Writing Lessons from Breaking Bad: An Overview

As I mentioned in my first post, Foraging Into the Blogosphere, I’m partially justifying my obsession with the TV show Breaking Bad because it offers so much insight on good writing, insight that I think writers of all different types of stories–fiction, non-fiction, screen, prose–can apply towards their work. Most of my posts have been about either Breaking Bad or Writing, and I’m hoping these posts can merge the two topics, and will be applicable whether or not you watch or like the show.

Not long after getting into Breaking Bad, I was typing up some of my old writing from longhand into Word. It was memoir material I had written while still way too close to the subject matter, and had never edited, just raw “shitty first draft” material. And it was terrible! I couldn’t believe how repetitive, self-indulgent, and just plain MESSY it was. It was confusing even to me, and I had written it and lived it. What was I trying to get at? I couldn’t tell. And I was not in control of the writing as an author should be.

My first thought was along of the lines of, “Writing quality wise, this is equivalent to Private Practice, and I want to strive for Breaking Bad.” Now, there are two things I want to clarify here. One is that I don’t really think I’ll reach BrBa level, but it’s nice to have a goal like that, one that will push you beyond your usual limits, your current perception of your abilities. And it may not be BrBa for every writer, but I think it’s important to find that thing, whether it is a book, a poem, a TV show, a movie, a song, something that inspires you with its genius and is so brilliantly written that it provides a new, high standard to strive for.

I also want to clarify that I don’t really mean to sound as harsh on Private Practice–I watch it, I like it to a certain extent, it presents a lot of ethical dilemmas, esp in regards to women’s healthcare, but for me anyway, it’s not amazing writing. There are certainly worse shows but it just doesn’t do it for me.

So after having that thought about my writing, I sat down and wrote out what makes the writing on Breaking Bad so brilliantly genius. Even though my material is really different, doing that could provide me with some concrete ideas of what I want or need to work on in my writing. Basic principles apply. And I hope other writers will find them helpful too.

Here’s the list I came up with. Some of these will be explored in more depth in their own posts later on while others are pretty self-explanatory.

-Few, if any, wasted details. Even in this unusual story  that keeps changing, details are consistent and recurring. This is why in my weekly episode posts, I can’t help saying how much I like the recurring minor characters and details. It makes me trust the writers. When this doesn’t happen, when details and characters are there to play a single note only, never to be heard of again, it can feel a little sloppy but this doesn’t. It’s tightly written

-It’s orchestrated. This goes along with the first point but now we’re talking about the story as a whole, not just details. I’ve read many articles and interviews where the writers talk about the level of planning that goes into the show. It’s mind-boggling. I once heard Vince Gilligan say that before the episode writer(s) leaves to go write the script, the group of writers go over it scene by scene, plot it out extensively and even already have some of the dialogue. A lot of forethought and planning goes into the writing. Some writers like to work that way while others like to go more by the seat of their pants. I’ve always been a bit in the middle, leaning more towards the seat of the pants style, but seeing the orchestration of this show  has definitely shown me the benefits of meticulous planning and employing the left side of the brain in plotting a writing project..

-Unusual arc. TV is usually relatively static; characters and settings stay pretty much the same. With Breaking Bad, the writers aren’t afraid to change things up, blow up a long-standing nemesis, set fire to a superlab, forcing the characters and plot to constantly move forward. I’ve never seen anything quite like it on TV. There’s a lot off change.

-Darkness. This is an obvious part of the show and it really works well, especially since it’s not just action and crime darkness, there’s also stark psychological darkness.  Some of the writing I have in the works has a lot of dark material that I’ve sort of wanted to avoid. It was a reminder to me to embrace the dark parts of my work, to not shy away from them, that dark material can make for very good writing.

-Humor. There’s a lot of humor on BrBa, including a lot of dark humor. This also serves as a reminder to not shy away from where the dark stuff gets funny. This is something I always try to do (I’ve had people make remarks to me like, “I almost felt bad laughing so hard at (this or that piece or story) because it was so sad/etc,” and I always want to say nooo, laugh as much as possible). This again is a reminder that as I embrace the dark parts of stories more and really dig into that, remember the humor.

-Lets tension, awkward pauses and silence play out. This is very different from most shows, and most writing in general these days. It seems there’s always an immediate act break or chapter break when someone gets into an awkward situation where they can’t quite explain themselves. And this can work for humor sometimes, but I think it’s far more effective to let the moment play out and Breaking Bad employs this technique all the time. It can heighten the tension and make the viewer uncomfortable and there’s something great about that. It keeps you in the story.

-Attention to detail. Color, sound, character traits, visuals, and individual voices are all attended to with exquisite attention to detail. The Ron Paul sticker in Gale’s lab notebook. The clouds momentarily obscuring the sun in the scene where Gus takes Walt out to the desert, Gus carefully folding his jacket before vomiting the poisoned tequila. The attention to detail just kills me, and makes me jealous as a writer.

-Subtlety and Understatement. A lot of this could be filed under that classic writerly advice to “show, don’t tell.” Instead of having characters analyze each other, or overexplain themselves to spoonfeed the audience the intricacies of the characters’ motivations, thoughts and feelings, you are left to infer them by tone of voice, facial expression, action and sometimes how these relate (someone’s face or tone might not match what they say, that sort of thing).

-Complexity of character. Nothing’s black and white, there are shades of grey all over the place. All the characters are incredibly flawed. Everyone has aspects that are relatable or admirable, as well as aspects that make you hate them. There’s something very real and satisfying in this complexity of character  and adding more dimensions to any character in our writing is always a good thing.

-Unreliable characters. We as the viewers question the characters’ own dogma about why they’re doing what they’re doing and we see things that the characters don’t. There is a level of complexity to the writing here that is really lovely. The writers have separated themselves from the characters, which can be really important, even (especially?) in memoir.

-Emotional impacts stew,, last and explode much later on. I feel this is another thing that most shows don’t do. Something happens and the emotional impact is immediate the explosion or resolution (or both) happen pretty soon after whatever the incident is. Breaking Bad takes more time, and this feels real. The perfect example is Jesse killing Gale. He’s obviously dealing with it in the following episodes but it’s in the background. It’s not until the rehab scene, and later his fight with Walt, that it really bubbles to the surface. So well done.

-Time is not linear. It mostly is, but there are times when it isn’t. There are flashbacks and flashforwards. Sometimes it’s just within one episode (the pilot) and sometimes it’s the whole season (season 2). This is something I struggle with. I always feel trapped by linear chronology in my writing so I’m trying to remember that mixing up and playing with time can be useful for creating suspense, crafting an emotional impact or just telling the story in a slightly different way

-Balance. Some episodes are fast-paced and action-packed. Others are slower and more internal. There’s also a balance between the criminal lives of Walt and Jesse and their personal home lives. I think that balance is integral to the show, and rounds it out. Some people want it to be faster, more focused on the crime and action, but I think it’d be a totally different show if that were the case, and a lot would be missing. Plus this juxtaposition relates to the two sides of Walter White, so it’s very effective. Balance in different aspects of a story and variation in pacing are things we can all apply to our writing.

Are any of these techniques or reminders that you’d like to employ in your own writing? Do you have a book or show or writer whose style and genius you strive to apply to your writing, even if your writing is really different?

~Emilia J

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