Ten Great Storytelling Techniques Learned From Breaking Bad

             Somehow I managed to never watch one episode of Breaking Bad while it was on television. Friends and family told me I had to watch it over the years, yet I didn’t. I was busy. We had twins born in 2010. I was working on sweet little stories and didn’t want a dark show to mess with my headspace. So I remained in the dark and spoiler-free until two weeks ago, when I started the series on a Saturday night.
            Two weeks later, I finished watching all sixty-two glorious episodes. What a ride.
            I’ll probably end up sharing my love for BB on this blog, but I wanted to share ten reasons why I think the show works so well. These were lessons and reminders to me about the power of storytelling and what the show did so well.
            1. CARE for your character
            In the first half hour of the first show, we are introduced to a lovable loser named Walter White who is a good husband and father. His son has cerebral palsy. The family is barely scraping by. Then the unthinkable happens: Walter discovers he has cancer.

            2.  Make your character WANT something

            After discovering he has cancer, Walter White makes two decisions. First, he wants to take care of his family and leave them with a sound financial future. Second, he wants to take care of his cancer on his own terms.

            3. Have your main character go on a PHYSICAL and an EMOTIONAL journey
            The physical journey in Breaking Bad is what made it so irresistible and fascinating. Walter White decides to start making meth in order to provide for his family. He’s a great chemist so he knows exactly what to do. His motivation is good even though HE’S MAKING METH!
            The emotional journey is that Walter, who has been living his whole life by simply going through the motions, finally decides to breakout of his fog and start living on his terms. He wants to die the way he wants to. He wants to take control, so he does in the only way he knows how to.
            Of course, these decisions and journeys go from bad to worse, which is part of the amazing journey Walter and his loved ones are on.

            4. SHOCK and SURPRISE your viewers (readers)

            I won’t start spoiling things for those of you who haven’t watched the series or are just starting to. But there’s enough shock and awe just in the opening few episodes that gives you a taste of what’s to come. It’s great to start thinking how’s he going to get out of this and then suddenly think that didn’t just happen did it? That’s the beauty and the allure of Breaking Bad.  

            5. BREAK viewers (readers) HEARTS

            If you care about a character, you want good things for him and those he cares for. You start to invest in him. Then he starts breaking your heart. Or maybe the circumstances do it. Breaking Bad is all about grief and secrets. It answers some scary questions: What would you do to take care of your family if you knew you were going to die? What depths would you be willing to go to?
            6. Make room for LEVITY

            I think any good story has to have some levity. Breaking Bad is a show full of hilarious moments. The whole premise has some humor—a chemistry teacher who suddenly starts making meth. But when things take a turn for the worse (and they keep doing so time and time again), there’s some brilliance in the writing. Even death can sometimes be frighteningly funny. It keeps a dark show about a dark soul as light as it can possibly be (therefore very watchable).

            7. BUILD toward an EXCITING conclusion people can’t wait to see (and maybe at the same time don’t want to see!)

            One of the reasons I suddenly became addicted to the show was that I couldn’t wait to see how it ended. I had made it all these years being spoiler-free, but now I was getting scared. If I started talking to somebody about the show, I’d deliberately interrupt whatever they might want to tell me with a “I don’t want to hear a single word!” warning. But I had to find out what happens. When do the secrets and lies come out? What happens when they do? Who ends up living and dying? And is there any sort of hope for these desperate, lost souls?

            8. Have it RELATE to the reader/viewer

            Walter White and his family are very relatable when the series begins. They are an ordinary family doing ordinary things. Until, of course, Walter starts cooking and starts killing bad guys. Walter loses himself and his soul but his family is still very much in the picture. It’s still easy to relate to these people. And we still are sympathetic to Walter because of his cancer or to people like Jesse Pinkman who just needs a hug instead of a hit of meth.

            9. Be AUTHENTIC

            I don’t know about the world of meth making and DEA and all that, but I know the makers of Breaking Bad took pains to make sure they got that world right. It’s very believable to me. I never once asked myself if something like that could happen. The ordinary-guy-in-an-extraordinary-world is the scenario they have set up. But it’s not just that. The emotions behind these characters (displayed by an amazing set of actors) are the things that made this show come to life in such a vivid way.

            10. Cloak a story about LIFE & DEATH into a familiar genre. People feel COMFORTABLE in genres. People CARE about life and death.

            The longer time goes by, the less I care about this word called genre (not that I’ve ever really cared about it anyway). It’s just a box that helps sells your story. A story could be a “romance” or a “thriller” or a “sci-fi” story. It doesn’t matter. That’s just the window dressing to get you into the shop.
            What matters are the characters in the story and whether people care about them. What matters are the stakes. What matters are the issues of life and death.
            Sometimes, I think I don’t make my stakes big enough. I don’t make my characters relatable enough.
            If you have readers or viewers that care about a character and their journey, they’re willing to go on whatever journey you have in whatever genre you’re working in.

            Breaking Bad was an amazing trip and it ended in a brilliant way. It gave me lots of reminders about the craft of storytelling. It’s going to be a story I revisit in the future. Now I just have to stop dreaming about making meth. 

Labels: , ,