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Writing Techniques 

showing not telling | setup & payoff  |  start late & get out early


Breaking Bad’s lead character is the infamous, Walter White.  He needs to figure out a way to make money, sooner than later, so his family (in their current state of financial despair as well as Walter being sick, and his wife being pregnant) can flourish without him.  His sickness (inoperable lung cancer) is what ultimately leads Walter to the decisions to manufacture and deal meth.  His decision to take an illegal course of action to generate income is the story’s inciting incident – that catalyst that gets the plot going.  How we get there is demonstrated effectively by: SHOWING NOT TELLING


A huge pitfall for a writer is the tendency to tell what’s going on (in the script’s action), e.g. “Walter feels sad”, versus showing… giving the character an action to work through that reflects how he/she feels.  Walter’s conflicted state of mind is communicated by showing him sitting by his pool, lighting matches and throwing them into the water.  So, how does this translate?


Earlier in the episodes, Walter gives his high school class a speech about how, “Chemistry is the study of CHANGE”.  To demonstrate this, he sprays different colored chemicals over a flame from a Bunsen Burner to show the reaction and the “change” that occurs when he alternates or mixes colors.  Now…


The questions remains: will Walter (in his conflicted state) embrace change, like the fire changing when sprayed with chemicals?  Or, will he give up on his life (like the matches being thrown in the water of his pool? 


Walter’s state of contemplation leads to his next move: calling his brother-in-law, Hank, a DEA Agent, to take him up on his offer to do a ride-along, with the intention of seeing how a meth lab is set up.  It’s clear that Walter’s curiosity about the drug trade has been piqued.


Walter later visits Jesse Pinkman (whom he realizes is the meth-dealing culprit Hank is after) and propositions him, “Help me make money by cooking meth, or I will turn you in.”   As an affective writing technique, cause & effect functions to move plot forward and support character’s motives.  This is accomplished seamlessly by way of: SETUP & PAYOFF

Walter knows chemistry – he’s a teacher, and Jesse knows the drug trade.  Both characters have been set up and paid off this way.  Together, they make the perfect pair; moreover, the stakes have been set.  We know why Walter is doing it – high risk equals big reward.  It’s about survival for him – utilizing the one thing he’s good at (Chemistry) to make money for his family to live on before he dies.  And Jesse’s been set up with equal stakes.  In the raid (of his meth lab) Jesse’s lost his business partner, lab equipment and cash.  As Walter says, “It’s back to square one”.  The story elements have all been set up to be paid off here in an effort to credibly limit their options for “survival”.  Where this sequence ends, and picks back up is a prime example of: STARTING LATE & GETTING OUT EARLY

As a writer, it’s important to understand how your scenes are unfolding; how one scene leads into another.  This affects the pace of the story and can be the difference between an audience watching or turning away. Almost, without exception, you can go back into a scene that you’ve written - notice how the scene still works by starting it later and ending it sooner. 


By getting out of the scene early you expedite the story’s pace and leave the viewer wondering… What’s next? 




A very common mistake by a writer is to feel compelled to make sure that all the character in the story, know everything that’s happening, all the time.  This just isn’t necessary.  By getting out early you’re allowed to “cheat” that awkward expositional dialogue that results in over-explaining, but more importantly, one character telling another what the audience already knows.  You’re audience is the only one who matters.  So long as the viewer knows Walter’s plight, it doesn’t matter how or when Jesse finds out the truth behind what really motivates him.  Moreover, it creates a sense of anticipation.  Will they work together or not?  On that note, the next time we come into this A plot we START LATE, that is, we get right into the sequence without any set up – it’s Walter stealing chemistry equipment from his high school.  Again, we see how the story’s pace is expedited by the implication that they are working together.  We didn’t need to see them agree on being partners by saying it or through a handshake.  Watching Walter go about gather the equipment needed to cook the drugs is enough.


When we get into the next sequence, Walter and Jesse meeting up to take inventory of the lab equipment, we can get right into the scene – nothing needs to be explained.  It’s all implied.  Oh, they’re together, discussing their plan of attack.  Okay, I get it.  They’re partners now.

Opening Sequence 

the hook


Narc, in the “Opening Sequence” our Hero (an undercover cop) chases a meth-cook through a neighborhood.  This immediately establishes the story’s gritty tone and thrusts us into the Hero’s world.  Tension increases when our antagonist sticks an innocent bystander with a syringe and then proceeds to take a child hostage on a playground, forcing our Hero to shoot him dead.  This specific action establishes our main character’s proactive nature and confirms his ability to be a bona fide hero.  Then the scene takes a twist when we realize a ricocheted bullet has struck the child’s pregnant mother.   


