Want to feel like a shitty writer? Take a few moments and read the first page of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad pilot. I’ll wait…
Finished? Okay. Good, right? No… PHENOMENAL. That’s one page. I’ve got entire scripts with less excitement, talent, and effort in them spread across 90 pages. Sad.
So, now we’re all surveying the piles of our own scripts and questioning every word-choice we’ve made. We ask ourselves, “Should we cut our losses?” as we stare down the barrel of our metaphorical aspiration guns, fully loaded with “I quit” bullets.
WAIT A SECOND. How the hell did we get here?
It’s been months since Breaking Bad ended, but much like some choice Heisenberg blue meth, it’s been hard for me to shake my obsession with this show. From the color theories to episode-inspired posters, there’s plenty of online reading for addicts out there. Watching the show you can clearly get a sense of how deliberate all of the choices are, up to and including Dave Porter’s heart-pounding score.
The online rabbit-hole of Breaking Bad theories, interviews with its creator, and even gag reels, eventually lead me full-circle back to where the show started: The 2005 pilot script of Breaking Bad. Before I pull the trigger and give up all dreams of being a screenwriter, I realize something… Maybe all isn’t lost. Let’s put down the gun. Forget about all our old screenplays. Look toward the future and all the screenplays we’ve yet to write! Huzzah! We can approach those with a new perspective, but first we must ask one question:
“Why is that one page so good?”
1. Vince Gilligan is in control of the reader.
The scene could have just as easily have started on a Winnebago barreling across a landscape, but it doesn’t. It’s starts on the blue sky, then we’re looking down a cows grazing, next we’re focusing on cow shit, until.. “ZOOM” Enter the Winnebago. Gilligan is not only showing, he’s FORCING the reader to see what he wants to see by using misdirection. Amateur writers (myself included) get so wrapped up in the story we’re trying to tell, that we forget that HOW we tell it is just as important. Grab the reader and throw them up against the wall. Write with confidence. (But try not to be a dick about it…)
2. The first three paragraphs appeal to all six of the reader’s senses.
Yes, six… From a writing perspective, I doubt Gilligan really thought much about this aspect, but it’s fascinating if you break it down.
Sight is pretty much a given since this is a visual medium, but colors are used deliberately (“deep blue sky” and “black and white cows”). Remove the colors and the intent still remains; however, it feels less purposeful and his control (see #1) over the reader is diminished.
Sound is utilized not only to paint the picture of the scene (“flies buzz”), but also to help misdirect with a “peaceful” set-up before the wheels “ZOOOM!” over the cow shit with a “SPLAT.” Sound can be so visceral and sometimes play more of an impactful role than dialogue.
Smell is not exclaimed, rather it’s insinuated through the presence of the cow shit. Everybody knows what manure smells like; if you make me stare at cow shit, I’m going to naturally link the image to the smell.
The sense of touch is represented through the description of the “round PATTY drying olive drab in the sun” with the flies buzzing overhead. The shit even breaks with a ‘SPLAT’ from the wheels of the Winnebago. The reader can clearly get a sense of what the texture of this FRESH cow patty is like. Note that the word “fresh” is never used, but it’s clear the there’s a lighter cow nearby.
Taste might be a stretch, but a reference to California cheese does evoke some taste-bud memories of snacking on cheese. If you’ve ever eaten cow shit, then maybe that applies, too. Close enough though, right?
Okay, the last “sense” that the first three paragraphs appeal to is the reader’s sense of humor. Even in a drama, humor can be an effective way to put people at ease. The comparison to the cheese commercials helps show some of Gilligan’s personality and gives the reader some hope that there will be levity to help offset dramatic moments. Sixty pages of drama without a chuckle here and there can be exhausting.
I’m not saying you need to take note and hit on all these senses in every scene of your script, but keep it in mind if a section is feeling flat. Emotions are linked to our senses, so the more you aim for, the better chance you have of hitting. Touch your reader’s senses.
3. Questions are asked.
At its core, storytelling is about creating questions in the reader’s mind and eventually paying off those questions by answering them later on. Here’s some questions that popped into my head while reading the first page:
Why is this guy only wearing underwear and a gas mask?
Who is the passenger?
What’s up with that chemical lab in the back?
Who the hell are these dead guys?
WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?
Obviously in a longer piece, you’ll eventually want to answer some questions as well. Mystery without reveal is just mean and you will lose the reader’s trust. But, if you don’t tease them with a little mystery in the beginning, you may not have any trust to lose. Intrigue your reader.
4. Conflict, conflict, conflict!
It’s a no-brainer that you need conflict in a story, but holy cow shit, there’s a lot of it here. Much of the conflict stems from the questions in #3 above, but also from the emotions and action of the Driver. From his white knuckles, to his eyes bugging, this guy is obviously stressed and we feel the tension. Stress out the reader.
5. The writing has a personality.
It’s the little touches that really give the writing a personality (most likely Gilligan’s personality). The “Oh, by the way, he’s wearing a GAS MASK” and reference to cheese commercials. It gives the scene description that bit of pop that it needs to pull you down the page. Not only do I feel like Vince is telling us a story, the words emit an excitement that makes me feel like he’s around a campfire acting out everything with props and a soundtrack from his iPhone. Show the reader who you are. So, forget about all your old scripts and aim that gun full of aspirations high. With enough work and perseverance, one day we can all write as well as Vince Gilligan. Well, maybe not, but Breaking Bad was nowhere near Vince Gilligan’s first script AND he didn’t have the luxury of the the internet to help him shape his craft. Also, the dude is from Virginia…just like me.