Wednesday 24 August 2016

Breaking Bad for Children's Writers

By Candy Gourlay

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:


Broken 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.


Walter 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!


This 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!


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?


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


  1. Thanks for taking time to write that, Candy. I've only seen episode one but was pretty wowed by that and went through it with a pen and paper taking notes. You've almost persuaded me to take time to watch the whole lot. Wouldn't it be fab to have a whole team to help us iron out our plot points!

    1. That team plotting thought occurred to me too, Emma! I suppose we do it in critique groups. Thete is one novel I am hoping to co-write with a friend someday. I'm really looking forward to the experience.

  2. This is brilliant advice Candy - brilliant and timely!

  3. I also took a lot from Breaking Bad. For me, one of the key things was plot. In whole series and also individual episodes, the writers seemed to take the actual worst case scenario, (which I would have built up to as a climactic scene near the end), and explode it very early on ... and then take the story on from there. Outsmarts the viewer and leaves you gasping. Very bold storytelling.

    1. I love how they did that. Then you spend the entire episode knowing one bit of outcome and wondering, how is it going to get there? Like when they opened one episode with showing Walter's empty, ruined house daubed with 'Heisenberg'. It really creates that 'OMG, how is that going to happen?' feeling! But foretelling like that has maximum impact if the reader is already invested in the characters. I imagine it would be great in a series situation.

    2. Except in the Train episode which (after usual opening hint) they play as a conventional adventure, you're rooting for success and then... devasting end. Didn't see that coming.

  4. Great blog- i'm a huge fan of BB and BCS I think it's also interesting to note that the BB team took risks and didn't always get it right like the 'Fly' episode that pretty much revolves around Walter White trying to catch a fly- interesting, original idea that sort of gave us an insight into his pedantic ways but as an episode it kinda fell flat, felt more like idea over substance. As writers it's important to have the daring to experiment and the willingness to fail- that daring is sure to guarantee enough successes to allow the odd failure to be forgiven or in this case applauded.

    1. I so agree about the Fly episode! Clever ... clever ... zzzzz! Being daring takes time though, and courage. And the biggest leap of faith of all is taken by the publisher who decides to take the risk of publishing your daring. Or not.

    2. Fly episode works when you're bingeing on two episodes per viewing. Lots about Walt and Pinkman in there, but the rest of the series has got you used to expecting more action. Sopranos did something similar with two characters stuck somewhere (won't spoil plot) and it's memorable as a two-hander.

    3. I've only just started The Sopranos. I didn't watch so much TV but now I've got physio I gotta do every night.

  5. Wow! You have an amazing way to make me feel excited and inspired just reading your words on the screen, Candy. I have no interest in either of those shows, but as you said, the plot devices and writing make it worth looking into at least one of them. Thanks for the summary of what you gleaned. :)

    1. It took me a few years to get watching, Colleen, because it's not my thing either! But I kept reading about the greatness of the writing and thought I had to make the effort and boy, I'm glad I did!

  6. A fantastic post, Candy. I too, was hooked by the BB and BCS series and watched both twice. Stunning storytelling. What stood out for me, which you talk about, is how clever the character development is that you root for them despite their vileness. Sometimes too uncomfortable to watch.How you managed to break down the plot ideas so that we get the benefit is brilliant. Now, back to plotting my PB!

    1. It's a primer on creating empathy. It manages to make us care so much! I think the writers always make sure that the reader is absorbed in the universality of the characters' domestic cares and emotions (vanity, failure, being underestimated by everyone, fear, Walter's desire to provide for his family). Then when the fantastical happens, you're totally invested in seeing the characters through to the bitter end.

  7. Now I feel I need to watch it now! Have resisted to date... Great post!

  8. Breaking Bad, The Wire and The Sopranos - loads of food for thought for writers but whole evenings disappear!

  9. The wire has a fantastic scene were the progs investigate an old crime scene and whilst doing so onlu use one expletive again and again but in all its wonderful and varied iterations- to convey a whole conversation and emotional landscapes, its completely genius you can feel the writers rubbin their hands together in glee as if to say "bet you never guessed we could do this..."

    1. I have to confess I haven't watched the Wire. So much to look forward to!

  10. I love Breaking Bad - best thing I've ever seen on TV. What I love is how all the action spirals from Walter's one fateful decision. Each episode is a great lesson in cause and effect.

    It appeals because we all want to feel powerful - so rejoice when he turns from walked-over guy to "the one who knocks," but then recoil as his ego and empire building hurts others around him.

    I couldn’t forgive him for killing Mike… and I couldn’t forgive the story writers for what they did to Hank… who I came to love more and more, as I fell out of love with Walter.

    Must watch it all again one day!

    Great post, thanks!

    1. Walt, Hank and Mike - they're all characters that you underestimate because physically, there is nothing about them that suggests any power at all. But Hank was a real hero, time and again, he surprised us. He was good at his job. And Mike! I love the unlikeliness of a Granddad who could do what Mike did.

  11. Wonderful break-down, Candy! I tried to watch BB but only managed the first episode ...


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