4 Writing Lessons from Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad Walt and JesseRecently I started watching Breaking Bad. It’s the first time I try seriously to watch a TV show, as they tend to be lengthy which requires quite a bit of free time. Truth be said, I’m the kind of guy who knows famous shows from name and reputation only. For me, delving into this medium is a new experience and so far the ride has been enjoyable. And judging by general fan reception, I’ve barely scratched the surface. That said, the first nine episodes have more than enough for aspiring writers to learn from – which is precisely what we’re going to discuss in this article.

1. An incredible sense of conflict and tension

Breaking Bad has some of the most tense scenes I’ve experienced in recent memory. On one hand, Walt has to keep hiding his secret activity from his family – whose members develop more and more suspicions. And on the other hand, he and Jesse have to deal with dangerous customers. The result is a never-ending stream of trouble, from hiding a body to improvising a lie to approaching a gangster. In nearly every episode you have at least one moment where and the stakes are high: a nasty secret potentially revealed, a life endangered. I kept wondering “What if this happened to me? What would I do in that situation?” and that means I was engaged with the story.

Breaking Bad season 2 episode 2 Grilled screenshotThose scenes are not just spectacle for the audience, they also test characters. Their willpower and resourcefulness are challenged and we want to know how they will deal with the problem at hand. For example how do you break free from a psycho holding you hostage in the countryside?

So how can you implement this in your own writing?

Take your premise and try to come up with a list of situations where there is a problem that characters must fix. Define the main conflict and let it branch into a series of smaller, interconnected conflicts. This helps your story remain interesting and never run out of steam. Think also of how they relate to character arcs and how they impact the progression of the plot.

Quick example: a character is training for a competition? What kind of problems are related to competitions? Maybe he gets injured or he loses motivation. Or the gym is going to be closed. Give your characters obstacles – external and internal – stemming from the premise and see how they deal with them.

Note also that the theme you’re going for is also a great source of conflict. You want to portray the triumph of perseverance? Then include a conflict where perseverance is needed: the main character must convince the gym’s owner not to close it, or/and he must keep training while working a crappy day job and putting up with unsupportive family.

2. Plenty of powerful, memorable quotes:

There is this “You’re goddamn right.” GIF. And some lines, like the “Yeah, science!” and “The one who knocks” became memes. You can also go to YouTube and search for best quotes compilations.

Great quotes are part of the X factor that makes a work popular, endearing, everlasting.

Breaking Bad I am the one who knocks

Now don’t make this the sole focus of your dialogue. Keep them few and far between. But there comes a time when you need to make your dialogue stand out somehow.

A great line doesn’t always have to be witty quippy. Sometimes a simple, straightforward line works perfectly when it comes as a strong payoff to a tense buildup (the “You’re goddamn right” moment). A fitting context can make a simple line powerful and emotionally charged.

Another way to craft a powerful quote is to take the obvious meaning and paraphrase it in a creative, more subtle way. In another famous scene, Walt doesn’t simply say “You shouldn’t screw with me”. That’s the intended meaning but if explicitly stated, the line comes off as bland. Instead Walt says “Your best course would be to tread lightly”.

Read a lot of dialogues and get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, what you skim through and what you re-read multiple times, savoring the ingenuity behind it. Keep polishing your lines while maintaining variety between natural and elaborate, until you reach scenes where a killer quote is fitting.

3. The plot is meticulously built

You get the feeling that the writers know where they are going. Every scene counts, every dialogue matters. Filler? What’s a filler?

The plot keeps building up with each episode. Walt’s family is getting closer to the truth. Past events end up triggering new, bigger events and so on. Choices bring consequences: a negligence from one character becomes a clue that another will pick up. And when a character goes through an extreme experience, you will see him later still shaken and struggling to recover from it.

We get the feeling that we’re moving towards something big, dangerous and irrevocable and it’s exciting to find out what it is.

Because the story was thoroughly thought up – at least in the short to middle term, there is no filler, no half-baked explanation. The writers were able to foreshadow future events, make references and callbacks, add interesting details for fans to pick and also fill dialogues with lots of subtexts. Everything that happens makes sense. A character is facing a problem? There won’t be a magical solution to save him, he will have to rely on his skills.

When you can feel that the writer knows what he’s doing, you trust him and look forward to what he has in store.

Apparently Breaking Bad had multiple people involved in the writing, so there were plenty of discussions and suggestions. But you, you’re probably working solo, so you have A LOT of thinking to do. A plot doesn’t come out of thin air, it requires deliberate planning. Writing is not the only work you have to do. Thinking is working too.

When the story is poorly planned and the writing rushed, plot holes happen and aimless scenes pop up.

Take the time to think your story through. Ask questions: how would this character react, given his personality and background? If this particular scene happened in real life, what would be the consequences? Who would find out about it and what would they do?

Don’t take shortcuts. Impose high standards on yourself and think carefully about every single scene, every plot point, every conflict’s origin and resolution. Remember that someone in the audience will pick up any implausibility and call you out for it.

With that said, stay open to unforeseen choices. Sometimes you will have ideas that go against your initial vision. Jesse Pinkman was meant to die early in the story but Vince Gilligan and his coworkers discovered an unexpected potential within the character, so they changed their minds and kept him around. As you develop your story, new ideas may sprout and you should stay open-minded for different possibilities that might make your story better.

4. The struggles are relatable

There are scenes and themes in Breaking Bad that speak to everyone. This played an important role in its success.

I don’t think I’ll ever get involved in meth business but I can relate to that feeling of being the underdog, which is exactly what Walt is going through in season one. Forced to work crappy and humiliating jobs to feed the family. All of his past achievement ended up being irrelevant and devoid of any reward. The need for money, living an empty and unfulfilling life, not seeing eye to eye with a loved one, being torn between dilemmas…

It becomes near-impossible not to root for him. In other words, you care about him – and the other characters too, because you can relate to their struggles. The context in this story is specific but the core issues are universal and shared among many. The desire to accomplish something. Pride preventing you from taking the easy way out. In that made up story we see bits of reality.

In one scene Jesse is having a job interview and he’s trying his hardest to convince the employer that he’s fit for the job. Of course, his arguments are poor since he has no real experience (he can’t mention being a drug dealer). So when all jobs require experience, how do you get it? For a moment Jesse wants to break free from illegal business but the job market is ruthless toward the uneducated and the inexperienced. The only job he can get is holding a sign and acting like a clown, and that’s not a job—that’s a joke. That’s the kind of scenes the audience can empathize with and think about, because it has real weight, real significance, it is bound to resonate with someone.

Now ask yourself why should your story matter? Can it touch hearts, move people? How does it relate to our world, what are the issues it raises?

Strong themes give your work meaning and allow people to care about it in a different way from strong concepts and characters.

So before you start writing, you need to have a clear idea of what themes you’re going for. That way you can design scenes and even characters around them.

Closing thoughts

There are countless other lessons to be learned from Breaking Bad. If you haven’t watched it already, I recommend you to do so (if you have enough free time!). While there may be a few imperfections one could nitpick about, the show’s strengths overshadow them by a long mile.

As for me, I’m out to watch the next episode.

Image credit : 1, 2, 3

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