I think the general consensus among those writers who teach the craft is that you must read—and read widely—about the craft of writing, particularly those authors who write in your genre. But I think there’s a lot you can learn about writing from other mediums, too. Specifically television. Every other week, I’ll bring you takeaways from some of the best television shows out there. These are meant to be specific concepts, themes, techniques, etc., that a writer can learn from the show. This post will help you understand the intricacies of plot.
This week we'll take a look at Breaking Bad. Potential spoilers follow. This post will focus specifically on some crucial elements of storytelling, and how you can use them to develop an excellent plot. Each one of these elements is used successfully in the hit show Breaking Bad. I'll show you how each one is used in this show, and provide a potential application for your own plot.
This post is part of a series of related posts on what popular television shows can teach us about writing. Be sure to check out other posts that cover developing terrifying antagonists, creating conflict and tension, and perfecting the details in your fiction. You can also read posts covering popular shows such as, How I Met Your Mother, Better Call Saul, and House of Cards.
Breaking Bad is a crime drama set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who's diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He and his wife, Skyler, have a second child on the way, and their teenage son, Walter, Jr., suffers from cerebral palsy. In order to secure his family's future, White begins cooking and selling crystal meth with his former student, Jesse Pinkman. The series follows White venturing further and further into the criminal world, while seeing his family life deteriorate, and attempting to avoid detection by his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, a member of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
1. Craft Unique Character Motivations
The number one thing you need for a successful and compelling plot is character motivation. Every character in Breaking Bad has terrific motivation for their actions. Walter wants to make sure that his family is okay as he undergoes treatment—or should he ultimately no longer be around to provide for them. By the end of the series, we see Walt's motivations change: He admits that he became so invested in the meth-making business that he did it for himself, because he enjoyed it. Jesse's motivations are simple, at the beginning, he's enticed by the prospect of being rich, of being important. This is primarily because he's been poor and an afterthought throughout his life, despite being extremely bright.
Skyler desires to protect her family, through a variety of ways, once she begins to become aware of Walt's activities. She initially attempts to leave Walt, but is unable to paint him as a bad person to their son. Then, she attempts to work with Walt by laundering the money. Walt's greed, though, ultimately becomes too much, as they cannot continue to launder all of the money. Hank wants to be recognized in the DEA by bringing down Heisenberg's meth empire in New Mexico. We see this drive him throughout the series, even as everyone believes that Heisenberg (who is actually Walt) is dead or disappeared.
Apply This Your Plot
You need multiple characters in your fiction that have unique motivations. Perhaps they both want the same thing (like Indiana Jones and the Nazis both wanting the Ark of the Covenant), but the characters want that object for different reasons. Crafting unique motivations allows you to explore these characters over the course of your plot. You can home in on each character and really dig into what makes them tick. This creates depth, and you need depth in order to write a good story.
2. Develop Multiple Conflicts
Good plots are nothing without good conflict. With multiple characters who all have unique motivations, you can create conflicts between each of these characters. Note how some of the motivations of the above-mentioned characters conflict. Walt and Jesse have different reasons for wanting to make meth, leading to different expectations when they begin cooking. Yet, as the plot unfurls, Walt decides he wants to keep cooking, while Jesse has made enough money and wants out.
Walt and Hank have an underlying conflict throughout the series, one that is always boiling subtly beneath the surface. Hank has no idea that Walt is Heisenberg, lurking right underneath his nose. Walt spends much of his time tiptoeing around Hank, trying to avoid discovery. Their showdown in the garage, after Hank learns the truth, is a pivotal moment in the series, punctuated by an intense struggle and great dialogue. Hank whispers that he doesn't know who Walt is. Walt responds: "If that's true, if you don't know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly."
And Walt and Skyler's conflict plays out directly in front of the viewer. Walt attempts to hide his activities from Skyler, going as far to fake a fugue state, walking naked through a grocery store. But their ultimate conflict is their opposing views on what it means to protect their family. Walt wants to leave enough money for the family to be okay, while Skyler simply wants Walt to survive the cancer. When she learns what he's doing, she tries to protect her family from Walt, because she doesn't view him as heroic, she sees him as a monster—a viewpoint that comes to fruition over the course of the show.
Apply This Your Plot
If you've created good motivations for your characters, then you have some built-in conflicts already. You're going to have characters that work together, and others that clash. But even those who work together aren't going to see eye-to-eye over everything, particularly if they desire something for different reasons. Just think of the way that Walt and Jesse go back and forth between working together successfully and fighting. You ultimately need multiple conflicts to carry your plot. One isn't going to be enough, and that one needs to always be evolving.
Most fiction-writing books offer a cliched and paint-by-number approach to plot and structure, rehash overused mythic archetypes, or give theoretical advice that doesn't offer fiction writers the practical step-by-step advice they need. Story Trumps Structure shows writers how to create a compelling, believable story that can only come from jettisoning pre-ordained outlines in lieu of trusting the narrative process and telling the story. By demystifying narrative, teaching writers the core ingredients to every story, and illustrating the ways that master storytellers engage readers, Story Trumps Structure provides a fresh approach to helping all fiction writers better shape their craft. You'll find this book helpful if:
- You’re ready for a new take on plot and structure
- You’re ready to trust the narrative and your storytelling "gut" rather than a series of "rules" about structure
- You want practical, step-by-step advice for creating a story that strays away from the norm
- You’re ready to write in a new and different way
3. How to Use Foreshadowing Effectively
Breaking Bad uses foreshadowing throughout the plot. Sometimes it's more heavy-handed than other times. I'm going to focus on a couple of subtler moments (at least to me). One is in the first episode. Walt gets angry with a couple of kids who are making fun of his son and his use of crutches. His burst of anger, essentially assaulting one of the kids, is an insight into the kind of temper that Walt has. There's another moment in the first season, when the family is playing poker together. Walt raises on a hand, and Hank folds, saying that he's far too easy to read. He knows that Walt has a good hand. Marie checks afterwards, seeing that Hank had an ace and a king, while Walt had "a handful of nothing." Walt proves to have a better poker face than anyone thought.
