What Breaking Bad Teaches Us About Writing Novels
by Katrin Schumann
It was a snow day yesterday and I binge watched the last half of the final season of Breaking Bad. I know, I know. I'm way late to the game.
It's been a long time since episodic TV has been so inspiring to me as a storyteller. This show pulled me in and kept me trapped in its vortex for weeks. I was simulatenously glad when I reached the finale (now I get my life back) and devastated (no more Breaking Bad!).
Stories that have the ability to make us really care about the characters are immersive and compelling. Stories that make us look deep inside ourselves and battle with the concepts of loyalty, love, and morality engage and challenge us in ways that mere "entertainment" doesn't.
Isn't that what we are striving for when we write books, too?
The very best storytelling offers up characters who are recognizable and yet also surprise us. We all know someone like Walter White. He is predictable, solid, perennially underestimated. The first bad decision Walter makes (to cook meth to pay for cancer treatment) unleashes that part of him that is fed up with being patient, subservient--underestimated. His character arc reminds us that we humans are full of contradictions; we are not all good or all bad. In fact, we can be good and bad at the very same time.
This may seem obvious, but in our daily lives it is not how we want to see the world. We'd far prefer to have our bad guys be monsters through and through (like White Supremacist Uncle Jack in season 5). But being reminded of the complexity of human nature and being challenged to explore our own value systems wakes us up.
Good storytelling makes us stop sleepwalking though our lives.
When Jessie's friends are in the music store buying gear, Skinny Pete (who appears to be nothing more than a dopey, thoughtless addict) starts noodling around on a keyboard, playing Bach’s Solfeggiettoe. Woah! It's beautiful--and shocking. We get just the briefest glimpse into this person's backstory. Though we're never given any more information about him, it's a telling detail that reminds us, once again, that these characters are compellingly complex.
When you're writing about people, keep that in mind. Use telling detail, surprise us. It will make your characters pop.
Each decision Walter makes and therefore each action he takes leads to consequences he must then deal with. The writer Vince Gilligan does not let Walter off the hook, ever. For every action there is a reaction. In our writing, it is helpful to remember this simple equation. This, essentially, is plot.
Choices people make have an effect. Things happen that change our circumstances. For a story to work, characters have to experience change. It's surprising how often writers fail to understand this dynamic. The result is then often a story that is long on themes yet fails to engage the reader.
When you're stuck in a scene, whether the problem is a character who seems flat or a plot that is stalling, choose the less obvious path. Or better yet, go in the opposite direction altogether. Try asking yourself: What if instead of xyz, she does abc? Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to think outside the box. Oftentimes, doing this makes our writing fresher and more interesting, and in an odd twist, more realistic.
In my opinion, the old adage to "write what you know" is bad advice. As writers we have to push ourselves out of our comfort zones. We have to tackle thorny problems and risk getting our skin shredded in the process. Writing without risktaking makes for boring reading. Readers want to learn something new--so it's up to us as writers to give them insights into worlds they would otherwise never encounter. We take the first wobbly step into those worlds and then we invite our readers to join us.
One of the reasons I didn't watch Breaking Bad when it was popular is that I didn't think I was interested in the world of crystal meth. Why would I want to know about how it's made or consumed? But what is most invigorating to viewers/ readers is when we are surprised to find ourselves curious about something we never even knew we were interested in. The very best books take us places we would never think of going. And when we come home afterwards, we have grown and changed. We've learned something new.
So do your research. Be specific. Fill your stories with details that throw a dark corner into the light. Your readers will be drawn to look toward the light.
Which brings me to the most important aspect of good storytelling: It teaches us something new about ourselves. The very best writing makes us question our beliefs, takes us deep inside ourselves and gets us to ask hard questions. Clawing our way through thorny moral terrain is rivetting. When we come out the other side, we are changed. We have learned something valuable.
In the London Review of Books, James Meek writes this about the series:"More subversively there is scope for richer, novelistic forms of narrative: lacunae, digression and the deliberate confinement of time and space to the dimensions of the characters’ neuroses." Your turn now: What else does Breaking Bad teach us about writing?
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann