Sunday, September 29, 2013

Writing 'Bad': Lessons Learned from Breaking Bad

I've just finished watching the finale of Breaking Bad, and so many thoughts are swimming in my brain right now.  My friend Lynne Kelly is putting together a post on her blog with writing lessons from the show, so I thought I'd put together a few.


I am pretty confident I could do a dissertation on this show's genius. I know I annoy my friends talking about it and analyzing it, but it's such a great example of not holding back in your storytelling, using technique and craft to the fullest, and creating complex, layered characters who feel realistic even in very unreal situations.

My intention is to do a complete rewatch of the series over several months and analyze the technique and overarching plot to help develop my own technique, and I may post about some of that. But for now, here are some lessons I've learned from Breaking Bad that I hope to implement in my own writing:
  • You can still have a satisfying ending even if it's not "happy" as long as you wrap up the loose ends and keep it true to the characters and the storyline.
  • When a character is wronged, it's extremely satisfying to see him/her given the opportunity to choose whether to right the wrong or not, i.e. Jesse getting to go after Todd and having the option to take out Walt.
  • A central image or motif can really connect aspects of a story, especially if you're writing a series. The recurring connection to chemistry with references to elements of it ran through the story and reminded us that elements are volatile when combined incorrectly and put under pressure. The recurring theme of surveillance and being watched added to the tension and excitement, and its role became more and more sinister as the story went on.
  • Ask yourself "what if" but take it to the next level. BB constantly took things to places we didn't expect because the writers would continue to ask "what if" and pick something that still made sense in the story but was surprising to us.
  • Giving villains/antagonists something to humanize them makes for a more compelling story and can make them even scarier. Todd's lack of emotion made him disturbing, but his fixations on Walt and Lydia heightened that.
  • As your characters change, the way they exist in the world must change in more than just how they speak and think. After the things Jesse had seen and done, he couldn't go back to partying with Badger and Skinny Pete because he wasn't the same person. But he had to try it because he hadn't quite accepted that yet and had to realize it for himself.
  • Subtle and less subtle shifts in the way places and people are presented or details emphasized can show us a lot about what's going on in very subtle ways, even if we're not aware of it at the time. For example, Walt Jr. flipped back and forth between that name and Flynn when he wanted to distance himself from Walt, Marie always wears purple except in key moments on the show. This different identity through name and color is very clear with Walt's transformation back and forth between Walter White and Heisenberg in black. Shaving his head, he takes on the persona of Heisenberg. Even once he's recovered, he continues to put on that persona because he likes it. Stuck in the cabin in the woods, powerless to do anything, he tries to put on the persona again, but even that "bulletproof" persona can't help him at that point, riddled with cancer and alone. The thing that struck me the most in the last episode was how he looked like a shaggy version of the old Walt, putting that identity back on like a wolf in sheep's clothing to carry out his dirty work. If he'd shown up as Heisenberg, they would have seen him coming.
If you want to leave your own thoughts, feel free! I'd love to hear what others think about this amazing show and how it has helped their writing. Now I'm off to cry in a glass of wine and feel all the feels.

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