Storytelling Secrets from the Breaking Bad Writers’ Room
A roundtable interview offered several craft insights.
“Just because you shot Jesse James, don’t make you Jesse James…” I recently rewatched “Breaking Bad,” the TV show that famously bucked the culture of “enforced stasis” and plotted an epic character change over five seasons, in this case turning “Mr. Chips into Scarface” in the formulation of the creator, Vince Gilligan. When the show’s finale originally aired, I was just out of college, and my reaction was mainly: “Wow.” Now, as a professional writer, my reaction was still “wow,” but I had a deeper drive to see how the intricately-plotted, well-written, hyper-detailed sausage was made.
Writers and storytellers have a lot to gain by not merely consuming the art they love but understanding how it’s doing what it’s doing. That can be handled with time and analysis, but there’s another layer, too, and one that’s even easier — hearing from the writers themselves. I started by finding interviews with Gilligan, and eventually stumbled on one with the whole writers’ room, which was especially illuminating. Not to mention filled with delightful or fascinating nuggets, like the fact that the writers internally referred to a certain climactic —and explosive—plot point involving a bell as “ding boom,” and the fact that they originally planned to kill off Jesse Pinkman after episode 9. Here are five core lessons that stood out to me after pouring through a few of these interviews.
* “Breaking Bad” spoilers ahead *
Look backward for ideas
“The more we went on, the more I realized that some of the ideas that we got most excited about were looking back at things that were already in the story.”
— Peter Gould
A conventional approach to generating new story ideas in a larger narrative is to look forward and try to map out compelling moment to arrive at. Before the delay from a writer’s strike caused him to rethink things, Gilligan was working toward a…