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Cooking A Story: Breaking Bad for Writers 

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Story is all around us. It’s on our television screens, the films we watch, even the video games we play. Yet some writers neglect to consider these forms and what they can teach us about our craft. Television, in particular, offers a great opportunity to think about story. We get a week to analyze the details—though that is slowly changing thanks to Netflix—before the next chapter unfolds. I have no problem admitting that watching Buffy, the Vampire Slayer during my undergrad days taught me about theme, character development, and plot. I arrived late to Breaking Bad, but after finishing a series marathon and fighting to avoid rampant spoilers, I found I had some new tools to put to use in my own stories.

Writers can find plenty of lessons in Breaking Bad. Here are three things I’ve been thinking about with my own work since finishing the series.

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad – Season One

“I did it for…”

What does your character want? Why does your character want what they want? Perhaps no story explores the question better than Breaking Bad.

Walter White has a simple middle class life. He’s a high school science teacher who works at a car wash to bring in some extra money. When he is diagnosed with cancer, he seeks to ensure his family has financial support once he is gone. His method of choice: cooking meth. What Walter White wants is to help his family, right?

It isn’t that simple, and because of that one of the joys of watching Breaking Bad is White’s epiphany of why he does what he does. But how does the journey change White? How does getting what he wants affect those around him?

There are many agents of change at work in Breaking Bad, and Walter White touches every character’s life, rarely in a positive manner. Deciding what your character wants and how the journey will change him or her as well as supporting characters will help give your story life, especially if your supporting cast has their own wants that interfere with your main character’s desires.

Exercise: Take a book, film, or television episode and figure out the main character’s goal. Then map out the character’s journey to achieve their goal. While you are at it, examine the supporting characters and figure out their own goals and how they clash and connect with the main character.

Actions speak louder

You know that saying “show, don’t tell”? Breaking Bad is great about revealing character through actions. Just a couple of episodes into the series we see Walt cutting off sandwich crust for his prisoner. It’s a small gesture that makes the audience doubt Walt’s ability to function in this new world he’s entered. Walter White Heisenberg

One of the great moments in the series shows Walt’s obsessive side. While sitting in a hospital waiting room, Walt notices a coffee table is wobbly. So he removes a subscription card from a magazine and folds it. He keeps folding the card until it is reduced to a tiny block. Then he slides it under the table leg. Problem fixed. The table is sturdy. This is the type of man who will get the job done. The type who will stop meth production for a day because there is a fly in the room. Not only does this action show Walt’s obsessive attitude, but it acts as a small foreshadowing device for one of the series’ most popular episodes.

How do your characters move? What things do they get hung up on? Sometimes writers focus too much on dialogue, but what our characters physically do can say more than spoken words.

Exercise: Write a page of character action with no dialogue. Show your character doing something that highlights a trait.

What does it all mean?

Symbolism is a tricky thing. Sometimes you don’t even know it’s in your work until a friend reads a draft and points it out. Breaking Bad is full of symbolism. Swimming pools aren’t things for summer fun, they are symbols of guilt. A character’s wardrobe is more than just a daily clothing choice. It can signify a character’s mood and even provide a color map of a character’s story arc. A fly isn’t necessarily responsible for contamination. And music isn’t meant for background noise. It sometimes foreshadows a character’s fate. Or a whistled tune becomes an admission of attempted murder.

While you don’t want to force symbolism, thinking about it—the items your character uses, what is worn, the types of art, music, food, or poetry they enjoy—can help you develop a three-dimensional world around your characters.

Exercise: Describe what your main character has sitting around his or her home. Which of these items show strong connections to their goal or mental state?

Breaking Bad offers plenty for writers to think about and translate into their own projects. So don’t feel bad the next time you step away from your writing desk for a TV break. An hour of leisure could turn into a storytelling lesson.

 

 

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A writer and journalist, Josh Flynn is Mash Stories’s official journalist and one of the main blog writers. His essays, stories, and articles have appeared in The Indianapolis Star, Nuvo Newsweekly, Slam Magazine, genesisNerdSpan, and Punchnel’s. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshflynn.