I love character studies! And that’s what AMC’s Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul totally is: a character study of that lovable con-man Saul Goodman. Good writing is the heart of good television, and Writer’s Digest associate editor Cris Freese has compiled some writing takeaways from the hit show.
5 Things Better Call Saul Can Teach Us About Writing
by Cris Freese
I think the general consensus among those writers who teach the craft is that you must read—and read widely—about the craft of writing. They’ll also tell you to study fellow authors who write in your genre. And that’s solid advice. But I think there’s a lot you can learn about writing from other mediums, too. Specifically television. And since we’re in the golden age of television, there has never been a better time to analyze all the excellent writing that takes place in shows today—as well as some from yesteryear.
Every other Monday, I’ll be bringing you takeaways from some of the best television shows out there. These are meant to be specific concepts, themes, techniques, etc., that a writer can learn from the show. I’ll take a look at new shows, old shows, shows that are still airing, and others that have every season streaming online.
Let’s start with AMC’s Breaking Bad spin-off: Better Call Saul.
For those of you who don’t know, Better Call Saul follows Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer who works cases as a public defender for guilty clients. His office is located in the back of a nail salon and doubles as his home. Jimmy also cares for his brother Chuck, a high profile lawyer who has taken a leave of absence from his firm due to the onset of electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Over the course of the series we’ll see how Jimmy will develop into the sleazy Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad. (Potential spoilers follow.)
1. Quirky Characters Have Quirky Backgrounds
No one expected the first season of Better Call Saul to begin with the wheeling-and-dealing, shady Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad. And though the black-and-white opening began with a nervous Goodman fearing he’d been recognized at a Cinnabon in Ohama, it was clear that this is the aftermath and not the main story. The lawyer with the cheesy commercials, one-liners and shiny white Cadillac had to have a background. That background is the basis for Better Call Saul, essentially making it a character study of sorts. And Goodman’s background is as quirky (or more so) as his shtick.
If you’re creating a hardened, cynical cop or detective, there needs to be a background that reflects his current state. Something made him develop a cynical world view. Goodman works well as an off-white, sketchy lawyer because he grew up as a con artist. Viewers quickly find out that Saul Goodman (a name created from the slurred line, “It’s all good man”) is actually Jimmy McGill, who used to be known as “Slippin’ Jimmy” for feigning falls in front of businesses and operating other petty scams. This character is believable as sleazy because that’s a part of who he is. He’ll go so far as to stage a filmed publicity stunt as his billboard is taken down, allowing him the “opportunity” to save a man’s life. However your character appears, commit to that in his background. And spend time actually writing and developing that background—even if it’s something that never makes it into your story.
2. Characters Should Have a Moment of Growth
One of the primary story lines of the first season involves the Kettlemans. Craig Kettleman, the father, has been accused of embezzling $1.6 million dollars as the former county treasurer. Jimmy wants to take on the family’s case, but it ultimately goes to his hated rival, Howard Hamlin of Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill (with whom Jimmy’s brother is employed, but currently on leave). Jimmy’s friend Kim is assigned the case and ultimately fails to get the Kettlemans to take a plea deal, leading to her demotion. Knowing the Kettlemans have the embezzled funds, Jimmy has his associate steal the money. And while Slippin’ Jimmy may have split the cash with his partner, Jimmy decides to turn the money over to the police and tell the Kettlemans that their money is gone. He gets Craig to accept the plea deal, resurrecting Kim’s career even as it sets back his own (the Kettlemans had turned to Jimmy, believing he could get Craig off the hook).
Characters are most interesting when there’s a moment of conflict that ultimately leads to growth. Jimmy showed that he cared about someone other than himself, which is more than a little surprising. Previously, it seemed like he was only concerned with his own career. Going against his character and nature gives us a reason to root for Jimmy. When you’re writing characters, make sure you show true development over the course of the story. Whether that development ultimately leads to anything is up to you—she can always slip back into old habits. But a character shouldn’t remain static, or you’ll lose your audience.
UPDATE 02.23 – THE HARROWING CONCLUSION:
I’VE RECEIVED MY CRITIQUE.
John DeChancie’s assessment of my short story:
I don’t have all that much to say about your story, really. It’s superbly written. It has a professional gloss. The style is strong, sure, and direct. Grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and all the rest—first rate. Prose, as I said, wonderful.
The story works. It accomplishes its task with few wasted words. The dialogue is especially natural and lifelike.
I can’t find a thing wrong with it. There are no changes I would suggest you make. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is a perfect story, but it is just about as good as it is going to get. I could not improve it if I rewrote it myself.
