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How to write a story as good as Breaking Bad

September 2, 2010

Cast of Breaking Bad on stage

The cast of Breaking Bad reflecting on their success. Photo by bloomgal

Breaking Bad is a US TV drama series now in its fourth season, occasionally shown in Australia too.  It’s brilliant – the best TV I’ve ever seen.  It has the edge on any HBO drama.  You can get it on DVD if you haven’t seen it, and I recommend you do.  While you sit back and enjoy, learn one of the secrets of great storytelling.  It’s a secret fiction writers in any medium can use.

So the premise is…

Well, Stephen King in his own rave about Breaking Bad put it like this:

Okay, guys, here’s the deal. Our main character is a high school teacher named Walt White. Although he doesn’t smoke, he finds out in the first episode that he’s got terminal lung cancer. He recruits his ex-student, a drug pusher/slacker dude named Jesse. Together they go into the crystal-meth manufacturing business…and, as a chemistry teacher, Walt makes skull-poppingly good meth. Jesse only wants to make a bundle, but Walt has got bigger plans: to make sure his wife (pregnant with a change-of-life baby) and his teenage son (who suffers from cerebral palsy) will be financially okay after he dies. Which could be soon. Got it?

First, let’s look at the obvious.

Most elements that make up Breaking Bad’s greatness will occur to you immediately.  It’s a terrifying story.  It’s blackly funny and suspenseful.  Its characters, including the minor ones, are fascinating.  There are deep themes of deception and depravity, deeply explored.  The acting is masterful, and the settings are arresting and original.  So far, it looks like you simply need a vast imagination, inimitable skill, and a bottomless budget to create such a story.  Oh dear.

Then look beyond.

But there is one factor that makes all this greatness possible and, in fact, drives the whole project from start to finish.  I won’t call it a formula, as if it’s just a fixed rule you can apply and forget.  And it’s not a plan.  In fact, it doesn’t require the story to be planned in advance at all.  It is, however, a simple principle that any writer can learn.  Use it yourself, and it will give you exciting story ideas, living characters, gripping plots, and dramatic endings.

The secret is a clash of two elements.

There are two central but contradictory elements in Breaking Bad. (Pun intended – it’s a show about chemistry.)  They go together like tinder and flint or, er, francium and water to set the story alight from the very first episode, and as the series progresses, the flames just get higher.  If this were a book, you’d be reading it through the night.  If you watch it on TV, you’ll want to cancel all other engagements while it’s on.

Number one is realism.

Breaking Bad is relentlessly real.  Let’s see what this means.

  • Real characters

The main characters are people we know. Stephen King again: ‘Walt White could be a guy just down the block, the one who tried to teach the periodic table to your kids before he got sick.’  They have ordinary faces, jobs, hang-ups and interests.  Ordinary as in real and believable.  Not boring or bland or ‘Jeez, mate, that dud cheque you slipped me was a bit ordinary.’

And not Neighbours’ definition of ordinary either.  TV shows like Neighbours about ‘ordinary’ people pull a swifty.  We’re supposed to think of Ramsay Street as real, but actually it’s an escape.  The characters are always too good looking for a start.  ‘Hang on,’ I hear you say.  ‘Old Lou Carpenter’s no oil painting.’  Yes, but he’s larger and more colourful than life.  Even those characters in supposedly realistic English TV (e.g. comedy Gavin and Stacey) are not exactly real.  Their accents and their mannerisms are exaggerated.  They’re funny and cute or gross.  We’re meant to like them, not identify with them.   (Ok, there are exaggerated minor characters in Breaking Bad too, like Saul the easily bought lawyer.  But he’s a comedic element that doesn’t take away from the realism of the main story.)

So we know the guys in Breaking Bad, but that doesn’t mean they just represent people we know.  In fact, real characters are the opposite of stereotypes, so they can also be unique and fascinating.  The art is to make a character who is instantly recognisable and, at the same time, an individual in their own right.  Take another main character from Breaking Bad, Jesse.  His persona is whiny white rapper dude complete with the right lingo (‘Yo, beech!’), clothes, attitude and friends.  He even looks like Eminem.  So far, we recognise his kind, yes?  But we also know that it’s just a persona Jesse puts on.  As episodes pass, we get to know the Jesse underneath, a complex young man with strong loves, fears, moral dilemmas, a meaningful history, and a rich inner life.

The art certainly lies in skilful acting, but mainly in the writing – in character development.  In fact, a great character is a dream to act.  Bryan Cranston, the actor who plays Walt, admits: ‘The better the writing, the easier it is for actors to perform.’  A character is set up with certain tags (speech, mannerisms, attitudes, etc) that mark them publicly as a recognisable type – say, downtrodden high school chemistry teacher.  Then more personal aspects are revealed.  These aspects are not public, not things the character would wish to share with the world.  So we move from recognising the character at a distance to getting to know them intimately, and at the same time the character moves from being ‘like someone we know’ to being ‘someone just like us’ – an individual human being with their own secret problems and issues.  And we believe in them because of that.

