HOLY CRAP DID YOU WATCH THIS SHOW?
Well, we just started, so please, no spoilers in the comments! AJ and I are working our way through Season 2 of Breaking Bad, and we’re… is it bad form to say addicted? It’s a strange sort of show in that it has me rooting for characters who are doing Very Bad Things– and even for characters whose positions put them in conflict with each other. For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure, this is a show about a brilliant, over-qualified high-school Chemistry teacher who finds out he has lung cancer. Bad. Health care in the USA being what it is, he can’t afford treatment, and doesn’t want to leave his wife (pregnant at 40-ish with a surprise baby) and his 16-year old son (who has cerebral palsy) with his debts. So he can choose to die, or to make money.
There’s money in meth, and he knows chemistry.
It’s a fascinating story on several levels, and I’ve heard it only gets better. The characters aren’t always likeable; certainly no one is perfect, and I wouldn’t want to trade places with any one of them, two things that we often hear are important in a protagonist. The thing is, though, that they all have believable goals and motivations, and we as an audience can empathize with them, whether we agree with their actions or not.
The best thing about this show, and the one that I’d like to talk about today, is CONFLICT.
Sweet thundering methamphetamines, do the writers on this show know how to create tension and conflict. I’d like to look at one episode, which AJ and I watched last night, for a few examples. There will be episode spoilers, so fair warning there, but no series spoilers for anyone who’s just starting out, like I am (Hi, Robyn!).
The episode (Season 2) is called 4 Days Out.
We start out with tension inherent in the situation. Walt (our chemistry teacher/meth cook) has managed to pay for his first round of treatments, but has very little left over to put toward his family’s upkeep if he dies. He’s had an MRI to see how things are looking, and won’t get his results for a week– but he saw a terrifying blotch in his lungs on the scan, and is certain his time is running out. He and Jesse (his former student and the guy who does the selling) head out to the desert to cook up a storm while they can.
We, the audience, know that what they’re doing is illegal, and most of us probably think that selling meth is wrong (especially after the characters we met in a previous episode. It’s a hell of a drug, guys). Still, we feel for Walt. He loves his family, but he’s lying to them to protect them, and it’s causing problems in his marriage.* He is absolutely certain he’s dying, and feels he has no choice but to do this. Back against a wall, much?
Seriously, the show is almost an ad for universal health care. That, and the awesomeness of chemistry.
So things are tense already. The questions are never stated, but they’re there. Will Walt and Jesse be able to make their product and sell it without getting caught? Is Walt going to die soon? What was that on the MRI? And Walt has been showing signs that he’s no longer the basically decent person we met in Season 1, so that’s pulling us in, too. How far will he go for his family?
Jesse brought 10 gallons of drinking water. They’re in the desert for a few days. The cooking is a great success, until the generator runs out of gas. It’s time to go back home…
And the RV’s battery is dead.
Now, here’s where the writers show their skill. Skillz? We saw a similar situation in season 1, when the RV was broken and had trouble starting. It’s since been repaired, so the dead battery is unexpected– and worse, it’s Jesse’s fault. He left the keys in the ignition for two days. He denies that it’s his fault (“the buzzer’s broken!”), but the fact remains that these two are stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Oh, did I mention that they have cell phones, but Jesse’s has no signal, and Walt won’t use his to call anyone but his wife, because she’ll check his phone records? They have a tool, and they can’t use it, even though Jesse insists that they need to. This creates more tension than we would have seen if they simply hadn’t had a phone.
I won’t give away the whole episode, but it’s a perfect example of escalating tension, and the idea that a writer’s first thought should usually be, “how can I make this situation worse for my characters?”
They hook up the generator to the battery to try to charge it, after Walt siphons gas out of the RV (EEEEWWWWW!). It bursts into flames. Walt runs in to get the fire extinguisher, but Jesse, in a panic, grabs what’s left of their water and dumps it on the flames.
Good thing: the fire is out. Terrible thing: they now have no drinking water. In the desert. 15 miles from a road.
Did you see what happened again? Situational tension has increased, but so has the conflict between the characters. This was the point where I went, “THIS IS BRILLIANT!”
It only gets worse, of course. Walt starts coughing up blood. They call for help, someone’s on his way, that someone gets lost, the phone battery dies. They’re forced into physical exertion to try to charge the RV battery, they think they’ve succeeded, they’re wrong. Those moments of hope create a roller coaster of emotion that sharpen the low points and prevent the story from becoming a mere downward spiral.
I hated it for stressing me out, and I loved it for keeping me entranced.
I said no spoilers, so I won’t tell you how it ends. I assumed all along that they were going to get out of this mess, what with there being several more seasons of the show to go, but that did nothing to dampen the tension in what was actually a very simple storyline. I will tell you that the emotional payoff at the end is amazing, and this situation changes the two characters’ relationship in a way that should be interesting.
The lesson I’m taking away from this episode (aside from “Holy crap, I will never be this good at the whole writing thing”) is that not only is tension important if you want to keep a viewer (or reader) hooked, but interpersonal conflict often trumps situational tension. If they’d run out of drinking water before they decided to head home, we still would have had a tough situation. But the fact that their thirst was Jesse’s fault made the situation tense on a deeper level and made the audience react in a different way.
Is this exact approach what we want for every story? No, but we need to remember that tension is what hooks a reader and keeps him/her reading. That’s our goal as writers. The ups and downs that keep people guessing, the interpersonal conflicts, the screw ups and the defensiveness, the desperation… all tools we can use to make our work shine. I know I’ll be looking at it from a fresh perspective, now. Who says books are the only place we can learn about good writing?
If you’re looking for more information on tension and conflict in writing, I recommend Donald Maass’ book “The Fire in Fiction,” which is on my list to re-read during this round of ROW80.
So tell me: Did you watch/are you watching Breaking Bad? NO SPOILERS, but did you enjoy the storytelling as much as I do? If not, have you ever picked apart a particularly effective movie or TV show episode to see what made it tick, and what were your conclusions?
*For the record, I think that Skylar’s motivations are just as valid as Walt’s, given what she knows about the situation at this point. Anna Gunn, who plays Skylar, has received death threats over things her character has done… I can’t wait to find out what that’s all about, but really guys. Chill.