This sequence grabs our attention and on the surface plays out as a simple, straightforward unfolding of events but, in fact, addresses: character, plot and touches on the theme of “family” that is a driving force in the story, (our Hero’s conflict with his wife who wants him to stop being a homicide detective so he can be a father to his newborn son).


The opening sequence ends with our Hero trying to help the pregnant woman as she bleeds out.  The specificity of this action supports the next scene where our Hero is scrutinized by a department panel for his actions, (revealing that the bystander and the pregnant woman’s unborn baby have both died).  This collateral damage is held against him as leverage to force him to take on the Alvarez case, which no one wants (the A plot); penance for his recklessness.  But our Hero refuses, tired of risking his life, which is a valid argument we can empathize with because of the explicit violence we just saw our Hero endure and risk his life to try and stop.

Knowing, at the end of the sequence, that our Hero will eventually take the job as a means to an end is no different than the archetypal bank robber on the verge of retirement who seeks asylum but agrees to do one last job which he believes will send him sailing off into the sunset.  It’s important to note that our Hero is a character who attacks his job by the throat; a go-getter who thrives off the action and deep down doesn’t want to quit because discovering the truth and getting the bad guy is in his DNA.


Armed with all of the above information, (understanding our Hero’s family dynamic and how in the scene following the “Hook” the department panel will use the collateral damage from the shootout as leverage to get our Hero to take the Alvarez case) we can approach writing the opening “Hook” with clarity.  We will know how to steer the story in the direction it needs to go in order to properly establish tone, define our Hero and set up the ‘cause and effect’ action that will be paid off later down the road.  Without knowing this information, prior, the opening sequence could not unfold in the same dramatic fashion.

Building Character

creating authenticity


Redbelt, “Building Character” - Where do we begin when outlining a character for a movie or TV show?  Often times a character will be the inspiration for a story; the nucleus that determines what kind of story will be told (the tone).  Or, as a writer you might say to yourself:

I want to write a certain type of genre and this will determine the nature of your protagonist.  


When deciding on how to approach your Hero it’s vital that you address some basic story telling elements that will enable you to carve out a distinct character.  Clarifying the Hero’s ‘World’ (what they do for a living, their social/economic background), their want, what they fear will happen if they don’t fulfill their desire, (stakes), the theme driving the story, and the overall moral message, will help you better understand how your character will live in the world you are designing.  By understanding your character’s emotional and physical parameters you become aware of what he/she is capable of, afraid of, willing or unwilling do to.  By limiting your Hero you allow him/her to become idiosyncratic.


Let’s look at David Mamet’s martial arts drama/thriller, Redbelt.  The main character, Mike Terry, lives by a strict moral code that fighting should be taught and respected but not exploited in competition.  Mamet sets out to write a story with a theme that deals with “Deception”.  The moral of the story focuses on the sacrifice that comes with discipline and the reward that comes with staying true to oneself.  Without being aware of these important storytelling elements it would be impossible to actualize Mike Terry and develop him as a three dimensional, authentic character.


Based on what we’ve discussed, Mamet (in an attempt to create a story that will support his vision) makes a conscious choice to design his Hero as an earnest and confident man, well versed in martial artists but who’s as stubborn as a mule.  Understanding his moral code (limitations) allows us to understand why Terry limits his sources of income, in terms of showing off his talents and growing his business.  Yet, it is easy to empathize with Terry because we can appreciate that he remains loyal to his beliefs.  By creating such a rigid character-profile that supports the theme, Mamet knows exactly how Terry will react in situations as the story unfolds.  For instance, Terry will never instigate a fight but he will defend himself, moreover, put himself in harms way for others.

A motif in the story that defines Terry’s mentality is the idea that no matter how tight of a situation you find yourself in, “there’s always a way out.  You just have to find it.”  As the writer, Mamet (having established the moral and theme) is able to reach this understanding about his character because he’s developed Terry as a man who exercises faith and patience; integrated and appropriate character traits that feel earned, not superfluous. 


By taking the time to establish a mental and emotional foundation for the character, Mamet is able to summon the motif to help him bridge the gap between the story’s beginning and end.  In the opening scene Terry instructs a student, enduring a chokehold, to “Find a way out”.  In the final scene, Terry endures a fight, trying to “Find his way out” in order to emerge the victor, which he does by staying true to himself and his techniques.

