Monday, September 30, 2013

Writing Lessons from Breaking Bad

Sigh. It's over. I'm sad to see Breaking Bad go, but I couldn't be happier with the ending. As always, everything makes perfect sense, although I didn't see any of it coming. Just one of the accomplishments of the show's writers: we know the characters so well, but the story surprises us at every turn, without getting ridiculous or forcing anyone do to something out of character.

A couple weeks ago I put out a call to Breaking Bad fans to share their favorite writing lessons from the show. Doing the post on my own was overwhelming since the list could go on and on, but a compilation of highlights from writers and other book people was far more feasible and fun.

So, on with the list. (Most of this is spoiler-free, but I'll let you know where to stop reading if you haven't watched the series).

From Diane Holmes: Here are some things I think Breaking Bad did very well: have your characters absolutely commit to their goals; make the next line of dialogue, the next action totally unexpected and within character; every win comes with an enormous downside; allow your characters to have huge memories about their own pasts that inform every moment of now; allow your characters to fail; and on and on!
Beth Fehlbaum: The characters use silence as an effective statement.
Helen Jameson: Breaking Bad is one of the best written TV shows. I have a few meth addicts in my family and was hesitant to watch anything that glorifies the life, but Breaking Bad does not do that. It's the gritty, bloody, sad, and addicted truth.
Jean Giardina:
- It's interesting when one character lies to another. But it's more interesting when a character lies to themselves.
- Terrible decisions make great story.
- A well-told truth can be as effective as a lie.
- Gus on Motivation: "I don't believe fear to be an effective motivator. I want investment."
- A character's greatest fear is often not death. Living is harder than dying.
- Sometimes, the worst thing you can do to your character is give them exactly what they want.
- The solution to today's problem becomes tomorrow's problem.
- Make it worse than your reader expects.
Lenore Appelhans: Watching Breaking Bad is a master class in subtext. You can see excellent examples of it in almost every conversation between Walt and Hank.
Author Gina Rosati hasn't watched the show (And why not? Get on that, Gina!), but asked her son what made it so compelling. He articulated how the writers cause our inner conflict about who to cheer for: "Walt is pretty much an anti-hero because he spends a lot of the show trying to build up a meth empire, and actually ruins other peoples' lives. Jesse is more the protagonist, even though it doesn't seem like he is. Even though he's a drug addict, he has a crap ton of morals and doesn't agree with what Walt is doing."
Claire Legrand admires the efficiency of the writing: No storyline, character, or set design element is wasted. Everything you see on the screen has a purpose, even if you don't understand what that purpose is at first. No time is spent exploring unnecessary side characters, plot threads, or details that exist "just because." Fantastic storytelling economy.
Nancy Paulsen mentioned the tight storytelling too: Everything on screen's got a purpose.
Tracy Abell: I watched the pilot episode before the finale and was (again) struck by how Walter White was set up as a sympathetic character. When that asshat kid in the chem class drags his chair across the floor, disrupting Walt's lesson, I'm 100% in Walt's corner. And that 100% backing of Walt continued for a while (even to the point of my cheering on meth sales! I mean, REALLY?!) I've never "supported" a character who did so much bad, for so long. That's a testament to creating sympathy. A powerful lesson for a writer. As for the female characters, I'm not so sure they were so fully drawn...
SPOILERS AHEAD, so come back to this part later if you haven't seen all the episodes!

Jessica Capelle:
- You can still have a satisfying ending even if it's not "happy" as long as you wrap up the loose ends and keep it true to the characters and the storyline.
- When a character is wronged, it's extremely satisfying to see him/her given the opportunity to choose whether to right the wrong or not, i.e. Jesse getting to go after Todd and having the option to take out Walt.
- A central image or motif can really connect aspects of a story, especially if you're writing a series. The recurring connection to chemistry with references to elements of it ran through the story and reminded us that elements are volatile when combined incorrectly and put under pressure. The recurring theme of surveillance and being watched added to the tension and excitement, and its role became more and more sinister as the story went on.
- Ask yourself "what if" but take it to the next level. BB constantly took things to places we didn't expect because the writers would continue to ask "what if" and pick something that still made sense in the story but was surprising to us.
There's more on Jessica's own post, so be sure to check that out too.
Jeff Coursey summed up the brilliance of the writing: One of my favorite things about the show is the way in which the characters are fused to the spine of the plot. Nearly every twist and turn comes from character choices. TOUGH character choices.

The writers are never afraid to put their characters into insanely difficult situations and then let them find their way out. Even the subtler moments have huge implications for the story.

I keep thinking of a scene in season four, when the Whites are at Hank and Marie's for dinner, and Walt has a little too much to drink. The camera zooms in slowly, focused on Walt's reaction, as Hank describes Gale as the supposed mastermind behind the blue meth. A genius, says Hank, not a meth cook. Gale was a five-star chef.

As we see, this is too much for Walt to take. Deep down, he wants recognition even more than he wants his freedom. In his stupor, he tells Hank that this was no genius, that from what he read in the lab notes, Gale's work amounted to no more than rote copying by a student. Maybe, Walt says, your Heisenberg is still out there.

As a result, Hank's interest in the case is revitalized. The trail leads him to Los Pollos Hermanos and Gus, putting Hank closer than he's ever been to exposing Walt as Heisenberg, and threatening Walt's family, the very thing Walt claims is his number one priority.

Walt's pride and need for recognition (his deeper desire) win out in the battle to provide for his family (his surface level desire). Throughout the show, his choices arc back and forth between the two motivations, creating rich storylines that are totally unexpected, but still totally satisfying.

At its core, this is what really drives the entire plot. A subtle conversation at dinner is enough to change the trajectory of the season, and along the way, the entire show.

I could go on and on about the intersection of character and plot, but I have to give a shout out to the props:
The GPS tracking device, the hat, the windshield with the blue tape (again and again), the eyeball from the burnt doll, the ricin, Walt's watch, even Jesse's wooden box in the final episode. The writers collapse storylines and infuse them into these objects as an ongoing image system. When they appear, we know where they came from and what they mean, both literally and figuratively. It's a simple and economical way to bring more emotion to the scene and more life to the characters.
Yes to everything. One thing I noticed from the start was the complexity of the characters. Like with my favorite character, Hank--at first he just seemed like an obnoxious jerk of a brother-in-law, but he was so much more than that. When he was alone, we saw that he was nervous and scared and trying hard to save face and act tough in front of everyone. For all the characters, there were times I loved them and times I hated them (or probably more accurately, loved them but hated what they were doing). Some stories are character-driven, others are plot-driven, and I think Breaking Bad is both. The characters' goals and faults drove their actions, which determined every twist and turn of the plot. I'd love to be able to write in a way that would put readers through such an emotional wringer as the Breaking Bad writers did to us.

If you'd like to read more about the show's writing, here are a couple of other articles I came across: one about why Breaking Bad is the new novel, and this Reddit post that Dotti Enderle pointed out to me.

Thanks so much to everyone who contributed. If you have more tips we didn't mention here, please share them in the comments! Also let us know how you're coping with the loss and what you'll be watching next. (Dexter for me, and I also have to catch up on Scandal).


  1. I don't know where I've been that I managed not to see Breaking Bad, but I enjoyed the lessons here. I especially concur with the silence of characters being so potent and telling.

    1. Yes, each episode and the whole series is a master class in writing. And now you can binge watch the whole thing!

  2. I'm with Mirka. I haven't seen Breaking Bad, but I really enjoyed reading through these--especially wins coming with downsides.