Breaking Bad for Writers

Bad Night

The sky’s been spitting rain for long stretches this winter. I no longer walk my dog—we run. I don’t want to be outside any longer than necessary, so I’ve been watching too much TV. Or have I?

In “Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and The Future of Fiction,” VQR digital editor, Jane Friedman, touts television’s excellent storytellers:

Personally (after a couple decades of being a very devoted reader of novels), I have all but stopped reading fiction. My storytelling fix comes from watching TV, which, for my money, is where the best narratives are told these days—Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, many others. I know I’m not alone in this.

She’s far from alone. The programs listed are popular and include a few of my own guilty pleasures. My habit began innocently. After Saturday dinners, I took in two or three episodes of Six Feet Under. Before long, my viewing escalated to additional shows watched on multiple evenings. Instead of reading novels for hours every night before sleep, I’m often perched on the couch next to my husband to quench my “storytelling fix.” Breaking Bad is my latest drug.

From the first episode, the characters’ performances aroused buried shadows as they carried me from a soggy Southern farm to a Western desert. One taste of their inner warzones, and I wanted more. I’m drawn to fiction writers who can inflict pain and reveal deep truths about people by throwing them bombs. In Breaking Bad, cancer bombs, money bombs, and meth bombs are aimed at the main characters, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman.

Because the show’s writers are expert bombers, I’m absorbed and held by flickering light and explosions of drama on my TV screen. Like reading a great novel, I’m entertained yet forced to question my own human frailties (addiction may be one). Unlike reading a novel, TV has an audio and visual advantage that raises the bar on print.

It’s why I’m convinced shows like Breaking Bad (and many others) offer additional storytelling instruction for writers. Literary gatekeepers and fiction lovers might call it a mindless habit, but television scriptwriters are delivering powerful stories. And this writer is grabbing the remote to murder the night by watching and watching and watching.

About Darrelyn Saloom

Darrelyn Saloom co-wrote My Call to the Ring: A Memoir of a Girl who Yearns to Box (Glasnevin, 2012) with world champion boxer, Deirdre Gogarty, but her pugilistic passions are confined to a keyboard. Darrelyn lives with her husband and various critters on a horse farm in south Louisiana, where she is working on a collection of personal essays and stories. To learn more, visit her website at or follow her on Twitter: @DarrelynSaloom
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24 Responses to Breaking Bad for Writers

  1. Jodi Paloni says:

    You bring up an interesting idea here, Darrelyn. I look forward to reading Jane Friedman’s article later this afternoon. Thanks, for posting.

    • Nice of you to say so, since you don’t watch TV. 🙂 I do take issue with the historically inacurate dialogue in Deadwood and couldn’t get past the first episode. It’s the only show listed I don’t recommend. Just started House of Cards, and it’s brilliant.

  2. I went through all thirteen episodes of House of Cards in three days. It is brilliant. It’s also darker than I .often feel comfortable with, but no darker than Shakespeare and Machiavelli.

    When contemporary literary fiction abandoned or fractured the narrative, readers turned to memoir. How’s that for a thesis?

    Of course, memoir writers have to be as good as TV writers and understand HOW our brains are “Wired for Story.” Do you know the book of that title by Lisa Cron?

    Great verbs in this post. That last sentence kills me.

    • It’s a great thesis, Shirley. And a subject Mary Karr discussed at her reading in New Orleans.

      I can’t believe you watched 13 episodes in three days. That is hilarious.

      And yes, I’m a fan of @LisaCron and have been reading (and tweeting) her blog posts for a long time.

      Glad you enjoyed the piece.

  3. cydmadsen says:

    You’re on it, that’s for sure. For two years we ditched the TV and brought it back into our home just a few months ago. I sat for days taking notes on the amazing storytelling I witnessed (I have a series of blog posts brewing on the subject). Now I’m taking a class on writing a TV Pilot, which sounded like an easy evening activity. Not at all. Never have I been in a class so demanding with such rigorous requirements before setting a word to paper. The students are maniacal in their erudition and hypergraphia. They’ve watched every show ever produced, read every book ever written, and the method of critique is constant questioning, rather than suggestions. Those questions force the writers deeper and deeper into every aspect of storytelling. It’s wonderfully exhausting, and the result is some of the finest storytelling I’ve come across. Student writing! Breaking Bad is just one of the shows they dote on. House Of Cards is another, but there’s a debate as to whether the U.S. or Brit version is better. It’s an unexpected adventure.

    And this is as tight and breathless a post as the plotting on the best TV series.

  4. Thank you, Cyd. I’m so glad you stopped by. I didn’t know there was a US and British version of House of Cards. It’s funny because I heard Kevin Spacey was in it, and I kept watching for him in the two episodes I’ve watched. He hasn’t showed up because (I now realize) I’m watching the British version. It’s so damn good, I’ll have to stick with it to the end. Then I may check out the US version because I love Kevin Spacey.

