Eclectic Ramblings From a Bike Riding, Sports Loving, Novel Writing Nerd.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Breaking Bad and The Art of Storytelling

Jenny and I recently jumped on the Breaking Bad bandwagon.  I know we’re late to the party but it’s not without good reason.  We’ve always had a hard time finding shows we both enjoy.  I watched the first episode when it came out on Netflix a couple of years ago and realized right away Jenny would love it.  It only took me 18 months or so to convince her.  Actually, I didn’t even do that.  I just got sick of trying so I started watching it on my own.  She wound up in the room one night, playing Words With Friends on her phone, while I was watching and it just drew her right in.

It’s been a blast watching her get sucked into the show.  I have a long history of addiction to quality small screen programming. Lost, Doctor Who, Fringe, they’re just a small sampling of the shows that hooked me with the free sample then had me begging for more.  Jenny, not so much. In fact she actively avoided such shows after seeing how they tortured me with cliffhangers.

Breaking Bad finally got her.  After she admitted to an interest in the show we went back to episode one and started fresh.  I forced her to stop after three episodes and she just about shot me.  She’s had basically the same reaction each night.  We sit down to gorge on Walt and Company. She gets hooked.  She throws things when I make her turn it off. It didn’t matter that she had forty more episodes left.  She didn’t care that was no way to watch them all at once.  She couldn't quit.  She HAD to know what happened next.

Watching her get caught up in this show has gotten me thinking about the art of storytelling.  Well, that plus the fact that I’m reading Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing” right now.  Storytelling dates back to beginnings of language.  We’ve captivated each other with re-tellings of our conquests, our dreams and our inspirations.  Yet some of us do it far better than others.  

What is it that makes a great story?  Are there tricks?  Is there formula?  Is it just something certain people are gifted with?

I am very wary of anyone who says they have a sure fire formula for storytelling.  Sure, it can be done but it winds up being, well, formulaic.  You wind up with stories that all sound the same. The names and places change but the stories are all alike.  It may work once or twice but, for me at least, it doesn’t last.

The best stories are written by the characters themselves.  Stephen King likens it to excavating a fossil.  The writer has little control over what is there, only how much of it is uncovered.

 Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing     world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”  [1]

This is also evident in Breaking Bad.  Vince Gilligan has admitted that Jesse Pinkman was originally supposed to die at the end of the first season.  Yet as the character developed, and the actor’s portrayal played out, Gilligan realized Jesse was actually central to the story.  Gilligan listened to what the character and the story were saying and let them develop on their own.

At it’s core, good storytelling gives us a reason to care.  Whether it’s the lovable nun turned governess (my kids are in the other room watching The Sound of Music so it's top of mind), or a bumbling school teacher turned psychopathic drug manufacturer, great stories wrap you up in the characters first.  Once you care about what happens to them they drive the story.  They can take you pretty much anywhere.

It’s been fascinating watching the characters and story evolve on Breaking Bad.  I think the combination of our binge watching schedule and my focus on story creating has helped me see things from this perspective but it truly is a phenomenal story.  I only hope someday I can create something a fraction as good.

Until Next Time!



[1] King, Stephen (2000-10-03). On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (pp. 163-164).      Scribner. Kindle Edition.

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