Lastly, towards the end of season four, there's an episode where Walt goes to collect his money in the crawlspace underneath his house. He wants to take the money and his family and run, as he believes a business associate, the frightening Gus Fring, has put out a hit on them. Walt finds the crawlspace nearly empty—Skyler has given most of the money to her boss in order to pay the government, as they're after him for fraud. Walt lays in the crawlspace, laughing as the camera zooms up and out. It's a similar scene to the last one of the series, where Walt lays dying in the lab, with a smile on his face as the camera zooms up and out.
Apply This Your Plot
Foreshadowing is a tricky beast. It can come across as extremely heavy-handed if used improperly. The best way to use it is to do so subtly. Plant moments in the plot early in your fiction that gives the reader a unique insight into a character. It could be that he's acting completely different than how he usually does, which merely comes off as odd to the reader. But, in reality, it's foreshadowing to the transformation the character will undergo throughout the plot. Remember: Subtlety is your friend here. If you can't keep foreshadowing to a minimum, then you should probably avoid it altogether.
4. Utilize Flashbacks and Flash Forwards
I don't recommend using these two techniques often in fiction, but using them sparingly can be effective in creating suspense in your plot. Breaking Bad sprinkles in flash forwards, and a few flashbacks. One of the primary flashbacks concerns Walt before he is a chemistry teacher—he worked as one of the founders of an up-and-coming company, Gray Matter. Another flashback is used when Hank discovers that Walt is Heisenberg. He finds a note in a poetry book in Walt's bathroom, and that recalls evidence from a case earlier in the series. They flash back to that moment, with Walt fake-admitting to Hank that he's Heisenberg. The scene has brand new context when viewed through this lens.
The flash forwards are used prominently at two moments in the series. The first is the beginning of each episode in season two, which slowly reveals the results of two planes colliding in midair. This accident can ultimately be traced back to Walt, whose decisions affect people, leading to the tragedy. The second are a pair of flash forwards in the first episode of season five, and the midpoint of the same season. Both moments take place months after Walt has left town. Walt is seen buying an M60 machine gun in one flash forward, and returning to his house to find some ricin in the other. Both of these play heavily in the series finale.
Apply This Your Plot
Flashbacks are a great way to reveal something in your plot through showing. You can create a dual purpose for your flashback, by showing something significant and revealing backstory. Think of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when Harry gains insight into Professor Snape's backstory by viewing his memories. This is an active flashback, and is more effective than just revealing it through dialogue or narrative. Breaking Bad accomplishes the same thing by showing Walt's brilliance while working at Gray Matter. The writers don't simply say he's a genius, and this in turn gives some credence as to how an ordinary high school chemistry teacher could become a mastermind behind a meth empire. The flash forwards work hand-in-hand with foreshadowing. They can be used quickly to show something that's going to happen, building suspense. You'll want to sprinkle these in sparingly, as they're difficult techniques to pull off. Pick and choose only the most significant of moments from a character's backstory, or future plot points, to reveal in this manner. And provide only snippets, with further context explained in the present.
Plot is one of the most important aspects to your novel or short story. To write a successful fiction piece, you need a story rich in theme, character and nuance. These stories stand out from the rest and attract readers. Creating a story with a multilayered plot does not come naturally, but takes thoughtfulness and dedication. Plot Perfect will teach you all about writing compelling plots that keep readers wanting more. Explore the intricacies of plot by mastering the three act structure using real world examples. In this book you'll find:
- Instruction for writers of all levels, from beginner to experienced.
- Information about all genres, from science fiction to memoir.
- Includes templates to help writers identify themes, structure their plots and subplots, and build their plot scene by scene.
5. The Importance of Recurring Plot Elements
Speaking of the ricin, this is a recurring element throughout the plot in Breaking Bad. Walt and Jesse attempt to use it to poison a drug dealer that has them hostage. Jesse believes that Walt has used ricin to poison his girlfriend's son in order to convince him that Gus Fring is out to get both of them. Walt slips the ricin in the Stevia packet of one of the few remaining people connected to him at the end of the series, wiping out his method for creating blue meth—other than Jesse. Something like this is a recurring plot element throughout the series. The ricin stands for how far Walt is willing to go—murder. There are many other elements, like Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, the pink teddy bear, Walt's lung cancer, etc. Recurring elements are important because they draw plot lines together. They connect stories and people, and they recall to earlier points in a story, or point to something in the future.
Apply This Your Plot
You can play with plot elements to create symbolism and add more depth to your story. They're also rewarding to readers, who've stayed attentive throughout the entire plot. If you're going to implement these kinds of elements, pick something that is either totally innocuous, or something that's memorable. The ordinary can become significant, if it's placed in a situation that's completely extraordinary—the pink teddy bear with its eye torn out, and partially burnt, after the plane crash. And the memorable will stand out if it comes up subtly throughout the plot—the ricin.
Are you a fan of Breaking Bad? Let us know in the comments, and share anything you’ve learned from the show that can be applied to writing—there's simply too much to cover in just one post, which is why you should stay tuned for the second half of this one! If you have suggestions for future posts in this same vein, feel free to post those in the comments, too!
Cris Freese is the managing editor for Writer’s Digest Books and the editor of Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market. You can follow him on Twitter @crisfreese, where you can laugh at his frustrations as a hopeless Cincinnati sports fan.