Musings from a young Hollywood professional

Have you ever talked to a screenwriter about bad movies? You really should.

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Just got a job!

Talent Management Assistant position, here I come!  Again!

No really I’m freaking excited and bouncing off the walls not even gonna try to lie.

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I have trouble writing about artists. And it takes a lot for me to enjoy any fictional work about artists. I think it’s mainly because over-romanticization is a thing that happens.

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The secret ingredient that made “Breaking Bad” as addictive as meth


I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about Breaking Bad, and also a lot of conversations about story structure, and it reminds me that when I wrote my “How to Structure an Episode of One Hour Drama” blog post last fall, I promised I’d write a follow-up post about story structure in Breaking Bad but then got sidetracked with other things.

To recap, the previous article basically said that a standard episode of hour-long drama largely follows the three act structure of a movie, it’s just compressed and broken into more parts because of commercials (and premium cable shows typically follow the same structure but with the commercials removed). For more details on the mechanics of that, here’s the original article.

Now, let’s talk about Breaking Bad: In its look-back on Season 3, the Onion’s A.V. Club (ie the non-satirical part of the paper) wrote that “The heart-in-the-throat quality of this season comes as much from the writers’ exhilarating disregard for television conventions as from the events portrayed.” I’ve heard lots of assessments that echo this idea that Breaking Bad somehow disregarded television’s conventions, and my response to that is: Bullshit.

Yes, the show had some innovative twists and turns, but it was narratively satisfying in large part because even with those twists and turns, it meticulously adhered to standard storytelling structures.

In fact, if you look at the entire 62 episode series of Breaking Bad as a whole, it actually breaks down very neatly into the structure of a traditional three act movie:

  • Seasons 1 and 2 combine to have 20 episodes which comprise Act 1.

  • Seasons 3 and 4 combine to have 26 episodes which comprise Act 2.

  • Seasons 5 and 6 (or 5a/5b) combine to have 16 episodes, which comprise Act 3.

It really is designed like one long feature film: a medium-length first act, a long second act (because Act 2 really has two separate parts) and a relatively short third act to resolve everything in exciting, climactic fashion.

Of course, there’s a lot more to three act structure than the length of the acts relative to one another; it’s the content of those acts that’s important. And that’s where things get really interesting with Breaking Bad.

ACT 1:

Joseph Campbell wrote that the first act of a hero’s journey plays out as follows:

  • The hero begins in his natural, normal environment.

  • An inciting incident causes the hero (or antihero) to hear a call to adventure.

  • The hero resists the call to adventure.

  • The hero crosses a threshold into the world of adventure beyond which he cannot return without completing the adventure.

Breaking Bad’s Act 1 — aka seasons 1 and 2 — fills in those blanks like this:

  • We meet a regular guy, Walter White, in his normal environment as a school teacher. He has a sad but normal problem called cancer. (Episodes 1-5)

  • Walt hears a call to adventure: to become HEISENBERG. (Episode 6)

  • He resists that call in a variety of ways. (Episodes 7-18)

  • At the end of the act, he lets Jesse’s girlfriend Jane die — and once he crosses that threshold, it quickly becomes clear that he’s passed a point of no return, that he can’t escape becoming Heisenberg, even if he might want to. (Episodes 19-20)

Importantly, the inciting incident in this story is not Walt getting cancer or even going out on his first cook with Jesse. Those events set up the inciting incident, as does Walt’s murder of Krazy 8, but they don’t really rocket the story forward in an inalienable way. No, the inciting incident of Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg is when Heisenberg makes his first appearance — blowing up Tuco’s lair in episode 6, “Crazy Handful of Nothin”. That event is what sounds the call to adventure for Walt to become Heisenberg, a call he eventually accepts as he watches Jane die in episode 19.


The first half of Act 2 in a traditional story is what Blake Snyder calls the “fun and games” part, the part where we see our hero exploring the world of adventure that he’s just entered and playing around in it. Season 3 of Breaking Bad has Walter doing just that:

  • He’s not just some school teacher cooking meth on the side anymore; he’s a key player in an international drug cartel with ambitions of working his way to the top.

  • He’s learning how this world works, who its players are, getting in and out of trouble with them, and so on.

  • He has some dangerous run-ins — like, for instance, with those creepy Mexican twins (more on them later) — but relative to what’s coming, it’s all fun and games.

By Episode 10 of Season 3 — Episode 30 out of 62 for the show overall — Breaking Bad has reached its midpoint. Midpoints are typically characterized by a false high, a breather for the audience where it seems like maybe everything will work out okay, or at least that things are heading in the right direction. In the case of Breaking Bad, that moment of relief comes in the form of “Fly”, an episode where things are going so darn well — relatively speaking, at least — that we can afford to spend a whole episode with Walt and Jesse as they clean their laboratory and try to swat a fly. In the process, the two of them bond like father and son, and Walt even gets to tell Jesse that he’s sorry about Jane. Aww! It’s so sweet! But it can’t last for long because…


The second half of a typical Act 2 is where the bad guys close in. Starting in episode 11 of Season 3 (episode 31 overall) and continuing throughout Season 4, Walt (and his adopted son Jesse) are always just one step ahead of Gustavo Fring and his gang, doing worse and worse things just to stay alive, up to and including killing innocent people. By the end of Episode 11 in Season 4 (episode 44 overall), Walt has hit rock bottom and needs to run — but finds that the money he needs to buy himself and his family an escape route is gone. In one of the most chilling moments of the series, Walt gets a classic Blake Snyder “whiff of death” — and it makes him temporarily go totally mad on the floor of the crawl space in his house.

