Monday, September 16, 2013

Calling All Breaking Bad Fans!

If you're a writer and you watch Breaking Bad, you've certainly noticed that every episode, and the whole series itself, is a study in great writing. (And if you haven't been watching, get on it, people! You'll want to start with Season 1, Episode 1 and binge-watch the entire five seasons from there. Go ahead, I'll wait).

I've been wanting do a post on "Writing Lessons from Breaking Bad," but the task seemed daunting. Where to start? And where to end? The list could go on for days. There's no other show that's made me literally jump up and yell at the TV, then flop onto the couch in despair (usually right after they've made me think everything's going to be okay).

Then I thought about how many writers and other book people I know who are fans of the show, and every week we're talking about how amazing the writing is. So how about we compile a list of our favorites?

If you're a writer, author, or other book person, share with me a writing lesson from Breaking Bad, either here in the comments or by emailing me at lynne01[at]gmail[dot]com. Be as brief or as lengthy as you want. Throw in an example from a favorite scene, if you'd like. Include your website or blog address and I'll link to it in the final post.

The Monday after the last episode, I'll post the full list. And we shall support each other through the withdrawals.


  1. 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. Haven't been able to catch the last season yet. My daughter keeps telling me what is happening as I yell,"Stop! You're ruining the suspence!"

  2. Oh yes, you must catch up with the rest of us as soon as possible, then enjoy/mourn the finale!

    Thanks for the comments, Helen!

  3. Lynne,

    It's like you are a mind reader! You are, aren't you? I knew it.

    I've been making just such a list and have no place for it. I've been tweeting these as they come to me. I hope you don't mind if I drop my random musings here.

    I'm halfway thru Season 4 and watching as fast as I can to see if I can see the last episode live. These random writerly thoughts have been living on notecards scattered around my desk:

    * 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.

    I can't wait to read your BrBa post.

    1. Jean, these are fabulous points! (And yes, feel free to drop whatever randomness comes to you).

      Thanks so much!

  4. Watching Breaking Bad is a master class in subtext. You can see excellent examples of it in almost every conversation between Walt and Hank.

    1. Just one reason Hank is my favorite character--so much fun to see those interactions!

      Thanks, Lenore!

  5. Jean listed quite a few of mine, above, but one thing she did not list that I really admire about this show is the efficiency of it: 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.

    1. Great point, Claire! I hadn't thought of that one. Once we catch on to that as viewers, it makes for some good foreshadowing, though the purpose behind everything is subtle enough that we're still surprised by how it all pans out.
      Thanks for the comments!

  6. 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...

    1. Yes, it's funny how so many people were still cheering for Walt right to the end, even after all the despicable things he'd done! I was on his side for a long time, probably until Brock's poisoning.

      Thanks, Tracy!


    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.