Specs & The City: 5 Lessons For Screenwriters From ‘Breaking Bad’

By Brad Johnson

The series finale of Breaking Bad brought to a close a tragic tale of Shakespearean scope. The story of Walter White and his blue meth cooking alter ego Heisenberg, Breaking Bad goes down in my book as one of the greatest television series of all time. A brilliant character study of a man consumed, and transformed, by unchecked greed and hubris.

As the curtain drops for the final time, it’s only natural to look back and start analyzing a show that became a part of our cultural zeitgeist the way that Breaking Bad did. But are there any specific lessons that screenwriters can take and apply to their work? If the answer was “no” this would be a really short column, so let’s take a drive down to the ABQ and check out what Walt, Jesse, Skylar, and the rest of the Breaking Bad family can teach us about telling our own stories.

5 Lessons Screenwriters Can Learn From Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad

1)      Your Protagonist Doesn’t Have to Be “Likeable”:  A while ago, I wrote a column about how to develop a Protagonist that doesn’t fit into the classic “good guy” mold, but Walter White is a five-season master class on the topic. Make your main character interesting, well-developed, and most importantly, identifiable. The audience might not be able to identify with a brilliant man who transforms himself into a drug kingpin, but they can identify with a man struggling to find peace with missed opportunities and what could have been. Give your audience a window into the soul of your character and they’ll forgive an awful lot of sinning.

Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul

2)      Sometimes You Need to Break the Tension: Even the best written drama can get overwhelming to an audience if you don’t give them a chance to breathe. Taking a moment to lighten the mood with some comedy relief can be just the thing, and for Breaking Bad, that comedy often came in the form of local lawyer, Saul Goodman. By bringing his wry sense of humor into the some of the darkest moments of the series, Vince Gilligan and his writing team gave their audience a break from the bleakness. It’s something Shakespeare did too, and rumor is that guy kind of had a knack for this whole writing thing. 

3)      Show Your Supporting Cast Some Love: Hank Schrader had an obsession with mineral collecting. Mike Ehrmantraut was in the business to put money aside for his granddaughter. When Badger and Skinny Pete weren’t selling drugs, they were having some of the most interesting conversations you’ll come across about Babylon 5 and Star Trek. The point is this: The world of Breaking Bad feels real, because the people that populate it feel real. Paying as much attention to the personality quirks, obsessions, and motivations of your secondary cast can elevate your script past 75% of what’s sitting on an agent’s read pile.

4)      Dialogue. Dialogue. Dialogue: Want to make your script memorable? Something people remember for days after they read it? Work on your dialogue.

  • “I am the one who knocks.”
  • “Yo, Gatorade me, Bitch.”
  • “Tread lightly.”
  •  “Just because you shot Jesse James, don’t make you Jesse James.”
  • “I’m in the empire business.”
  • “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”

Not only is it memorable and succinct, but every character has a distinct voice. Can you delete the character names from your script and still know who is saying what? If not, work on it some more.

All hail the king.

All hail the king.

5)      Know How Your Story Ends Before You Begin: Turning Mr. Chips into Scarface. It’s the oft-quoted premise that Vince Gilligan used to sell Breaking Bad to AMC. This doesn’t mean you need to have every single thing worked out. Gilligan didn’t know all the details of how his series would end, and he was smart enough to let the story evolve naturally as the seasons went by, but what he did know going in that Walt wasn’t going to win. That he would suffer for his sins and that Heisenberg’s empire would come crumbling down around him under the staggering weight of his own hubris. Starting to write when you don’t know where you want, or have at least a general roadmap of how you want to get there, is a recipe for ending up with a meandering, unsatisfying script.

So there you go. Five quick lessons you can take from Walter White’s wild ride and use to improve your own script. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch the finale one more time and bid a fond farewell to a truly magnificent and game-changing television series.

Until next time, grab yourself a bucket of Los Pollos Hermanos and keep writing.

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2 thoughts on “Specs & The City: 5 Lessons For Screenwriters From ‘Breaking Bad’

  1. dljwriter

    Good list, but I must add a couple more:

    START WITH YOUR CHARACTER: Vince Gilligan started with the idea of an everyman who had to turn to a life of crime. That eventually evolved into Walter White, and once you have a character that well developed the story almost writes itself.

    SHOW, DON’T TELL: While the show does have wonderful, memorable dialogue, it’s genius is in storytelling without dialogue. Even with just the last eight episodes you see scene after scene that make you scream, or cry, or gasp, while advancing the story and leave you begging for the next episode. And a lot of that was done with barely any dialogue.

  2. BevVincent

    It could be said that Walt *did* win. He had a goal, clearly stated, in the first season, which he accomplished at the end of the fifth season: to leave behind money for his family after he died. He may have gone way off track and shifted his ideas about his goals in the interim, but he still did what he set out to do.

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