  • Real settings

It’s not only the characters in Breaking Bad.  Perhaps especially for overseas viewers, the show’s realism is enhanced by setting it in New Mexico.  It’s refreshing not to see New York or LA in the background, which would be more typical for us.  There’s no tourism cinematography, although there are stunning landscape shots.  They come across as a record of the incidental beauty any natural environment might claim rather than places that would naturally feature on an American holiday itinerary.

Even the interiors are real rather than typical.  Here’s one example, and it’s all the better for being a tiny exquisite detail.  The opening image in many scenes set in the Whites’ house is of a striped bottle sitting on a shelf.  This is a telling object  – colourful, unique, gauche as interior decoration, useless, probably just there because it was a birthday present.  It sums up ‘home’, but it’s the antithesis of product placement.  Like many objects in my house and yours.

  • Real laws of the universe

The characters follow the same rules of physics, biology and psychology as the rest of us.  If someone shoots them in the chest, they die.  If someone threatens to shoot them, they get scared and angry and don’t get over it.  If they lie a lot, they get found out.  If they get lied to a lot, they resent it.  And everyone lies sometimes.

There is no magic-realism here.   No magic, no miracle, no fairy godmother, no coming back from the dead.  Every action has consequences.  In this world, if it looks you were lucky and got away with something outrageous, if it looks like your guardian angel is there for you, think again because the consequence, often worse than you expected, is around the corner.

And – crucially – there is no implicit compact between writer and audience that the main characters will survive.  These characters are not special, but real.  And the rules of this world fit reality, not a fictional genre like romance or comedy or detective, which dictates a happy ending or at least a clean resolution.

And the value of realism?

  • For the audience We identify strongly with the characters. We’re right there with them.  When they’re terrified, so are we.  We care what happens to them.  And we’re thinking, ‘Hey, that would so be me.’
  • For the writer – The creator of those characters has a ready-made story structure. Remember: action → consequences, and that’s the rule.  What follows from any point in the plot is only what could and probably would happen in real life.  That constraint drives the story.

But, if that’s the rule, doesn’t realism make for boring and predictable?  No, because there’s hardly ever just one possible consequence.  In real life some stuff happens by chance.  (Walt gets cancer.  Walt sees his old student Jesse again.)  And people make choices, often bad ones.  (Walt decides to blackmail Jesse.  Jesse falls in love with his neighbour.)  And that uncertainty leads occasionally to…

Impossible situations – the second element

  • An impossible situation is a paradox.  It’s the decision to become an atheist because you want to punish God.
  • Whatever happens, disaster is inevitable.  It’s the choice to admit your crime or get caught anyway.
  • It looks like nothing can be done, and yet life must go on.  It’s the ransom demand from someone who has stolen your entire fortune.

The primary impossible situation in Breaking Bad is created by Walt’s decision to become a drug dealer in order to provide for his family, who would disown him if they knew what he was up to.  As he develops into a big-time ice lord, and his family become suspicious, the situation, of course, becomes more impossible.

Other impossible situations, children of the main one, arise in every episode.  There’s a scene where Walt and Jesse are trapped by Walt’s cop brother-in-law, Hank, in a trailer, their mobile crystal meth lab.  The cop is waiting outside the trailer for a warrant so he can burst in and bust Jesse, but he has no idea that Walt is also inside or has anything to do with Jesse and drugs.  How will Walt, let alone Jesse, get out of this?  I won’t tell you, but – suffice to say – it’s not the last episode.

Realism + impossible situation = dramatic tension

Without realism, the situation is not actually impossible.  Characters who we don’t believe in anyway magic their way out of dilemmas, or unlikely coincidences occur to save the day, we know they’ll be all right in the end somehow, the action fizzles, and the audience feels conned.  It’s the classic shot of the victim tied to the train line with the train bearing down, but in the next scene the train is way back and time has slowed down.

But if we care about the characters, and those characters must take action where all action leads to disaster, we’re hooked.  We want them to succeed, but it looks like they can’t, but they’ve managed so far, so maybe they will, but we can’t guess how.

I hasten to add that I haven’t finished watching the series, so I have no idea whether Walt and Jesse make it in the end.  All I know is that I want to find out.

Realism + impossible situation = character development

As writers are always told, good (read believable) characters change and learn from their experiences.  If what they survive through is hell, then they change a hell of a lot.  Often in a warped way because of their clash of circumstances, which just makes them more interesting.

