly enough of him to say anything definitive about him, but what I’ve read has stayed with me for a long time. Between Spanish movies and Barker, I had my writing strategy for magic in place, which was essentially to throw my brains against the wall and see what stuck.

I don’t claim to have any original ideas. Someone told me Jorge Luís Borges said once that if something in a book seems original to you, it’s just because you haven’t read enough, and that sounds about right to me. That said, in writing about the crazy things that happen in the Madrid apartment in this episode, I had a rule that if it reminded me too much of something I’d read or seen before, I revised until it didn’t. Did it work? You tell me.

Brian Francis Slattery is the author of Spaceman Blues, Liberation, Lost Everything, and The Family Hightower. Lost Everything won the Philip K. Dick Award in 2012. He’s the arts and culture editor for the New Haven Independent, an editor for the New Haven Review, and a freelance editor for a few not-so-secret public policy think tanks. He also plays music constantly with a few different groups in a bunch of different genres. He has settled with his family just outside of New Haven and admits that elevation above sea level was one of the factors he took into account. For one week out of every year, he enjoys living completely without electricity.

Originally published at blog.serialbox.com on September 18, 2015.

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