Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Chemistry of Great Storytelling

The cast of Breaking Bad is doing a great job of keeping the fate of Walter White and his cohorts under wraps as we head into the final episodes.  They are doing the rounds with the press, answering many of the same questions over and over, patiently and with good humor.  For those of us who love the show, it's a bittersweet time:  we'll miss the white knuckled adrenaline rides, but respect the show for going out at precisely the right time.  Five seasons, each one better than the last. That's more enviable in Hollywood than owning a vial of George Clooney's DNA.

The one question I have enjoyed hearing answered most is when interviewers ask Bryan Cranston what drew him to the project.  Cranston goes on to describe the first page of the pilot script:

A man wearing nothing but underwear and a gas mask drives a Winnebago recklessly down a desolate road in the New Mexico desert. Another, younger man with a gas mask, unconscious, occupies the passenger seat. As the vehicle swerves down the dirt road, two bodies slide across the RV floor until the vehicle veers into a ditch. The hyperventilating driver, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), climbs out with a video camera, wallet, and gun. He records a cryptic, handheld farewell to his wife, son, and unborn child while sirens echo in the distance. White steps onto the roadway, gun in hand.

Cranston said writer/creator Vince Gilligan had him from that moment on.  Much like Pulp Fiction, the story starts in the middle of the action.  We're thrown into the dead center of a surreal mystery, replete with a body count and black humor.  Who doesn't stick around to see how that ends?  At least for one episode, right?  Are we rooting for this guy, or is he the antagonist?  How'd he get here?  And what's with the tighty whities?

Breaking Bad has built its audience by continuing to overdeliver on such expectations.  The storytelling is patient.  The plot twists are almost always conceivable and almost always jarring.  The homework has been done.

There's a story from the Breaking Bad writers' room that they actually opted to paint Walter White into a corner during one particular episode in which they had no earthly idea how he would escape.  They did it because it would force them to explore every possibility, obvious and obscure, to find a resolution.  They made themselves frightfully uncomfortable - on purpose - so that their audience could truly feel how hopeless Walt's situation was.  They were willing to risk failure because they trusted their collective talents - and the characters themselves - enough to know there was a compelling, credible solution.  Like good archeologists, they just had to unearth it.

In an era when storytelling has been reduced to contrivances and formulas, I'm really grateful there are gems like Breaking Bad out there.  It makes me want to do better as a writer.  It makes me appreciate the energies that go into symbolism, research, and trusting your audience to go along for the ride.   It makes me excited to be a writer.  Sure, I write slice-of-life short stories and a slice-of-zucchini vegan cooking show, but that matters less than what Breaking Bad invites all artists to aspire to:  leave your audience awed, anticipating, and appreciative you get up each morning and choose to create.

Back to the lab.

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