Three Writing Lessons from Breaking Bad

Since Breaking Bad this week swept the 2014 Emmy Awards, it seems to be a good time for me to highlight three narrative techniques the show’s writers and directors exploited well. (There are, of course, many points where the show excelled, and I wish I had done an episode-by-episode analysis when I first watched the series, but maybe I’ll save that if I ever have the chance to give it a second run.)

(1) Waffling: Usually we’d think it would be bad to have a character who seems “wishy-washy” (as Lucy always dubbed Charlie Brown), but several characters on Breaking Bad would have an initial reaction to something, turning away from it or embracing it quickly, and then later the character would reverse his/her decision. And then later, the character often would regret and return to the first position. Life is full of complexities and indecision; rarely do we have clearcut lines, and Vince Gilligan and company knew how to exploit such second-thoughts, ambiguities, and misgivings in Walter White’s tragic descent.

(2) Non Sequiturs and Tangents: In constructing dialogue, the show’s writers would make certain that conversations between characters were not tidy back-and-forth exchanges. Life is not about formal debate, and many people only hear bits and pieces of what is said around them, so Breaking Bad often showed characters leaving the logic of the conversation and jumping to something entirely different. Such jumps were often moments of introspection where a character (often Walter) would share a distant memory of something that seemed completely unrelated. Yet that memory often would become a key for further meaning in what was unfolding in the drama of the episode.

(3) Visual Synedoche: In poetry “synedoche” is the use of a part to represent the whole; for example: At the end of the performance, many hands were clapping. There may be another term in film studies that captures what the Breaking Bad writers and directors did when they focused on the pants flying through the air, the stuffed animal’s eye floating in the water, Walter’s glasses lying broken on a wooden floor, the kids skating in what turns out to be an empty pool…. So many images captured our imaginations, left us asking questions, and drew us in until we found the greater context and meaning. This visual medium used it spectacularly well, but I’m certain it was also a part of the original writing.

If you didn’t already notice these elements, I would encourage you to look for them the next time you watch any of the episodes. Some viewers may have been upset with the sweep at the Emmy Awards, in light of other worthy candidates, but for my money, I think the awards landed well on this thought-provoking show. As we writers sit down to create our own worlds, we should add this show, and its use of these narrative techniques, to our grab-bag of inspiring influences.

An Enduring Legacy

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