5 Things the Breaking Bad Writers Did Right - further up and further in

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

5 Things the Breaking Bad Writers Did Right


When my brother first told me we needed to watch Breaking Bad together, I was skeptical. I had heard it was good, but... I mean, could it really be that good? My brother had watched it once through before, and he'd even told me some of the most shocking, jaw-dropping moments. It sounded... violent.

Even so, I watched the first few episodes. It took me a while to really love it, and some of the episodes were violent and disturbing. But I seriously can't deny the brilliance of the writing. I'm really enjoying how deep and enriching the TV show actually is. Sometimes I feel like telling the world "they don't make TV like this much anymore, kids!" And I'm only 18, so where does THAT come from?

As a writer, I'm always looking for ways to improve my craft. I watch a lot of TV, so while I'm watching my brain is constantly analyzing and looking for examples of good writing. Breaking Bad has certainly delivered, and after some thought, I present a list of 5 things I think the writers of Breaking Bad did right.

(I know, I know... the title is in past tense, but this post is written in present tense because I'm going through the series right now, so it's very current for me. Also, it bears mentioning that I'm only in season 2.)

1. They make us care.

Right from the very beginning, they make us care about the characters. From the very start Walt is a very likable guy; we see him teaching a class, we see him dissatisfied with his car washing job, and we overall feel bad for him. On top of all of this, he also has a cancer diagnosis that's terminal. Bring on the sympathy! Obviously it would be hard not to pity him at least just a little iota.

And that's what makes this show work. The whole conflict of good vs. evil, and how Walt slowly goes down a twisted path, is what pulls us in, fascinates us, and compels us to keep watching. We wouldn't care as much about watching a story about someone who had already "broke bad," like Tuco. It would be a lot harder for us to stomach that. But Walt is presented as a likable man worthy of our pity and sympathies.  He may be making meth and running a growing drug operation, but the reason he started making meth is the first place is to raise money for his family. And because of this, it's easier for us to excuse him for the bad things he does, as well as (sometimes unfortunately) root for him to succeed. This is a mixed bag and can
be dangerous ground when Walt, the protagonist, is also the villain, but I do want to give the writers major chops for making a show that makes us simultaneously hate and love the evil guy, all at the same time.

Tip: Give your characters a good mix of flaws and virtuous aspects. If your character feels too unlikable, give them a soft spot, something that makes them vulnerable. If you feel your character may be a little too perfect, give them a flaw or two. Most people are a mix of good and evil, and humans come in shades of gray, not always black and white. Breaking Bad is a great example of this.


2. Everything is believable.

While watching, I feel like everything in this story actually is playing out, or at the very least could actually happen in real life. There's a lot of factors that come into play here, like acting, cinematography (spoiler warning for the link), and writing, that all have magically combined to make this work for the show. But one of the factors I want to highlight is the setting. I read on Wikipedia that they originally had the show set in California, but were going to shoot in New Mexico. When they realized that it would be hard to keep the New Mexico mountains out of the shots, they ended up just moving the story to Albuquerque. Now, this is from Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt, but it does bring up an interesting point. If the story had been set in L.A. or NYC, it would have had a different feel entirely. Because so many shows and movies are shot in those places, it wouldn't have felt as different as Breaking Bad does. I can't remember the last time I saw a movie set in Albuquerque, but I can count numerous times where I've seen a story set in L.A. and New York. Because of this, it gives the story a different flavor and a very small-town feel. It's not that hard to imagine the drug trade happening in Albuquerque, and in numerous other towns across the nation.

The characters themselves are all very real as well, flaws and all. The prime examples are Walt and Jesse obviously, brought to life by the incredible acting of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. While I've talked about Walt already, I absolutely love the characterization of Jesse. The scenes where we see his family and covering for his brother early on in the series are absolutely fantastic. Jesse comes across as a kid who just got caught in the wrong things. I don't know if that's actually the case, but I love that Aaron Paul and the writers manage to make Jesse that sympathetic.

The side characters, such as Marie, Hank, and Walter Jr. are also all beautifully brought to life and I really love seeing the dynamics between them and the rest of the characters. Hank serves as a sort of moral compass for the show, a voice of reason, and someone who brings the light humor to balance out the heavier aspects. Marie, while not my favorite character, plays extremely well as the wife of a DEA agent who has problems with shoplifting, and I love that contrast of good and bad. As someone with a chronic illness that restricts what I can do in daily life, Walter Jr. is one of my favorite characters and I'm really grateful he's on the show. Though I don't have cerebral palsey, it makes me feel empowered and not-so-alone to see someone I can relate to on TV.

I also know that Anna Gunn and her character Skyler both get a lot of hate, but I actually just want to praise Anna Gunn here for making such a difficult character so deep and complex. While I have had my moments of disliking Skyler, it's not hard to tell that Skyler is a complicated person with feelings and emotions and for reasons for what she does, even if you don't know what they are. Which brings me to another point: even if you don't know what, every character seems to want something and have something under the surface that's motivating them, making them driven and compelling.


Tip: Setting is your friend and a great tool to create a "feel" for your novel. Also, even if it's something small, try to figure out what your character wants most in life and is running towards. Give them a motive--that will make it that much easier for us to root for them and rejoice for them when they get what they want, or sympathize when they don't.

3. They create tension out of everyday moments.

Before I started watching, my brother told me that Breaking Bad shows basically mundane moments of daily life. I thought that sounded seriously boring. But now that I'm watching, I realize it's not.

A prime example of this is an episode of season 2 where Hank is riding in an elevator. It shows him walking down the hall... getting in the elevator... pushing the button. In most other shows, this would be majorly boring. But for some reason, I wasn't bored. I wanted to see what was happening, where Hank was going. And within minutes the scene delivered by showing us Hank have some sort of panic attack (or something... I still don't know!) in the elevator.

It defies logic: somehow, the mundane moments of everyday life that are shown on the show are some of the most interesting pieces on television. Whether it's a shot of a plate in the microwave being warmed up or simply Skyler getting ready for work, it fascinates me. I think the reason is because Breaking Bad has consistently delivered: there is always a moment where the scene leads somewhere. You're willing to sit through the "boring" parts, and you're even fascinated with them, because you know the writers are going to take you somewhere really exciting.

In addition, as my brother said, they show you life as it is--not just the highlights. I think that's a really honest way to write.

Tip: It's okay if you show the mundane bits of life. Just make sure they're leading us to something, not taking us down a rabbit trail of everyday life. Readers read to get excited, not to read about someone else doing mundane life functions. That said, I used to think you couldn't ever write about the more boring parts of life. I think you can, just use them in a way that helps accentuate and build towards your biggest plot points.

Tip #2 (because I had even more to add): I think including these parts of life can make your writing feel even more real and forthright because we feel as if these things are actually happening, and it's a more accurate portrayal of what we experience in life every day. Sometimes, at least for me, my writing can become a form of escapism or wish fulfillment instead of portraying actual life. While there are advantages and disadvantages to both styles, sometimes fiction can feel like exactly what it is--fiction. But personally, I enjoy reading things that feel real and immerse me into another world. If including mundane moments does that for me, then so be it. Sometimes the world needs honest books and sometimes we want to read books that reflect things similar to what we're doing and going through every day instead of a book that feels like fiction and a world where only the highlights are shown, as my brother said. Don't be afraid to get messy when you're writing. Be honest and show life as it is.

4. They raise the stakes.

This is classic storytelling: make the stakes high. Whether it's by making their car break down or seriously injuring them (the latter is especially exciting), don't be afraid to make things bad for your characters.

An example of this one is in the Breaking Bad episode "4 Days Out." In this one, Walt wants to take their RV meth lab out to the desert to make a major amount of meth. The reason? He's dying and he doesn't think he'll have enough time left to make enough money for his family. This is after things come up that keep draining his bank account--having to hire a lawyer, for example. Between this and the cost of bailing one of his dealers out of jail, Walt isn't making nearly enough money as he thought he would, and time is running out.


So he and Jesse drive their RV to the middle of the desert and spend the day making a huge batch of crystal meth. When done, they discover something: their battery is dead. They use gas from the RV to start up their generator in order to jump the RV's battery. There's just one problem: their generator explodes. This creates a large fire, and, in a panic, Jesse uses the rest of their drinking water to put it out. Now they are in the middle of the desert with no water, and nightfall is coming soon. They call one of their drug dealers, Skinny Pete, to try to come find them and drive them home, which in and of itself is a risk  because Walt is afraid his wife will check his phone records. Nevertheless, it's all they have. After calling the drug dealer and giving him complicated instructions (because they're in the middle of nowhere because they're MAKING METH), they wait.

...And wait. And finally, they call Skinny Pete and find out that he's on the wrong road entirely. They try to explain this to him, but finally, Walt's phone dies and things go from bad to worse.

The next day, Jesse finds Walt using the generator and cranking it by hand to try to spark some sort of life into the RV's battery. After cranking it by hand under a hot sun for hours, they run into the RV to try it. As the viewer, I was waiting with baited breath to see if it would work. And it does work! Briefly. After which the engine peters out.

They may be stranded in the middle of the desert, but Walt's hat is fabulous.
This is the darkest moment for our ... heroes? Do we even call them heroes? We'll call them main characters instead. Walt lays in the RV, coughing. Oh, yes, Walt is also coughing up blood, by the way--as if he needed more to deal with. He's ready to give up. Jesse yells at him in a semi-humorous pep talk slash rant, and asks him if he can think of any way to fix the RV, whether that be through making a robot or a dune buggy. While Walt doesn't go for either of these options, it does spark something in his chemist mind: a way to make a car battery by hand. So they make a car battery out of galvanized metal--coins, washers, whatever--sponges, and copper (or wire, as Jesse hilariously calls it). And voila! It works.

