So today is supposed to be Teri Terry's turn at the blog but she's, like, having her nails done (see left), buying new teddy bears and appearing in the Edinburgh Festival, as you do when you're a bestselling young adult author. She asked the rest of the Slushpile team if anyone wanted to blog in her place. Of course I immediately wanted to. But, I told Teri, I knew I really shouldn't because I was supposed to be finishing my book. So we agreed to see what happened when the week rolled round.
Sigh. Here I am. She who never knowingly does not procrastinate.
But enough about me.
Last Spring, my husband and I binged on all five seasons of the super excellent TV series Breaking Bad. It was created by American writer Vince Gilligan, who also wrote 30 episodes of the hit series of my teenagerhood The X Files, back in the 1980s.
If you haven't watched BBad and still hope to do so, then sadly for me you ought to click away from the Slushpile now. Come back when you've watched all five seasons. BBad is really good. I don't want to spoil it for ya.
'Breaking bad' basically means going bad ... which is the show's premise. Walter White, a mild-mannered-verging-on-dull Chemistry teacher discovers he's got terminal cancer and — with the help of his reluctant, foul-mouthed, failure of a former student, Jessie — uses his chemistry super powers to become a crystal meth cook.
If like me, you spend all your waking hours reading books about character arc, the premise is clear: this goodie is going to become a baddie to end all baddies.
How the series writers achieve this, how they make us love their vile characters, how they make us hunger for the next episode, is the joy of watching all five series in a compressed period of time.
Now writing a TV series is not the all-by-your-lonesome experience we children's writers have to endure. On series like Breaking Bad there are scores of writers who do all the tough work together. They brainstorm. They work out the plot. They leave no plot hole unfilled. They must have a lot of fun (she says enviously).
Back in 2013, just before the series screened its wham bang finale, the Guardian did us all the favour of publishing an excerpt from Difficult Men: From the Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad — the part where the writing team spend an entire day working out the details of a banal plot point.
Nearly every discussion in every writers' room, Gilligan explained, boils down to one of two questions: "Where's a character's head at?" and "What happens next?" Ideas v action. Text v subtext. This, as it happened, was a "What happens next?" day.
I do a lot of 'Where's a character's head at?' and 'What happens next?' days too. But being a solo act surely couldn't possibly match the creative ability of the team of brains behind BBad.
On the wall behind Gilligan was a large corkboard. Across the top were pinned 13 index cards representing the 13 episodes of the season. In rows beneath them, more neatly printed cards ... contained detailed story points. The cards looked like a pile of leaves that had faced a stiff, left-blowing wind, clustered deep under the early episodes but gradually thinning as the as-yet-unwritten season progressed. Under 413, the final episode of the season, there was only one single, fluttering card. It read in bold, matter-of-fact Magic Marker ink, "BOOM."
When the watching was over, I was so bereft, I went off and binged on the BBad spin off, Better Call Saul, which basically features all the loveable baddies from BBad before they broke bad. The agent Donald Maas, in Writing the Breakout Novel, noted:
Delight your readers with your own brand of story, then continue to delight them in a similar way (only better) on a regular basis. That is the way to build an audience. It is the only way to become a brand name author.
Basically: familiarity breeds, not contempt, but success.
Better Call Saul was a different story from BBad. But it was fascinating how it snagged the loyal BBad fan in me with carefully crafted grappling hooks. It was unmistakeably a product of the same stable. It's a lesson on continuing success for any writer who has published a first successful story. (Thinking critically of course one wonders whether it will expand BBad's devoted audience or cater to the already converted? But that's a discussion for another blog post).
I watched both series with my notebook in hand, trying to pick up some writing ideas. Here's a list of the top five plotty things that caught my attention:
1. EPISODES OPEN WITH CLOSE UPS OF OBJECTS DAMAGED BY THE CHARACTERSBroken objects as framing device. In a hospital men's room, we see a dented hand dryer. Walt is going to punch it later in the movie. But it is revealed to us before any of the action takes place. In Better Call Saul, an episode opens with a crumpled dustbin. Later, we are shown how Saul kicked it in frustration.
