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Techniques and Tension in Breaking Bad

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A developmental editor like me is always on the lookout for resources that can be useful for the aspiring writers I work with. Typically, those resources are written -- a book, perhaps, on revision or characterization -- but I have been arguing for some time now that any writer who wants to learn about the art of developing tension in a manuscript would do well to watch, and learn from, AMC's Breaking Bad.

As Vince Gilligan's remarkable drama heads toward its finale on Sunday, it's worth taking a look at this past season -- specifically, portions of two episodes -- to understand how the show's remarkably talented writers have utilized the literary tools at their disposal to maximize the tension and anxiety felt not only by the show's characters, but also by viewers across the country.

WARNING: SPOILERS (but not finale spoilers) AHEAD

The 11th episode of season five, "Confessions," was written by Gennifer Hutchison, and it concludes with a particularly interesting cliffhanger. Jesse Pinkman, having discovered that it was Walter White himself who poisoned Brock, breaks into Walt's house in a fury and douses it with gasoline.

The end of a television episode is very much like the close of a chapter in a novel, or perhaps the final scene at the end of one book of an ongoing series. As such, it most typically ends with one of two points: a stopping point or a turning point. A stopping point would be the conclusion of a scene, or the end of whatever arc comprises the story of this particular chapter.

A turning point at the end of a chapter, on the other hand, is a cliffhanger. It's a moment where the situation changes in a significant way. Whether you're writing a novel or a television series, a cliffhanger is very effective in carrying the reader, or viewer, through to the next part, and for obvious reason. Readers will want, and ideally need, to know what happens next.

Hutchison certainly ends "Confessions" on a cliffhanger -- but the end of the episode is actually neither a stopping point nor a turning point, and that's what makes it remarkable.

A turning point would have been the moment Jesse discovers what Walt did. The first half of season five of Breaking Bad ended with such a moment, when Hank learned that Walt was Heisenberg, the drug lord he's been chasing throughout the series. Alternately, a turning point would have been the moment Hank arrives at Walt's house, just in time to stop Jesse from burning it to the ground. But that doesn't happen until the next episode.

The thing about a turning point is that, as many untold possibilities exist for what happens next, there is some measure of resolution. Something has ended so that something new can begin. Jesse discovering that Walt poisoned Brock, for example, is the end of Jesse believing that Gus Fringe poisoned Brock.

By concluding the episode not with such a moment, but rather with Jesse pouring the gasoline, Hutchison ensures that this episode contains no resolution. Consequently, the tension of the scene remains at its apex. The moment is very carefully considered for exactly this reason, and in a show that has always been fueled by tension, that makes it extraordinarily effective.

But what truly makes this brilliant is how Sam Catlin handles the next episode, "Rabid Dog."

Chronologically, the next plot point here is Hank showing up at the door. Hank stops Jesse from torching the house and suggests that they both work together to bring down Walt.

This is what happens next, but it is not where the episode begins.

Instead, Catlin opens the episode with Walt arriving home. He discovers Jesse's car, abandoned, and he discovers the house filled with gasoline, but Jesse is nowhere to be found. It's not until halfway through the episode that we learn why Jesse did not burn down Walt's house.

And this is where the tools Breaking Bad utilizes are really helpful for writers.

So much of tension relates to perspective. The first half of "Rabid Dog" focuses on Walt trying to find Jesse, a search fueled by the question of what caused Jesse to change his mind about burning down the White home. And because readers don't know the answer to that question -- because Catlin keeps us focused on Walt's point of view -- readers feel exactly the tension he feels. We experience the search in the same way Walt does.

Like most TV shows, Breaking Bad is told from a third-person omniscient point of view. The writers have the option of looking in at any character at any time. But Catlin knows what a great many writers struggle with: Just because you can reveal anything happening with any character at any time doesn't mean that you should. So much of writing comes down not only to the story you're telling, but how you choose to tell it -- what information you reveal at what time to generate what effect.

Had "Rabid Dog" proceeded linearly, opening with the scene that immediately follows "Confessions," it would likely have been every bit as well-written. The juxtaposition of Jesse joining with Hank and Walt searching for Jesse would have made for a compelling episode. But Catlin's aim is to generate tension, so he has framed the episode in a way that emphasizes that particular element of the story. Combined with Hutchison's beautifully considered cliffhanger, it makes for a remarkably anxious pair of episodes.

Often, we editors are hesitant to recommend TV shows to writers looking to strengthen their prose, because screenwriting and prose are two fundamentally different forms of storytelling. What works for one may not work for the other. But the tools Breaking Bad utilizes to generate the extraordinary tension it has maintained for five full seasons are useful for any aspiring novelist.

If you struggle with tension, a trip through Breaking Bad will teach you some wonderful things.