I’m a bit shocked, and I’m not quite sure what to do with this information. I’m happy, of course, that he sort of had nothing to offer in the way of improvements, but I’m thinking that he didn’t exactly enjoy reading my story. Which is fine. It’s not a story for everyone. And, obviously, I wasn’t entirely pleased with it myself, or I wouldn’t have sent it off for critique.
So, I suppose the next step is trying to get my story published! I’d sent it a couple of places already, but DeChancie also mentioned that I might be better suited in a different market. He also reformatted my document, although the one I sent him was formatted to Writer’s Digest specifications, and instructed me that his version is the preferred one among publishers.
As for the critique service itself, I would use it again, although the turnaround time was far from what is promised. Writer’s Digest promotes a three-day turnaround, and I didn’t receive my critique for nearly three weeks, but I’m okay with that. The reviewers are real writers who have other jobs and writerly responsibilities, so I’ll just know not to expect a quick response next time.
My $28 didn’t really change my life, as I’d said it might in my original post, but I’m just so happy he didn’t tell me that I’m a suck-ass writer. Maybe now I can stop having nightmares where authors tell me to lay down my pen.
UPDATE 02.16: Still no critique. I gave in and emailed John DeChancie. (I also bought one of his short story collections. I need to know who I’m dealing with here, y’know?) He apologized for the delay and said he’d have my story critiqued this week.
We shall see, John DeChancie, we shall see.
Nevertheless, in full awkward penguin fashion, I started stressing out again after his reply. I actually cried. I’m so embarrassed of myself that I can’t even come up with a funny way of writing about it.
UPDATE 02.10: So, I’ve yet to receive my WD critique, but I did get an update a few days ago from my critique-person. John DeChancie emailed saying hello and letting me know he’d have my critique to me the following week. I was pleased that I was awake at 2:39 am to see his message arrive, so I could Google him immediately.
And then I freaked out. While I’ve never heard of DeChancie, he’s quite an accomplished writer, having authored a dozen or so novels. Look him up… here’s his website: johndechancie.com.
He’s actually reading my story, if he hasn’t already.
I’m not only questioning myself and my life choices, but mostly my decision to send off that crap short story that reads like a rejected Twilight Zone episode. What was I thinking?!
In an effort to learn more about my writing mistakes and whatnot, I’ve just sent off a short story to Writer’s Digest for a critique.
To be honest, I’d sort of hoped y’all fine people of WordPress would give me some feedback on my stuff, but that’s not happening. I have no one else other than family to read my writing, and, frankly, I prefer to pay someone else to do it. My critique-person will be honest, at least (I hope).
Here’s how the critique service works:
Step One: Write a short story between 5 and 30 pages in length.
Step Two: Format your document per the explicit instructions found in the Writer’s Digest Shop.
Step Three: Purchase your critique.
Step Four: Email your file along with appropriate info to Writer’s Digest.
Step Five: Get your critiqued story back in a couple of days.
Step Six: Have a drink (for whatever reason you choose)!
I spent $28. That seems like a lot, but I think it will be worth it, seeing as I could be oblivious to the fact that I’m a suck-ass writer. And if I’m a suck-ass writer, I want to know about it. That $28 could change my life.
Anyway, I will update this post once I receive my glowing review (wah-wahhh) from WD.
As writers, why do we need validation? I know I do, because I want to be sure I’m correct in my gut-feeling that I was born to write. So I search.
Today, I found an interesting series of articles by The Atlantic’s Joe Fessler, aptly named “By Heart,” where authors talk about their favorite passages in literature. He’s condensed the best writing advice from those articles into a handy-dandy overview. I found it chock-full of validation.
“One thing I think is true about successful storytelling: There’s as much significance in what’s left out as in what’s actually said. Of course, our initial impulse is to want to give lots and lots of context. Here we are at this location. Here’s how we got here. Here’s what it looks like, and so on. That tends to be the easy stuff. The hard part is non-disclosure. This is really a crucial tenet of narration, perhaps the crucial tenet—and it’s not an innate skill. How do we learn how not to tell things?”
– Reif Larsen, excerpt from “How to Write: A Year in Advice from ‘By Heart'”
First impressions are important when meeting people, and it’s no different when “meeting” a book. Here are some pointers from Lit Reactor’s Riki Cleveland on how to strengthen your introductions.
Polishing the All-Important First Fives
by Riki Cleveland
It’s no surprise that beginnings are hard. When you finally find your manuscript in the hands of an editor or agent, you want to make the best first impression you possibly can—and fast. A lot of times that means within the first five pages, but focusing on the first five sentences, or even words, of your manuscript can help you get over that hump and make the reader want to move further.