Note to self: how could I do this in a book? In the medium of words, framing a chapter with such a foretelling, that object will have to be super distinctive.
2. IN BOTH BBAD AND BCS, THERE ARE KEY CHARACTERS WHO KNOW EXACTLY WHAT'S GOING ONWalter White spends all five seasons of Breaking Bad trying to hide his nefarious activities from his wife, Skyler. But somehow, Skyler always seems to know what's really going on. It makes Skyler a wonderful character. She is innocent. But once she knows, she is culpable. In BCS, Saul is presented as a small time con-man devoted to his accomplished big brother, Chuck, who is Mr Righteous. Chuck, like Skyler, can see through Saul's every lie. His bitter flaw is that he cannot bear his kind, con-man brother to be successful.
Note to self: It's almost a super power, isn't it? The ability to see through the subterfuge of the hero. What a fun secondary character that would be. And what about if that character were the baddie? Woah!
3. THE ONE SIDED DIALOGUEThis is dialogue in which only one character actually talks. Making plans, dreaming dreams, explaining stuff. The other character just listens. And in the face of the listener, we can see the frailty of the talking character. There is nowhere to hide. Many times in the five seasons, Walter White patiently explained to another character some devious plot or some plausible explanation to cover up a lie. And in the dead eyes of the listening character we could clearly see that a deception has not passed unnoticed. Who held the cards now?
Note to self: what a clever way to do exposition! So often, there is a need to explain that something has happened or to make sure the reader understands some important point. You see this poorly rendered in many books when two characters converse just to reveal expository points: "Superman cannot be near kryptonite ." "The alien mineral? The one that has the power to deprive him of all his powers?" The one sided dialogue on the other hand generates such an emotional charge that your reader absorbs information but is too busy feeling for the characters to notice. Expository sleight of hand. Cool!
4. THE BLIND SPOT
One of my favourite characters was Hank Schrader, an agent of the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and brother-in-law to chemistry teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White. Hank spent Breaking Bad's five seasons hunting down meth kingpin Heisenberg, Walter's handle in the drug world. But he never, never, EVER suspected his mousy brother-in-law and even enlisted Walter's help in chasing down leads. Blind spot.
Note to self: a character's blind spot creates a cat and mouse, will-he-won't he? tension. It's just delicious, like that moment in a horror b-movie when you're shouting, 'Behind you! THE MONSTER IS RIGHT BEHIND YOU!' And the characters blithely continue on. How do I plot something like this into my story? How do I make my reader sweat?
5. THE MONTAGE
Time passes. Things happen. BBad tried very hard to follow thriller writer Elmore Leonard's advice: ‘Don’t write the parts that people skip.’ (I did mention this in my last blog post, it's good advice)
The movie montage has to be the tried and true method of getting quickly through a massive bit of exposition. There are plenty in the five seasons of BBad — notably the murder montage, when Walter hires hitmen to simultaneously (and gruesomely) murder targets in several jails; and various meth-making montages — Walter and Jessie learning to work together, Walter working with a new partner in a new lab, and in one climactic episode, Jessie manufacturing meth in chains.
Note to self: Montages are not a bad way to get from one plot point to another. But they can be done very, VERY badly. Just remember that they're like guitar riffs. They've got to be the sort of thing that makes your reader, sit up, take notice, burst into applause. Because you're doing so much in such a short time, your montage have got to be better than 'And then and then and then', you've got to show off a bit, make the scene sing.
That's all I've got time for now. If you haven't seen Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul, I hope this has persuaded you to do so. Even if it's not the kind of show you like to watch, I can guarantee you'll learn something from the series.
It's such a struggle, enjoying movies and TV when your brain is hardwired to pay attention to plot and character technique. That's what I loved most about BBad: I was so absorbed I completely forgot to think about writing. I had to watch it again to take notes.
Till next time.
Candy Gourlay is the author of Tall Story and Shine, books that have been nominated for prizes like the Carnegie, the Guardian Children's Fiction prize, the Blue Peter and the Waterstone's Book Award. Read her last post on Notes from the Slushpile: Getting to the End