Realism + impossible situation = plot

There’s probably one extra rule to throw in here.  If you’re going to kill off your main characters, don’t do it until the end.  It’s obvious, isn’t it?  As Breaking Bad unfolds, Walt and/or Jesse often face death.  It’s in the nature of impossible situations that dying is on the cards, and it’s more or less likely depending on the scene – more likely as episodes pass.  But if they die, the story will be over, so that’s not the option the writers take.  Instead, they let the action lead to other consequences, and the plot follows this pattern:

Action → (a) death, or (b), (c), (d) other stuff requiring further action → (a) death, or (b), (c), (d) …

Of course, the writers don’t take option (a) with their main characters.  Actually, all I can say is that they haven’t so far!  That pattern’s not from fiction – it’s the path of nature.  We’re alive until we die.  But as I said, I have no idea whether the writers of Breaking Bad will end their story before or with Walt and Jesse’s ends.  And that keeps the plot exciting.

Do you believe me yet, or do you want further evidence?

I’m not saying that a clash of realism and impossible situation is the only good way to write a story.  Jane Austen’s genius relies on your knowing that her heroines will be married in the end.  Salman Rushdie is the messiah of magic realism.  But a cursory glance at my bookshelf reveals the following texts that have profited from the principle:

  • Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare – ‘the continuance of their parents’ rage, which but their children’s end nought could remove.’
  • Catch 22, Joseph Heller – ‘Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.’
  • Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx – ‘ “Friend,” said Jack.  “We got us a fuckin situation here.  Got a figure out what to do.”  “I doubt there’s nothing now we can do,” said Ennis.’  (Yes, I love this story.)

Try it at home.

So, the next time you’re looking for a story idea, brainstorm some impossible situations then give just one of them to a character based on your next-door neighbour.  Write from there, stick to real, and see if you don’t come up with a classic.

And please tell me about it!

Photo: bloomgal

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2010 10:15 am

    Fran,

    I do not think I have heard of this series. I do not have cable (on purpose) and watch very little TV, some times I catch some movies or shows on DVDs though.

    This seems like a intriguing drama, a teacher who might be dying and now pushing drugs to make money, interesting indeed. I hope this show does not make selling drugs more acceptable in society though.

    • September 24, 2010 12:44 am

      Hi Preeti and welcome! Breaking Bad shows that being involved with drugs can be terrifying. Like all great fiction, it’s not deliberately didactic – it doesn’t set out to preach. Instead, the story speaks for itself. Also, as it’s so well written, there are many different angles and interpretations you can take on the action and the characters. New themes and messages occur all the time. It would be one of those stories that reveals something new every time you re-look.

      Cheers,
      Fran

      • September 24, 2010 4:39 am

        Fran,

        I am not sure if it comes in US network here, but if I get DVDs of the show, I will surely check it out. You made me curious now 🙂

        It is great to know other home schooler always!

        You can be a great writer from a few posts that I have quickly read through! Impressive!

      • September 24, 2010 4:41 am

        By the way, I write poems and short stories on my free time too, which is none lately. So, your blog is an inspirational to any writer or potential writer.

  2. wilpri permalink
    October 20, 2011 1:11 am

    Saul, the easily bought lawyer is certainly real. His upbeat in-your-face attitude is his way of selling himself as a warm and caring lifesaver to the very desperate, while hiding his own desperate and even vicious character the knowledge of which would preclude anyone ever hiring him in the first place. He’s one of my favorite characters on the show and I would love it if there were an episode where his own achilles heel were bared; how, I don’t know…

    • October 24, 2011 11:53 pm

      I love Saul as a character – and the acting is brilliant. He epitomises cynicism, and in fact represents the cynicism of the whole show. As such, he’s a nice contradistinction to Jesse, particularly. I love the scenes with those two. But I must admit I haven’t seen many lawyers like Saul in Australia. For a start, Aussie lawyers are not allowed to advertise in the colourful way Saul does. They tend to be very dour and uninteresting – deliberately – in comparison.

  3. wilpri permalink
    October 20, 2011 1:25 am

    Re the landscape – though we do get some beautiful landscape shots, I get more a feeling of depression and simply hope. Because it’s not LA or NYC, it seems poor in comparison. We don’t get the flora and fauna of desert life, the beauty that goes along with expanse of nature uncorrupted by people, except for hiding to engage in illegal activities. We are not exposed to why someone would want to live in the “middle of nowhere” except that these little planned communities of mediocrity are a step on the ladder of our dreams: to own a home, to raise our kids in a safe community; to know our neighbors and what they do by living in this thrown-together community somebody from LA or NYC probably built. All the while, at our own back door is the filthy illicit decrepit and oh so dangerous side of life.

    • October 24, 2011 11:48 pm

      Yes. In fact, we’re shown this landscape from Walt’s (and the other characters’) points of view. Most of the characters take the landscape for granted and don’t appreciate for itself at all.

  4. Chris permalink
    December 19, 2012 9:25 am

    Are there Australian writers on Breaking Bad? I notice the term ‘No worries” used a lot, or is that term common in America now? Also references to kangaroo’s and an hilarious question “Is New Zealand part of Australia”?

    • December 20, 2012 10:13 am

      Wow. Not sure if there are Australian writers. Does anyone else know? ‘No worries’ is purely Australian, as far as I know.

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