How Breaking Bad Made Me a Better Writer

As I’ve said before, I live in the middle of nowhere. We don’t even have cable TV. In order to get any TV, you need satellite. Well, our phone company about a year or so ago promised us we would have cable this year (2012). Umm, yeah, didn’t happen. So, since we have lovely DSL internet, we decided to do Netflix.

I normally don’t like shows like Breaking Bad. It’s not my normal viewing fare. My hubby got me into watching it—we watch 1 episode every morning as we eat breakfast. At first I didn’t like it, it was drama, drug-related, and in general, rather crude. But something happened after the first few episodes: I found myself looking forward to the next episode. Why? Suspense.

Each episode starts with a short trailer before the credits. You get a glimpse of things to come. My writer’s mind immediately clicked into this teaser. I wanted to solve the mystery of the trailer. And you know what? Those wonderfully sneaky writers usually threw me for a loop. I became intrigued. I wanted to watch more. Breaking Bad became my writer’s meth. I was addicted. I had to find out what happened to Walt and Jesse.

How did this make me a better writer? I began to understand how they manipulated time and scenes to increase the level of tension. Most episodes ended with a “cliff hanger,” making you tune in to see what happens. There are so many “that was close” moments, and “wow, those guys are idiots, and somehow they lucked out.” You can’t help but get tangled up in the story. Even the little things like Walt being related to a DEA agent (by marriage) adds to the tension of the story. Will Hank catch him? Can Walt pull this off?

My current WIP is a contemporary romance. It centers around a horse racing dynasty in the Lexington, KY area. As I re-read my initial draft, I realized there wasn’t enough drama. Not enough “OMG” situations that readers would get sucked into. There had to be more to the story. Despite it being a romance, there needed to be a serious ramping up of the events in the book. Horse racing is a dangerous business; I needed to make that more of a part of the story. The characters needed to better understand the consequences of their choices.

We’ve just finished season 2 of Breaking Bad, and I finally got to see how the charred pink teddy bear ended up in Walt’s pool. Oh, that was driving me crazy! And how it got there was a total shock—nope, didn’t see that coming. The writers have skillfully woven the characters together and events that change their lives.

I don’t consider myself a TV junkie, but this show has taught me some of the finer points of building tension, creating chaos, and bringing characters to the brink and back all while comfortably seated on my sofa. Now I need to apply what I’ve learned and fix up this romance so it will be like riding a wild race horse down the home stretch in a huge stakes race. I want you to wince, squirm, and cheer for the characters. And of course, I want a happy ending!


Author: K. Rowe

K. Rowe is an experienced and prolific multi-genre author. She draws from over twenty years of active Air Force service. Kathy lives in eastern Kentucky with her husband and a zoo of farm animals. Among her many duties she finds time to offer services as a publishing consultant for new authors. Learn more about Kathy from Facebook, and her Amazon author page.

21 thoughts on “How Breaking Bad Made Me a Better Writer”

  1. I love that show. We turned our tv off three years ago and haven’t gone back but I have a friend tape Breaking Bad for me. That’s the only show I watch, and, you’re right Kathy, the writing is so intelligent. I love when an author/screenwriter surprises me and I don’t see it coming and that’s totally what happens in those scripts.
    Thanks for making the comparison, that was interesting.

  2. I’ve never seen that show but I get what you mean. And keeping the pace and tension right in my writing is something that I keep in my mind all the time. While every genre and writer uses them differently they are crucial to all our work.

  3. Cool post, Kathy, thanks! I found the show by accident (Netflix!) and was fascinated. This “cross-pollination” is a great education for writers of all genres.

  4. Love that show! And you’re right, that’s exactly what the writers are doing. Those sneaky b*$tards 🙂

    As Donald Maass says, “[You’ve got to] build tension into every line…”

  5. They have some lazy episodes, too. My favorite streaming show right now. Writer wise, look at not only the tension and ‘cliffhanger’ parts, but the continuity aspect of Walt confirming that the is indeed clueless, morally inept, and is being seduced by the dark side.

  6. Great post, Kathy — we do indeed learn from all sorts of places. 🙂

    I have a personal grudge against “Breaking Bad,” however. 😉 A group of which I’m a member had planned a get-together in Albuquerque a couple of years ago — our first in several years. We were going to have dinner with our favorite author, with a Q&A afterward. We reserved the private dining room at a restaurant and all was set — until a couple of weeks before the event, when our organizer got word from the restaurant that we’d been shunted to a different corner of the main dining room because someone else needed our space. Our organizer agreed, and we went, but it was a less than great experience — the noise from other diners made the Q&A very hard to hear. The event that kicked us out of our room reservation? It was the end-of-shooting-for-the-season party for the “Breaking Bad” cast and crew.

  7. Good one, Kathy.
    BB is probably the best single dramatic series ever written. There are so many levels of what that is, it’s hard to even sort them out. As so often with great writing.

    One personal insight: the more you actually know about the scene, the more resonant it is. As one example, an episode started with a Mexican conjunto–dressed in shiny satin cowboy clothes–playing a narco-corrido (a shitkicker polka with lyrics about the narcotics industry–a huge genre in Mexico) about “Heisenberg”!! I was blown away. Not only that they found the band and had somebody write the song, but that they knew about that music–the official tones of the narco industry–and exactly how it fits in. Same way with the scenes of the killers crawling to the alter to offer gifts for a successful kill.

    You see a lot of shows with all the DEA/FBI trappings, but this depth of understanding of the other side of the border is extremely rare. Whether it’s “basal” knowledge or just a very keen eye for getting and evaluating research, it’s amazing and very, very rare.

  8. Another example, not of background, but sheer writing bravado.
    The “teaser” to an episode is just a SF-looking close-up of a fly. We enter the break wondering WTF.
    During the episode, the fly’s presence in the lab becomes an obsession, which reveals some key points of the personalities of the main players–who are the only ones involved.
    But at the end, Jesse talks about his badly-missed girlfriend–the one Walt let die so she couldn’t bitch up their operation. The exact phrasing leads to a powerful statement that leads us to understand the complex undercurrents between the two men–a metaphorical rhyme between Walt talking about the slightest contamination spoiling everything and the reminder of his first step across into self-serving evil.

    1. SSSSHHHHHHH!!!! I haven’t gotten to that episode yet! 🙂 Yes, the writing and the detail is excellent. Although I think they had the wrong species of tortoise. But not to be picky. I look forward to seeing what tomorrow brings.

  9. Excellent post Kathy and how I wish I could see this show now! You are absolutely right about building tension. Unfortunately we only ever seem to watch reruns of ‘Fawlty Towers’ and ‘Dallas’ . Maybe we should try out some different television viewing. 🙂

      1. That’s how I’m watching it: Netflix.

        And another really well written show, though in a very different tone, Weeds.
        Both, oddly, about intrusion of drug biz into normal American suburban life.

    1. I didn’t like the show in the beginning, but then it got addicting. Then I realized how the writers built the scene, added a great helping of tension, and made the characters believable. You love them, and you hate them. You know who the good guys are and the bad guys are the bad guys. But I love how they blur things together and make you wonder. Yes, check it out if you can.

  10. I certainly appreciate the point you’re making, although I have no idea about the show (you have to remember I live on the dark side of the planet); my wife, as an actor, has a tremendous feel for the concept and helps by occasionally nudging me in the right direction. Nice post, Kathy.

  11. Well, as of tonight, I am in the grandparents club. Step son’s wife delivered a healthy baby boy named James (after my hubby’s father). *sigh*

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