    Oh, how I would love to take that class with you. Can’t wait to read your posts on the subject.

  5. jpon says:

    I don’t doubt these shows are great at telling stories, but I don’t watch just the same. I have a tendency to get hooked on things like that and spend too much time away from the keyboard. But I also find that my fiction writing becomes hindered a little by too much visual storytelling, which doesn’t have the challenge of creating images in the minds of the audience.

  6. Darrelyn, as you know, I’m in Breaking Bad withdrawal. I love the way you nail what’s so compelling about these stories – the inner warzone is exactly that.
    I’m hearing such good things about the new House of Cards. It’s supposedly darker than our Brit original. Going to have to add it to our list.
    One series that hasn’t been mentioned here, but has inner warzones galore – is The Shield. Total intensity, grey areas, blurred lines, difficult situations that become ever more twisted. Thanks for this terrific post.

  7. What hooked me on the first Breaking Bad episode was how well the writers manifested Vonnegut’s lesson to “be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

    I am loving the British version of House of Cards and look forward to the US one. And now I must check out The Shield. Lord, help me. Withdrawl’s a bitch.

    Thanks for the kind words, Roz, and for stopping by.

  8. davemalone says:

    I wish I could offer a point of view “poles apart,” just cuz I’m ornery that way, and love the devil’s advocate role. However, I’m a film junkie and TV-via-Netflix-kinda person. I’m sure Jonathan Franzen would have a cardiac to hear confessions that we don’t read as much fiction as we might have in the past. But with such quality TV as mentioned here, and I’ll add some back-in-the-day flair with the Aaron Sorkin babies, Sports Night and West Wing, how can you not get hooked? Such stellar writing and acting and storytelling. I like to catapult Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson into our now as indie filmmakers! 😛 And that alleviates any guilt I might have. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Darrelyn, and being brave enough to say it.

    • Dave, Walter White’s name was taken from Walt Whitman because Breaking Bad’s creator loves Whitman (or so I’ve read). I’ve noticed a couple of Whitman references in the show, once when Walt is watching Jepopardy and answers a Whitman question. And I can’t remember the other. 🙂

  9. LOL – I am SO glad that I am overseas most of the time, where there are no such series. I can imagine how easy it would be to get sucked into them.

    • I always enjoy when you pop in, Barbara, because it’s so hard to keep up with you. 🙂 If you have any layovers or downtime, you may want to check out Downton Abbey on PBS. You can watch the show on your laptop by going to their website. The writing is superb and it’s visually stunning. I even love the soundtrack.

  10. Boy, can I relate. I got hooked on The Sopranos, though it made me feel dirty, and I loved Six Feet Under. Now I adore Breaking Bad. I think literature is still better for inner reflection and inner subjective point of view, but, true, cannot compete with the pure scenic beauty and power of film. For a shocking example, read the wonderful Krakauer book Into the Wild and then watch Sean Penn’s amazing movie, which really brings it to life in a more emotionally gripping way, albeit with a bit of fictionalizing thrown in.

    • Richard, I haven’t read Into the Wild or seen the movie, so I look forward to doing both. My first love is literature, and it still gives me the greatest pleasure. But after six years of wearing blinkers while writing a book, I’m enjoying discovering what else is out there. Thanks for chiming in. It’s nice to know you enjoy the same shows.

  11. davemalone says:

    Darrelyn, now that is spooky….spooky good…given I have not seen the series. Uncle Walt is ubiquitous, no?

    • Ubiquitous and spooky good since you haven’t seen the show and didn’t know the tidbit about its creator. Can’t wait for you to watch the first episode, so we can discuss it. Btw, I have a lovely, old edition of Leaves of Grass on my nightstand. 🙂

  12. Carolyn says:

    I enjoyed reading your insights on this subject.
    I am not a writer, but I try to balance reading and watching tv shows that interest me.

    • You are so sweet to jump in here, Carolyn. I think you hit on something I was thinking about today: balance. When writing and reading, I am obsessed to a fault (according to my husband) because I ignor everyone around me. I’ve been doing that for so long, it’s nice to find a storytelling medium I can enjoy with friends, family, and most of all, my hubby.

  13. cynthia says:

    I don’t watch much TV and have not seen any of the shows you listed. But I learned a valuable storytelling skill by watching some of the first-season episodes of Parenthood. And you can’t beat Aaron Sorkin in the dialogue department–just started re-watching The West Wing for that reason.

    • Cynthia, I went for so long without watching TV, I missed The West Wing and haven’t seen Parenthood. It seems I have a library of shows I can tap in the future. And, yes, the ones I like most have great dialogue.

      • davemalone says:

        I felt like I lost good friends when West Wing was through. 🙂 Sorkin’s ability for dialogue, Cynthia, heavily influenced the writing in one of my stageplays. I have a lot of respect.

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