Today we are going to talk about those all-important first fives. What makes a compelling beginning? What grabs a reader and makes them want to read on? What should you avoid? There’s been much said on this topic, and today I’ll be sharing the tips and tricks that I found to be most helpful.
First Five Words:
Now, we’re going to say the first five words, but in reality we’re talking about your opening sentence. Your first sentence may or may not be exactly five words long, but the point is that those opening sentences need to grab your reader right away. Your opening line is your opportunity to make a riveting first impression.
Let’s think for a moment about some well-known dynamic first lines in literature.
Oh, how I love Star Wars. The original episodes, not the new junk… I’m not a weirdo. And I’m so happy to find that someone else uses these Sci-Fi gems as creative fodder. (Don’t tell anyone, but I base a bunch of my characters on Han Solo. I just can’t help myself. I adore him.) So, here are some takeaways according to one of my favorite writing websites, Lit Reactor.
5 Storytelling Lessons from the Original Star Wars Trilogy
by Rajan Khanna
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is upon us, and if you’re like me, everywhere you look you see Star Wars—merchandise, promotions, screenings. It’s reminiscent of my childhood. It remains to be seen if the new movie will live up to expectations, but one thing it’s done is bring attention back to the original trilogy which is beloved for many, many reasons. In looking back on those films, there’s a lot to love there, particularly in the storytelling. And no, I’m not talking about the oft-mentioned Joseph Campbell mythological cycle structure. I’m talking about specific storytelling choices that helped make those films memorable. Here are a handful of them.*
1. A Lived-in World
Worldbuilding is important to secondary world stories (which Star Wars is) but it has to be handled deftly. One way to communicate worldbuilding is through exposition. Science fiction and fantasy are rife with bad examples of this, where long sections of text are used to explain elements of the world, or characters pause in the middle of action to deliver long-winded speeches explaining the particulars of a custom or culture or science.
George Lucas, on the other hand, drops us into a fully formed world at the beginning of A New Hope. There’s a history to this world, and the costumes and the environments and the equipment show that. Things look appropriately lived in. Dirty. Aged. It’s clear from the beginning of A New Hope that the gloss of the Old Republic has faded, and that life on the Rim, under the Empire, is hard.
The world is given a sense of depth, but the plot is allowed to move on at a brisk pace and only the elements that truly matter to the story are kept in focus.
What’s more, the movies don’t explain every little thing that is mentioned. The Clone Wars, for example, are mentioned without explanation. We’re introduced to creatures like the Sand People without an in-depth examination of who they are or where they came from. We don’t need to know how Han and Chewie met. So Lucas doesn’t show us. The end result is that the world is given a sense of depth, but the plot is allowed to move on at a brisk pace and only the elements that truly matter to the story are kept in focus. It’s a good lesson to remember that when it comes to worldbuilding, less is often more.
When talking about writing we talk a lot about plot and character and dialogue and pacing, but one way a lot of those things come together is through character relationships. Relationships can illustrate character, help advance the plot and illustrate themes in fiction. Star Wars uses relationships between characters to great effect. Take, for example, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Chewbacca doesn’t speak (at least not in a way that we understand), but his relationship with Han helps to humanize the smuggler. Even in A New Hope, when Han is his most prickly self, his affection for, and devotion to Chewie, shows that there’s another side to him.
Take any of the relationships in the films — C-3P0’s false outrage with R2, Han’s condescending older brother to Luke, Leia’s response to Han’s advances, the old buddies without trust bond between Lando and Han — all of these help add dimensions to our main characters while also maintaining tension. Few people just love each other in these movies; no one’s about to sing Kumbayah. Even Yoda and Luke, master and apprentice, don’t get along all that well. That helps to keep things realistic while also keeping us guessing.
And of course these relationships change over time. Han and Luke become fast friends by Jedi. Leia and Han admit their true feelings for one another. Han learns to trust Lando again. It’s something the films do really well. And it helps to stress that characters can always redeem themselves. From Han, to Lando, to Vader**, there’s always a chance to change for the better. … Continue reading
Here’s a great post via Writer’s Digest by Jeff Gerke. The best part is that he references not one, but TWO Harrison Ford roles to exemplify the perfect hero introduction.
You should read it for that, if nothing else.
Oh, my goodness, yes. My husband is bewildered by my ability to watch and re-watch movies that I have already seen. Think I’ll print this out and just hand it to him next time.
Writers are never just passive observers. Whether we’re reading or watching a movie, we don’t consume stories, we occupy them. We’re drawn into the events on the surface, while our subconscious minds pick apart the mechanics behind them.
