During our recent chat with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan on subject of the fifth and final season of the show, he illuminated several storytelling principles that have helped make the series such a success. Here are a few of them.
While strong characters are essential to any good story, rigidity when it comes to character development can be dangerous. Instead, Gilligan suggests writers allow themselves to get to know their characters over time. “My knowledge of Walter White now is much richer than it was when I was working on the pilot,” he says, “I didn’t realize just how prideful and broken he was the way that I do now. The writers and I are in the process of discovering the characters just as the audience is.” Instead of constructing carefully mapped out arcs, the characters can develop in an organic and nuanced way.
Predictability has become a hallmark of network television, but Gilligan has been trying to constantly surprise his audience. “It’s always a conscious choice to surprise people. That is always the mandate,” Gilligan says, “Today, with all the wonderful—and sometimes not so wonderful—entertainment it’s harder than ever to keep things interesting, so you have to surprise people.” Gilligan is not only willing but eager to eliminate great characters, take risks, and veer off the most obvious path, reminding viewers not to become complacent.
Gilligan says that while working on Breaking Bad, he’s frequently been thrown curveballs. In preparing season two, Gilligan and his team had lined up actor Raymond Cruz to play the lead villain, a drug kingpin named Tuco Salamanca. But after shooting just one episode, Cruz had to leave to film another series. So, Gilligan created a new bad guy, Gustavo Fring, a meth distributor who owns a fast food restaurant chain, played by Giancarlo Esposito. “We had to roll with it,” Gilligan says, “And in my mind Gus is one of the absolute highlights of the entire series. He would very likely have not existed if another actor had been available to us.” Being open to change and constant discovery has yielded strong results for Gilligan. In fact, so much so Gilligan has been able to create twice as many hours of Breaking Bad than what he originally planned. “Having a rock solid idea of how it all should end is counterproductive,” Gilligan says, “If you’re too rigid in your thinking you may miss some wonderful opportunities for storytelling.”