Killing Your Hero (early)

the risk & reward


In the Bedroom

It’s not often that we encounter a story in which the Hero dies near the start or in the middle of the story but when we do it’s with definitive purpose.  Death of the Hero is jarring because you become emotionally invested in the “main character" - on board with his/her plan and expectation.   But this is used as a device (or a kind of red herring) by the writer, to set up the new main tension.  Without exception, a supporting character(s), stepping up as ‘Hero’ will steer the story in a new direction but not too far off course from the late Hero’s story, as his/her death is the catalyst for this new chapter, helping to cement the theme, i.e., love, redemption, revenge, etc.


Let’s take a look at a few examples of how this risky and uncommon choice in narrative storytelling can have rewarding results when exercised with intention and purpose.  The three very different story examples discussed below all function in a similar fashion: the writer uses the late Hero’s set up and demise as a springboard to dive into a much bigger story that ultimately defines what the film is trying to explore, thematically.


MATT and RUTH FOWLER enjoy a happy marriage and a good relationship with their son, FRANK a recent college graduate who has come home to Camden, Maine for the summer.  Frank (our Hero) winds up falling in love with, NATALIE, an older woman with children, a relationship that grows so strong that Frank considers postponing graduate school for architecture to work in the fishing industry to be near her.  Natalie's ex-husband, RICHARD tries to find a way into his ex-wife and son's lives, going to increasingly violent lengths to get his intentions across to Natalie.  This is the story; the relationship dynamic between Frank, Natalie and Richard.  Frank must shoulder the burden of his mother's warning about being with Natalie, while his father thinks it is only a fling. 


Then, unexpectedly--- Richard kills Frank during a confrontation at Natalie's house following a domestic dispute.  With the Hero dead, the story shifts gears.  Matt and Ruth become the central figures of the story.  Though equally devastated, they grieve in different ways, with Matt putting on a brave face while Ruth becomes reclusive and quiet.  Richard is set free on bail and both Matt and Ruth are forced to see Richard around town.  The stress that this causes in their relationship compels Matt to kill Richard.  This becomes the main tension that carries the story.  What begins as a family drama evolves into a crime drama.

So why does this work?  As the writer, going into the story knowing the Hero will die, means setting up variables so that the story can still work when he's gone.  We're supposed to sympathize with the parents.  The idea is to make the viewer feel as emotionally robbed as the parents in the story. That's the way we build empathy for Will when he decides to kill a man set free by the jury of his peers.


Place Beyond The Pines

LUKE is a locally well-known motorcycle stuntman working in a traveling act for state fairs. During the fair in Altamont, New York, Luke is visited by his ex-lover, ROMINA, and learns he is the father of her infant son. Luke quits his job as a stuntman to stay in town and provide for the child.  Luke turns to ROBIN, an auto repair shop owner, for part-time employment, which includes partnering up rob local banks. They perform several successful heists, and Luke uses his share of the money to win back Romina's trust and visit his son.


Luke is an anti-hero.  We route for him to succeed despite being a criminal.  We’re invested in his lifestyle, that is until--- During a robbery-gone-wrong Luke is pursued by police, seeking refuge in a single-family house, where he is shot dead by by Police Officer, AVERY CROSS. 

With the Hero dead, the story shifts gears.  It's a jolt to the system.  The story we were comfortable following is scraped and we cut to: Fifteen years later.  Avery is running for public office and has to deal with his now-teenage son A. J. who has gotten into trouble with drugs. Avery has separated from his wife and transfers A. J. into a high school in Schenectady where he is befriended by a boy named, JASON. 

The story's new dynamic focuses on the friendship of the sons; an inherently tension-driven relationship that begs the question – when will the boys realize their fathers were enemies.  The introduction and death of Luke leads to this unorthodox style of story telling in which an entirely new set of circumstance is bridged together by our late Hero.

When A. J. invites Jason over to his house for a party and Jason sees a framed photograph of Avery and realizes that A. J.'s father is, in fact, the man who killed his own father drives the story towards its resolution.

The Crying Game

At a fairground in rural Northern Ireland, IRA foot soldier FERGUS and a unit of other IRA fighters, kidnap, JODY a British soldier.  The IRA demands the release of jailed IRA members, threatening to execute Jody in three days if their demands are not met.  Fergus is tasked to guard Jody and develops a bond with the prisoner, much to the chagrin of the other IRA men.  Jody persuades Fergus to promise to seek out his girlfriend, DIL, in London should he be killed. The deadline set by Jody's captors passes and with none of the IRA's demands being met, Jody is to be executed. When Fergus takes him into the woods to carry out the sentence, Jody makes a break for it. Fergus cannot bring himself to shoot the fleeing Jody in the back, but Jody is accidentally run over and killed by British Saracen armored personnel carrier as they move in to assault the IRA safe house.