But that’s not the end of the second act! Second acts have to end with the hero getting himself together after the whiff of death and taking control of his situation, strong and ready for the big finale that Act 3 promises to be — which is exactly what happens in the last two episodes of Season 4. Walt goes full Heisenberg, poisons an innocent child to get Jesse back on his side, and through a brilliantly elaborate plan, kills Gustavo Fring. In the process, he positions himself to take over Fring’s network and become the kingpin Heisenberg was meant to be.

ACT 3:

That leaves us with Act 3: Heisenberg unleashed, the master of crime, Mr. Chips turned into Scarface. Here Walt makes unspeakable money, faces off with his do-gooder brother-in-law, consolidates his empire with the help of neo-nazis, and then tangles with those neo-nazis too. All of the Chekovian guns set up earlier in the series are fired: Hank finds out the truth about Walt, Jesse learns the truth about Jane, Walt uses the ricin he’s had in his back pocket since Season 1.

Interestingly, some have argued that the third to last episode of the show, “Ozymandias”, should have been the show’s finale. And indeed, this antepenultimate episode is where Walt must face the consequences of his actions: Hank dies, his family completely falls apart. But while “Ozymandias” is unquestionably the climax of Breaking Bad, the climax is not the final part of a story. The final part, the end of the third act, is the denouement, the falling action, the winding up of it all. That’s what episodes 61 and 62 are in Breaking Bad — a big denouement.


Now, here’s where things get really bananas: Within each of Breaking Bad’s three acts, there is another full three act story. I won’t break the beats of each of those three act stories because this post is getting super long, but the stories themselves are as follows:

  • Act 1 — seasons one and two: Walt the meth-cooking teacher with cancer

  • Act 2 — seasons three and four: Walt vs. Gus Fring

  • Act 3 — seasons five and six (5a/5b): Emperor Walt

Each of those three stories has its own call to action, resistance of the call, point of no return, fun and games, false high, bad guys close in, rock bottom/whiff of death, climax, and denouement. As a viewer, you could watch one of these three stories (ie pairs of seasons) in isolation from the rest of the series and have a satisfying dramatic experience. They’re like three movies in a trilogy that also add up to one big movie.

And you know what? Almost every individual episode also follows the same three act structure. Even some of the long conversation scenes (particularly the ones that take up a whole act) are structured in three acts. So you end up with a small three act structure (a long scene) nested inside a larger three act structure (an episode) nested inside a much larger three act structure (a pair of seasons) nested inside a huge three act structure (the series).


When Gilligan and company introduced the scary Mexican twins in Season 3, he originally intended for them to be bigger foils for Walt but found that they were too scary and too evil for the story at that point — so he did away with them in relatively short order. He sensed that they weren’t working and repurposed them into something that would work at that stage of his narrative. He changed them from Second Half of Act 2 “Bad Guys Close In”-type bad guys to First Half of Act 2 “Fun and Games”-type bad guys.

That course alteration speaks to a larger point: good writers intuitively know when story elements aren’t working and their course corrections tend to end up adhering to well-worn patterns of narrative structure. I have seen this dynamic at play in my own work, my friends’ work, and the collaborative process of a professional writer’s room.

Indeed, Gilligan has said that he didn’t know when he started Breaking Bad exactly how he was going to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. So I don’t know if he thought in advance, “I’m going to write a three act movie that would make Syd Field proud and spread it out over 62 hours,” and I don’t know if he said “I’m going to have three act structures inside three act structures like narrative fractals. ” My guess is that (like most creative things) it was some combination of premeditation and improvisation, but the important thing isn’t whether or not he intended to structure his stories this way; what’s important is that he did and it worked.


As far as I can tell from Breaking Bad, writing stories is a lot like cooking meth: anyone can do it, doing it well is really hard, people who are good at it make it look like doing it well is easy, and the difference between someone who is good at it and someone who isn’t is often their understanding and respect for the underlying math. If someone understands and respects the underlying math, the product is liable to be super addictive and delicious.

The real lesson here, then, is that it ultimately doesn’t matter if the story you’re telling is 45 minutes (like a standard TV episode) or two hours (like a standard movie) or 62 hours (like Breaking Bad); if it’s going to satisfy your audience, it’s almost certainly going to look like this equation:

  • Setup

  • Inciting incident

  • Hero accepts mission and crosses into world of adventure (end of act 1)

  • Hero explores world of adventure

  • Hero has moment where it seems everything might be working out (midpoint)

  • Bad guys close in on hero

  • Hero hits bottom

  • Hero pulls it together to retake control of the situation (end of Act 2)

  • Hero dramatically completes the adventure (Act 3)

  • Denouement

These elements are the constants in the equation of good story. And while it is certainly possible to create a decent story without following the equation — just like it is possible to formulate alternative means of making decent meth — the more likely result is either a weaker product or the whole thing exploding in your face.

The thing to remember about equations though is that the constants are only one half of the math: the other half is comprised of variables, and each variable has an infinite number of possible values. That means there’s plenty of room for creativity, and as Gilligan and company proved, if you use the equations smartly — keeping the constants firmly in place while concocting wild ideas for the variables — it won’t even feel like an equation at all.


I’m not even a huge breaking bad fan but man is this awesome.

(via freelance-anthem)

Filed under screenwriting screenwriting structure breaking bad tv writing tv structure