Breaking Bad is iconic television – a show of which I was extremely late to get into. I only watched it for the first time a couple of years ago, by which point every episode was out and I was able to binge watch it. I’d assumed, for years, I’d have no interest in it. The setting, the theme of drugs, none of it added up to the kind of show I’d enjoy, and I’m not a huge television person anyway. But then my husband started watching it, while I read in the same room, and two episodes in I’d put down my book and was actively watching it with him.
So, why the blog post? This show is an absolute masterclass in storytelling, and if you haven’t seen it, I would truly urge you to give it a try. Amongst many others, I’m sure, I’m writing a post focusing on 7 techniques fiction writers can learn from Breaking Bad.
Please note, I have attempted to keep this spoiler free, but can’t guarantee there won’t be some giveaway, so please be wary if you’ve not watched the show.
The elevator pitch
Pitching a story is tough. The elevator pitch is the toughest of all, because it forces you to break your story down into a mere sentence (or two at most). But it’s a vital way to ensure you understand the real fundamental essence of your story. Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad writer, pitched the show by saying of the story arc, “you take Mr Chips and turn him into Scarface.” It’s so concise, so simple, but immediately creates intrigue as it makes you wonder how such a transformation will happen, and makes it clear the story is going to be complex and dramatic.
“You take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.” – Vince Gilligan
Strengths and flaws – the grey area between good and bad
One of the many things Breaking Bad does so brilliantly, is create characters with major strengths and flaws. The grey area between good and bad is explored in depth, with meek characters capable of evil, and corrupt characters capable of compassion. In all stories, believable characters have to possess positive and negative personality traits, because in reality nobody is perfect, nor entirely flawed. Breaking Bad does this on an extreme level, with murderers who also save lives, and heroes who also cause harm. Drug dealers who care about children, and devoted mothers who are prepared to launder money and threaten people. The balance in this show is spot on.
Continuing with the theme of character traits, the character development in this show is solid. Of course, Walter White is the obvious example, the main focus of the show, his descent from high school chemistry teacher and loving father to drug kingpin and murderer. But every major character is given a development arc that is exciting, emotional, and satisfying to witness. I’m trying to keep this spoiler free, so excuse vagueness, but there are characters I despised at the beginning and adored and rooted for by the end. Likewise, characters I thought I would always sympathise with I grew to detest. Character development is key in any story, and this show offers up so many examples to learn from.
Nothing is more satisfying, in TV, film, and literature, as successful foreshadowing. The moment something unexpected happens, a twist in the story, but despite the surprise it makes total sense. Moments that cause you to look back and think, ‘of course!’ or on a re-watch/re-read blow you away with how cleverly plotted it was from the start. Breaking Bad is a master of this, and uses everything from pink teddy bears and car licence plates to character quotes and movements to hint at bigger story lines and shocking twists.
Alongside foreshadowing, symbolism is another way to add depth and reader satisfaction to a story. Symbolism can be used to aid the story’s theme, to give insight into the characters, to hint at future events, and to ensure that all important ‘show don’t tell’ method is used. One of many ways Breaking Bad does this is through colour. The visual element of colour to represent mood, personality traits, and character connections is powerful. While this is a particularly strong method for visual media such as television, it can also be used in writing.
Drama and tension
Storytelling should be exciting. It should keep the reader hooked. And this is done by drama, tension, the need to find out more and answer questions. It’s caused by near misses, characters making mistakes, and criminals almost getting caught. Again, Breaking Bad keeps the drama and tension at an all time high throughout, and its impossible to finish an episode without wanting to dive straight into the next one. This can teach writers a lot about pacing, action, and how to end chapters in a way that leave the reader wanting more.
There’s nothing worse than reading a book, and feeling absolutely no connection to the characters. If you’re not rooting for them, either to succeed or fail, your investment in the story is going to lack. Not only does Breaking Bad master the art of connecting you emotionally to the characters, it even tugs at the heartstrings, causing you to feel sympathy for characters who are ‘bad’ people. Take Jesse Pinkman. He flunked school, deals drugs, and is undeniably a criminal in many ways. On the surface, what kind of person does that make him? But his redeeming qualities, his desire to protect children, his tragic family relationships, his fierce ability to love, mean that many fans of the show feel his pain and root for him throughout. These emotions not only connect you to the character, but cause conflicting views on how you really feel about them. Love or hate? Or somewhere in the middle? It all goes back to that grey area.
Any other Breaking Bad fans out there? Did you also feel the sense of awe from witnessing incredible storytelling? Has it influenced your writing at all? Share your thoughts in the comments below.