This abrupt shift story lends itself to an unorthodox structure.  We don't expect to Jody to be killed. We've spent enough time with him that we expect the character will get away and that the remainder of the story will play out with him being hunted down.  The fact that he does die here leads the story in a new direction...

Fergus flees to London where he takes a job as a day laborer, using the alias "Jimmy".  A few months later, Fergus finds Dil and winds up falling in love with her.  Later, when he is about to make love to her in her apartment, he discovers that she is transgender. Despite everything, Fergus is still attracted to Dil.  This romantic relationship sets the tone for the story as well as future events that will ultimately lead to Dil finding out about Fergus having a hand in Jody’s death.  Fergus and Dil’s relationship is the proverbial 'meat and potatoes' of the story but it’s the lead up to it that relationship which makes the Fergus’s journey so compelling and filled to the brim with dramatic tension.

Dramatic Irony

 building tension


Paper Moon, "Dramatic Irony" is used to promote tension.  In this scene our Protagonist, Moses, is trying to sell a bible to a family with the claim that their recently departed had purchased 'the good book' for his sister.  The situation gets tense when the head of the household (who happens to be a Sheriff) questions Moses who quickly tries to plug the holes in his story, and that's when Addie, pretending to be Moses's daughter, comes to his rescue.  She melts the heart of the Sheriff whom, wanting nothing more than to honor his sister (the departed's widow) agrees to buy the bible.  And just when Moses thinks he's in the clear, Addie demands $12 for the bible - an exorbitant amount of money that the Sheriff surprisingly agrees to pay.

As a writer, it's important to recognize the tools being used in this scene to create mounting tension which produces an undercurrent of humor.  The reason this scene works to the effect that it does is because Moses has been established as a schemer.  We know this.  "Selling" Bibles is his livelihood.  So the initial tension stems from the question: will Moses get away with this again?  Then the tension shifts when the Sheriff is introduced. Now we are capitalizing on the initial tension and layering it with conflict, posing the question: will Moses get arrested?  And that's when the tension shifts, yet again, when Addie (with whom Moses wants nothing to do with), helps him out by pretending to be his daughter.  Humor comes from the fact that our protagonist is having to catch up to our supporting character and play along as her "father."  And just when we think our characters are in the clear a new tension is introduced when Addie quotes the Sheriff the price for the bible, and Moses is forced to mask his contempt (knowing a greedy move like that could blow their cover).  The sequence is a prime example of how to capitalize on tension by introducing one  dramatic reversal after another.

Dramatic Irony

generating laughs


There's Something About Mary, "Dramatic Irony" is used to generate laughs in a situation where the lead protagonist, Ted, (under the impression he's been arrested for picking up a hitchhiker) doesn't realize he’s being questioned by Detectives because they think he's a cold-blooded serial murderer.  Taking this into account, the scene becomes layered with humor when Detectives probe Ted about his methods and how many time's he's, "done it" (killed people) and Ted's answers, reflecting his limited knowledge of the situation, seem callous and aloof.  Ted suggests, "It's no big deal" (thinking he’s referring to picking up strangers on the side of the road.)  Ordinary, straightforward questions and answers suddenly become funny on account of the miscommunication that is: "Dramatic Irony."

Now, as a writer, how do you arrive at a scene like this?  How do you set it up to work on so many different levels?  This requires us to back up a few scenes and examine the narrative devices planted in the story that lead to the mix up.


First, Ted picks up a hitchhiker holding a large bag.  Then, Ted stops at a rest stop to use the bathroom when he is inadvertently caught in the middle of a police sting, organized to bust a rest stop sex-ring.  Caught off guard while urinating it looks like Ted is part of the "Action."  


Meanwhile, the Hitchhiker that Ted had picked up (who is the real wanted serial killer known for murdering people who offer him rides) flees to avoid getting arrested and leaves his large bag behind in Ted's car.  When Detectives find the bag they discover a dead body inside - the "Hitchhiker-Killer's" M.O.  Now Detectives are convinced Ted is their primary suspect.  


Not only is this scene a prime example of Dramatic Irony because of the misunderstanding but it's what's at stake that elevates this scene and makes it fun to watch.

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