Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Lessons in Captivating Storytelling from Vince Gilligan

I'm sure many of you have seen some or all of the Vince Gilligan TV show, Breaking Bad. And I'm sure even a few of you have started watching the spin-off series, Better Call Saul.

It's pretty riveting stuff, right? If you're like me, you binge-watch as much as you can on weekends. You let Netflix go automatically to the next episode more times than you can count, until it runs out.

Vince Gilligan, writer and creator, knows his stuff when it comes to addictive TV. I couldn't put my finger on why until a friend of mine pointed out that Vince is a master of compelling storytelling, and you can see it in every single episode.

Since then, I've listened to all of Vince's interviews and talked with my geeky, plotty friends about his techniques, and how to extrapolate them to writing fiction. I try to glean as much as I can from Vince's boundary-pushing style of storytelling to use in my own work.

After tweeting about some of this the other day, I decided to compile my favorite lessons from Vince into something long form. These methods have helped me to grow as a writer immensely over the last few years. In my latest novel, it also helped me discover the story that was hiding inside me—the one I didn't even know was there.

Lesson #1: Let your heart, or your gut, guide you. (Whichever you prefer.)

Don't be afraid of the story taking you places you didn't expect it to go—that's when some of the most magical plot twists and character developments happen. Your instincts are right more often than you think.

I understand that it can be scary, especially for the outliners and plotters out there, to hand over control and let characters dictate their own trajectories, instead of obeying the ones we've laid out for them. Especially when it flies in the face of what we've planned, or when it could alter the carefully manicured ending we'd been imagining. We worked so hard on that outline, on those beats, on that powerful, final image!

But as Vince would say, sometimes it's good to second-guess yourself; to leave the door open to something better, smarter, and cleverer than what you originally imagined. When something—or someone—speaks to you, why ignore it? When a character reaches out to you for a bigger role in the story, maybe that person has something of value to say.

Sure, we created them. But characters still have the power to become their own people on paper. They're great at surprising us and amusing us, and often, they take our stories to better, or darker, or more complex places when we let them show us what they can do.

Vince talks about how the character of "Gus" in Breaking Bad was originally only a minor character. But when extenuating casting circumstances placed Gus at center-stage, some serious fireworks came out. Most people who have seen the show all the way through will agree that it wouldn't be the masterpiece it eventually became without Gus, and it's a good thing Vince took the chance on him.

Lesson #2: Don't be afraid to dig deeper.

So you've created a monster. Now it's time to get to know it.

Vince tells another story about the character of Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad. He'd originally intended to kill off Jesse (played by Aaron Paul) at the end of Season 1. But Vince couldn't ignore the on-screen chemistry between Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston, who plays Walter White—so he kept Aaron on, and didn't kill him.

Jesse—a character who'd originally had very little importance to the story—demonstrated that, just maybe, he had a lot to contribute to the show's future. So Vince ran with it. He delved deeper than ever into Jesse, pushing him into corners to reveal more about his past, and stretching him to his limits to see how he'd react. Over the seasons, Jesse grew increasingly complicated and nuanced, and by extension, we became more invested in what happened to him.

It was a huge success, and Jesse is one of the defining poles of conflict and power play later on in the series.

The marvelous thing about this choice was how accepting Jesse's new role not only allowed Vince to get to know Jesse better himself, but his gamble on Jesse created some unexpected, fantastic plot forces. Jesse raised the stakes for Walter White, and by extension, for the whole show.

There's a lot to be said here for the power of letting characters slowly reveal themselves, for digging deeper into characters and plot elements that speak to us. Vince never shies away from peeling off more layers, or allowing a character he likes a greater share of screen time. He even created an entire series called Better Call Saul that's a spin-off dedicated to this purpose—to exploring a character that Vince created on a whim, but found interesting and compelling enough to warrant his own series.

(Spoiler: it's an awesome series.)

And this leads me into the next great piece of writing wisdom we can all gain from Vince Gilligan:

Lesson #3: On the importance of following a thread through to its conclusion, but never predictably. 

One of my favorite things about watching Vince's TV shows is how they never, ever leave a stone unturned. Even minor details can come back swinging later—and sometimes, how minor they are contributes a lot to how delightful the plot twist feels on the audience when it does land.

But Vince's plot twists and turns aren't just surprising (an essential ingredient in today's media-saturated climate, he often says). What makes them really stand out is the way each twist and turn is seen out to the very, very end, and never in a way that you expect.

Nobody in Vince's TV shows are ever let off easy, unless they're dead. (And even then...) Whenever he ruptures the status quo and sends a character spiraling off in another direction, Vince always resists the urge to pan the camera away. Instead, we get to watch that character go farther and farther, down and down, into the hole they've dug for themselves. The intensity naturally ratchets up to nearly volcanic; and still, the camera never pans away.

Major characters aside, there are also dozens of minor characters and set features that Vince clutches and explores and makes an integral part of the texture of the show. No stone left unturned.

Go back to the image above of Saul with his ugly yellow beater car. That car isn't just a part of the background; it's loved by Saul, and regularly plays the part of symbol. It's not the prettiest car, or the newest, but some to-do is made over it being comfortable and suitable. Keeping with his style, Vince sees the car out to the very end, when Saul sends it to the junkyard, then graduates to something else—only to discover that his beloved coffee mug no longer fits in the slick new car's coffee holder. Maybe that old piece of junk had some intrinsic value, after all.

The result of all this exploration? We become even more invested in the characters' outcomes. And if you read my posts often, there's one thing I can't harp on enough: characters are the key to hooking readers and keeping them.

When you show that you'll not just give readers texture and depth in your protagonists, but you'll see those protagonists to their inevitable destination? Readers will stick with you as far as the road goes.

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