The more we read, the more we understand story structure. In my piece Don’t Just Read More, Watch More I talked about the benefits writers get from watching movies too. Not only do we consume films faster, but their time limitations force them to have predictable three-act structures. Watch enough movies and you can predict when the protagonist’s routine will break, when their journey will take them past the point of no return, when their alliances will shift, when they’ll be at their lowest point, when their change has lead them to a new goal, and when they’ll rebound at the climax.
Aspiring novelists need to know those beats by heart. Films…
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McCarthy’s prose is sparse, but tells so, so much. He doesn’t offer an excessive amount of detail; the narrator observes the way, I think, a starving, shivering, half-broken man clutching his young son would look at the world. Speech interactions between the man and son are short and few, and serve great purpose in showing their nature. The bleak, rotting landscape remains constant, yet never dulls in impact, and struggles are repeated time after time, but increase concern for the man and his young son. McCarthy offers a beautifully heartfelt story of hope, love and how far one will go to make sure another keeps on going.
What struck me the most about McCarthy’s writing was how he handled the fear and violence. In The Road‘s post-apocalyptic setting, one expects the characters to fear other men, to worry about being killed and/or looted. Once I realized a main concern was avoiding rampant cannibalism, even planning to commit suicide if he and his son were doomed to meet such an end, I began to notice how McCarthy presented it.
The scariest part of the novel came about midway through, when the man and son enter a house and find a padlocked hatch door inside. The boy begged his father to not open it, to leave the house. As a father, the man felt obligated. Of course, he thought someone was locking away food. In just a few short sentences, McCarthy describes the harrowing scene as the man peeks into the basement room, and my eyes welled as I read.
He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light.
Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.
Jesus, he whispered.
Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.
See how simple the writing is? And it still brought such powerful imagery.
Now – don’t think I’m weird – after I read this part of the book, I stopped to analyze it, and my mind went to Chuck Palahniuk. (Yeah. I do this sometimes. Just one of my warped ways of teaching myself new tricks.)
There’s no questioning my love for Chuck Palahniuk. He has this no-holds-barred, in-your-face style that, without fail, awakens my senses, my entire body. I marvel at his ability to tell stories with equal amounts candidness and artful prose, but Palahniuk’s signature trait is his razor-sharp description without actually describing much.
I thought, how would Chuck have handled this situation?
Well, I can only guess, but I think he might have offered an image of the man’s missing quadriceps hanging somewhere like cured hams, or the salty, briny combination of piss, sweat and preserved meat, how they huddled together like slaughterhouse cows, or he may have thrown in a fun fact about how rats will eat human flesh and develop a taste for human blood… . Gross, I know. Anyway, my point is that good old Chuck wouldn’t necessarily change the language McCarthy used, but he would, without a doubt, throw in some extrasensory detail, or a little satire to give us accompanying imagery, to really drive the visual in our minds, to make us cringe even more.
Is Chuck’s signature trait necessary here? Does it make the passage better? Not especially, and here’s why: McCarthy’s story doesn’t call for it. The Road doesn’t want to exploit the violence or the fear, not in the way Palahniuk’s works can and must. Think about the reverse of this exercise… if we removed those extra visuals from, say, Fight Club, what would happen to the story? Fight Club, a story wrought with fear and violence, is about a crazy guy who forms a club that terrorizes cities. Without the satirical anecdotes and the visual asides, the story would become somber, lacking in that off-color comedic relief needed to escape the beating. Still interesting, though, just not as much so.
If I were writing my version of The Road, I would’ve bored myself to tears trying to flower-up the language and come up with completely unique sensory descriptions for the never-changing landscape. I would’ve muddied up the basement scene with too much description, trying to paint an overly vivid visual of the dirty, tear-streaked faces, the protruding shoulder blades, the smell of rot and burnt hair… I could go on and on, making this scene much, much more than it needs to be. I would put too much emphasis on it, making the story about cannibalism, not about the love shared by a man and his son. McCarthy and Palahniuk, both in their expertly crafted methods, weave stories so readers will experience what they want them to experience. And that is a skill, I hope, I can learn in time.
There are millions of guides on writing out there. They attempt to blueprint how to write a novel. Workbooks on developing characters ask me to answer these ten questions about each of my characters…. now subtract one feature and keep it a secret… my character is complete! Authors expose the secret to the perfect mainstream novel: describe everything! Literary writers tell me to avoid plots at all costs. In the end, no one can tell me what will work for me. I’ll still read books on writing, but I have to examine my motives and purpose for a story. No one can tell me how to do it; I have to figure it out on my own.
There is no formula, and we are its prophets.
Awesome list from BuzzFeed… I’ve read the majority of books on this list, and they’re all fantastic, but my favorites are The Giving Tree, the Miss Nelson books, and the Louis Sachar books! And read them now, even if you’re a grown-up without kids. – sld