A while back, I binge-watched the AMC series Breaking Bad. Like many, I found the show addicting for both its storytelling and characters, and wondered how that was the case when the story itself seemed not-so-attractive from its one-line alone: “high school chemistry teacher turns meth-producer after he learns he has terminal cancer.” At least it wouldn’t have been enough to draw me in. But I had many friends whose taste in story I did trust tell me I had to watch, so I did. And they were right: It was addicting, and the character arc for that aforementioned chemistry teacher, Walter White, was nothing short of brilliant.
After the binge, I spent a good chunk of time watching and reading interviews, interested to learn how the creator of the series, Vince Gilligan, made it work. How do you take an idea, a character, a plot, that may at first seem unapproachable and turn it into something extraordinary? That’s the definition of alchemy.
I’m going to play with the word “Breaking” here. In a Writers’ Room, “breaking” a scene means breaking it down into its necessary components. In other words, “breaking” is like a blueprint for building something.
“Breaking” Character Authentically
Vince Gilligan knew he had a concept he could run with when he conceived of a story arc that would take a typical family-man character and turn him into Scarface. While we might not have such dramatic arcs in our own story worlds, there are lessons here we can all apply to our work.
- Intertwine the internal and the external when establishing the premise. Consider the following:
- A high school chemistry teacher with a pregnant wife and disabled teen son learns he has terminal lung cancer. With no notable savings or million-dollar life-insurance policy, his family is set to inherit a load of financial struggles along with their grief when he dies. If he could only find a way to earn some money before then…
- A man who learns he has terminal lung cancer deeply regrets the path not chosen—the one that would’ve led to recognition of his brilliance. He deserves that recognition, and the bank account that goes with it. He wants you to say his name, with awe and respect, because he deserves that, too, and he intends to convince you of that fact.
They feel like two different characters, don’t they? Yet that’s Walter White, the noble external reason he chooses a life of crime and the narcissistic internal motivation for the same. The contrast between selflessness and egocentrism plays on Walter—and on us—for the entire series.
- Find the link that makes sense of everything. Brian Cranston, who played Walter, says that when he first considered the role, he didn’t understand the character. And then it clicked: Walter was depressed, because his deepest desire—to be extraordinary—was never met before his death-sentence diagnosis. His depression brought the chaos, and went a long way in explaining his desperate plan and bad decision-making. Keying in on the character’s emotional core made everything fall into place for the actor, and in turn for us.
- Evolve the character’s mindset. Character-building went beyond the premise and some fuzzy imagined end. It was something the writers considered all of the time—how would Walter behave in a given situation, and how had his mindset evolved?
“We ask(ed) ourselves the same questions over and over again, like a mantra. ‘Where is Walt’s head at right now? Where is he coming from? What is his fear, what was his hope?’ [O]ur best work is when we don’t think about the future too much and we think about the now.” – Vince Gilligan
- When necessary, reverse your engineering. The writers wanted the characters to feel authentic and never puppeteered. Still, story is story. If the writers needed to get a character from point A to Z, they’d engineer in reverse until the gap closed, with a character taking micro-steps or in some other way being logically driven toward the desired choice.
- Let the story evolve organically. No character changes overnight, and while the changes you can make in a character over the course of a five-year television series might not seem comparable to what you can do in the course of a novel, the point remains the same. Slow transformations are usually the most believable, and allow you to truly explore a character’s territory as they become someone other than who they are at the start of a tale.
Breaking Bad might still be a good story without the strong connection it forged with its audience, but it would never have become such a great one. How did Vince and his team manage to create that bond? How did they make us care about a drug lord capable of psychopathic levels of manipulation and murder?
- Thread the hook with grade-A bait. We might not be able to empathize with a drug lord, but at the beginning of all things, Walter was an ordinary guy. A chemistry teacher just diagnosed with terminal cancer, with a wife and a kid and another kid on the way, who feels guilty for even considering treatment because it will deplete what little money his family will inherit after he’s gone. Oh, guy. I feel you. You feel him, too, right? And that’s the baited hook. Your empathy tethers you to this character, and because you have the feels for him, you’re going to give him some leeway. And you’re probably going to apply your squishy feelings of empathy to the stupid choices he’s going to make—even the big ones.
- Be logical. Vince has spoken about the challenge of keeping an audience connected to Walter, even after he starts to do bad things. To this end, it was important to build on rational choices, and to create a cause-and-effect dynamic along the way that would root back to those first relatable seeds. Because at some point, we’re going to find ourselves down this guy’s rabbit hole, the lines blurred between good and bad, right and wrong, and we need to remember how we got down there. If we do, we can still care about this guy or at least his journey, in part because his rational choices enabled us to imagine ourselves in his situation. We witnessed how, step by horrible step, this sort of thing might happen to anyone. Even to people we know and love. Even to ourselves, if the situation were just so. That is some powerful stuff.
“[T]he way that we keep him human and likable is that we show his great pain and discomfort at having to do (bad things). And when he kills …it’s a horrible, long scene, just to show that this is the way it would really be….[And he] slides to the floor with [his victim] and just mutters ‘I’m sorry’ over and over again.” – Vince Gilligan
- Talk to all parts of the brain. I love writers who lace their work with metaphor and symbolism, and Vince is one of those writers. The color of cars and outfits throughout the course of the show may mean something. The fact that an infant is placed on her side for safety reasons after another character dies while lying on her back means something. We may not understand these little acts of symbolism in a conscious way, but creating a world layered with meaning delivers story on multiple levels, which in turn supports storytelling trust. We know we’re in capable hands, and so we’ll return to the story, week after week, or page after page.
- Reject black-and-white options. Vince wasn’t interested in subjecting his characters to easily managed situations with clear answers. Rather, he sought to test his characters with moral dilemmas, adversity, shades-of-gray situations, and full-on chaos, because those moments can reveal the pith of a character. In Walter’s case, it helps to parse out if taking care of his family or receiving recognition is most important—eventually by pitting those things against one another.
- Raise the stakes. Just when you think nothing worse could possibly happen, it does. I remember talking with someone who’d seen the whole series about how dark and twisty the story had become midway through the first season. “Oh, you’re still in phonics,” he said, with an ominous chuckle. I don’t want to offer any spoilers, but suffice it to say, if you want a master’s lesson in evolving tension, watch this show.
- Be unboxed. Vince believed in the fluidity of a story well told, in allowing characters to transform on their schedule over his own, and in staying open to possibilities. He allowed photographs to inspire scenes. He allowed actors to inspire a character’s layers, and even to extend that character’s role in the story. Jesse Pinkman, for example, was supposed to die in the first season. And Hank Schrader was never meant to be terribly important to the plot.
“[A]s the shooting progressed and I got to know Dean Norris (Hank), I realized that this is a very interesting guy with a lot of emotional layers to him. He has so much more substance than I ever pictured Hank having, and so a lot of his substance rubbed off on Hank and changed the way I perceived the character.” – Vince Gilligan
- Persevere. Considering Breaking Bad’s incredible success, you’d think it was in a Hollywood bidding war or something, right? Nope. The show was famously turned down by many before AMC picked it up. Sometimes different is scary to the Establishment. Don’t let that stop you from creating innovative works or pursuing publication.
“If I’d spent too much time thinking about how tough it was going to be to sell, I might have psyched myself out of even trying.” – Vince Gilligan
All right, that’s enough from me. Have you watched a series that taught you something important about storytelling? Have I missed a Breaking Bad lesson? Are you watching Better Call Saul? Project Greenlight?
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