They're out of the woods for the moment, at least until they go home and Skyler inevitably finds the call to Skinny Pete on Walt's phone, but for now, they are safe. But it wasn't easy, and it was scary, for the viewer to watch. Even though Walt is going to die by all appearances anyway due to his lung cancer, there's still a compelling sense of urgency as the stakes mount and mount. Just when you think it couldn't get any worse, it does. And that's good advice as a writer, I think. As someone who tends to take it easy on my characters, I know how easy it is to think you've made it bad enough for them. But maybe push a little harder, take it to the brink. See how much farther you can take it, make it even worse. Because readers and viewers eat that stuff up.

Tip: When it comes to your characters and bad circumstances, don't be afraid to pile it on heavy. See just how far you can go before they break. And then do make them break, and when they do, help them pick themselves up and try again and succeed. Those are the victories that make our hearts soar.

5. They think out of the box, leave loose ends, and keep advancing the plot. 

This point is a bit of a scatter-brained one, but it's just general observations that I've picked up while watching the show. These are all bits of the Breaking Bad writers' technique I'd like to pick up. So these three things may not make sense together, and they probably don't belong together, but bear with me here.


At the end of almost every episode, they resolve the main plotline of the episode but keep a few loose threads dangling. This is apparent in the episode I mentioned in point #4, "4 Days Out." While we have the main issue of Walt and Jesse in the desert resolved by the end, there is still the issue that now Skinny Pete's number is in Walt's main cell phone, which could be seen by his wife. In addition, he gets a diagnosis regarding his cancer that he wasn't expecting. Both of these things help advance the plot and make us want to keep watching, even while resolving the issues at hand in the episode.

This is TV, so obviously it would translate a little different to novel writing. But in general, keep the plot moving as much as you can, as well as resolving some things and yet leaving others. I think you could call it the "give-and-take" method. Give the reader a little resolution to tide them over, but leave some things hanging. (Until the end, though, because sometimes you're going to want to tie up some of those loose threads!) It could also be called the "good and bad" method. Make good things happen, but then leave or create some of the bad things so that the book isn't tied up all in one scene. (Another example of this is Lost, which did answer some questions while leaving others. Until seasons 5 and 6, however... but we don't talk about those. But this technique is most successful in season 1 and season 2.)

The process of giving and taking could possibly also lead to good plot twists--and that goes hand in hand with my next point: thinking outside the box. I don't go a long time while watching a Breaking Bad episode without the writers surprising me (same with season 1 of Lost. Many audible gasps were heard). I really like imagining the Breaking Bad writers sitting around coming up with plot twists and laughing evilly (maybe not so much on that last part). I honestly don't know how they do it, but they manage to surprise me nearly every time.

Tip: It's hard for me to figure out what exactly the Breaking Bad writers did to think outside the box, so I'm not even sure what advice to offer here, honestly. But if you ever find yourself falling back on an old cliche, try flipping that cliche around. Or put yourself in your readers shoes: what is the last thing my reader would ever expect to happen here? And then go ahead and do that thing.

Don't be afraid to leave things unresolved until the next chapter, and don't be afraid to think outside the box and put something wacky or unexpected right in the middle of your manuscript. In general make sure your novel surprises you most of all! That's one of the most fun things about writing.

Surprising your readers is kind of a combination of having a character they care about, upping the stakes, and thinking out of the box. When all these three things happen, it's magical.


In summary, I think Breaking Bad can be summed up with this formula: good + bad + more good + more bad + believable plot, setting, and characters + leaving loose ends + upping the stakes + showing life as it is = A REALLY GREAT TV SHOW. ;) But in all seriousness, it's brilliant and I'm really grateful to the creators and writers of Breaking Bad for making a show this complex. It helps us as writers learn how to make our stories complex too.

Discussing stories and learning the techniques behind them is one of my favorite things. As time goes on, I'd love to do more of these posts and have discussions with you about our favorite stories and what makes them work. This was a bit of a departure from my normal blog fare, but I know this is exactly the kind of post I would want to read, so I set out to write it and it was a really fun look into the cogs and gears behind one of the coolest shows to be on television. I really hope this helped you as a practical tool to help incorporate some of these genius writing techniques into your own writing. I know I learned a lot!

What about you? What do you think the Breaking Bad writers did right? What TV show do you think has fabulous writing? There's nothing more I like than discussing well-written stories and characters, especially from TV! Tell me below in the comments!

3 comments:

  1. Breaking Bad is not likely a show that I will watch, so I really appreciated reading your writerly gleanings from it. Thanks, Skye, this post was helpful. :)

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  2. Hmm, me thinks I finally need to break down and start watching this show.

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  3. I don't watch Breaking Bad, but I LOVED this post! I crave anything that will help me improve my writing. I feed off things like this. And you did such a good job. So much that I jotted some of what you said down into a place I keep writing advice. I would be thrilled if you wrote more posts like this!

    I do the same as you, constantly trying to figure out how TV show writers make their shows so GOOD. The one I do this the most on is Once Upon a Time. That show just pulls me in like no other and constantly ties loose threads while making even more. It's so fascinating! I'm always trying to glean of its genius to put into my own stories. Sherlock is another one. We all know that show is totally brilliant. The character development blows me away.

    I hope you're doing well, sweet girl. I've been praying for you and your family. <3 (This is Lauriloth by the way. I can't remember if I told you I changed my Google name or not.)

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