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Story Alchemy: Lessons from Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad - Story Alchemy

A while back, I binge-watched the AMC series Breaking Bad [1]. 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 [2], 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.

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.

“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

“Breaking” Connection

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?

“[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

“Breaking” Story

“[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

“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?

About Therese Walsh [3]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [4], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [5] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [6], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [7] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [8] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [9]). Learn more on her website [10].

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