Breaking Bad Stories
A manifesto for story design in journalism
[NOTE: this is an abridged version of the essay which first appeared in the October issue of Inside the Story Magazine, a digital quarterly about non-fiction storytelling.]
[NOTE 2: if you’re interested in learning how non-fiction narrative works, I’ve now put this material into an online course — details here.]
In an anonymous office building somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, Room 206 has seen many things. Inside, around a table littered with empty cans of Dr. Pepper and crisp packets, crystal meth is made and sold. People are killed and babies are born. Families come close to collapse and good turns to evil. And on the walls around this table these events are packaged perfectly together.
You wouldn’t think it to look at the sign on the door, which reads simply: “Delphi Information Sciences Corporation”. Most people probably just walk past.
But the sign hides the true purpose of the room: the home of some of the most popular storytelling of the 21st Century. According to Brett Martin, author of “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution”, it’s the writer’s room of the AMC drama Breaking Bad, a show as addictive as the drug it glamorises.
Inside, Executive Producer Vince Gilligan and his team of writers plot out the narrative of each episode. According to Martin:
“On the wall behind Gilligan was a large corkboard. Across the top were pinned thirteen index cards representing the thirteen episodes of the season. In the rows beneath them, more neatly printed cards…containing detailed story points. The cards looked like a pile of leaves that had faced a stiff, left-blowing wind, clustered deep under the early episodes but gradually thinning as the as-yet-unwritten season progressed.
“As the room worked through the episode, each beat or scene would be written on a card and pinned to the board. The last card was always pinned with a little ceremony that meant the episode was locked down.”
The structure, progression, tempo and arcs of each episode are drawn out, discussed, ripped down and rewritten, before a line of dialogue is written.
The result is compelling story.
It’s a well honed method of storytelling, which along with deep, multilayered characters has earned Breaking Bad an international army of loyal fans and a host of awards.
Why the inverted pyramid doesn’t work
Over in the world of factual storytelling we have a problem. As journalists, documentary producers, photographers, researchers and writers we call ourselves ‘storytellers’, but we don’t get much of an education in story design at all.
In fact, for most of us, it’s just guesswork.
The closest we get to understanding story structure is using the Inverted Pyramid. And that’s a broken method.
If you’re not familiar with it, the inverted pyramid tells print journalists how to structure the information in a story. It says ‘put the most important things at the top, then fill it out with more details, and put the least vital information at the bottom’. It’s a simple, easily repeatable and fast way to convey information. It developed out of the invention of the telegram, with its limited space to convey information, in the 19th century, and it’s been around ever since.
But start to give yourself even a basic education in story and narrative and you realise the inverted pyramid makes people less likely to finish your article. New York Times reporter Amy O’Leary, who describes herself as “on a personal crusade to destroy the inverted pyramid” points out its flaws in this talk:
“The inverted pyramid basically tells [the reader] ‘I’ve put everything important up front, and with every word you read the story is getting less and less important. With each word you read you could care less, or walk away if you want, I don’t care, the detail at the bottom isn’t very good!”
This reliance on a poor story form, or an ignorance of narrative altogether is harming our stories, right when we need to be at our best.
How do we get a better understanding of story design? We can start by looking harder at stories we consume.
Does this matter? Does anyone notice? I think so.
Besides, our stories now compete with thousands of others. We all know from painful experience mediocre sinks to the bottom.
A manifesto for story design
We should do better and I think story is key to this.
I call the application of the principles of narrative to special journalism projects story design. It comes in two places: at the pre-production stage of a project, where the potential narrative is plotted out before research; and it comes in post-production, after the bulk of the research has been completed on a big story and it is going into editing.
(By the way, it applies really to ‘feature’ stories on the web — where the big investments in time and resources are being made to tell an important story. I know that in the majority of cases people just want the facts.)
At this stage the reporters come together with the producers, designers, videographers and others on the team and together they begin to do some serious work thrashing out the story. There’s a space for them — a wall with cork boards, index cards and a big table in the middle.
It doesn’t have to be Room 206, but it could be.
In this ideal world there is a story designer in the room, with a deep understanding of the principles of story. But at the very least, most of the people in the room should have a good grasp of how story works. Together they take the facts and work it into a narrative. They talk character, meaning and plot; they develop arcs, pin-point the climax and map intensity to build progression. And they play with structure to build in as much surprise, reveal and audience engagement as they can.
They use index cards to visualise each event in the story and stress over it as much as Gilligan and his writers would stress over their work.
This technique isn’t actually new or innovative by the way: writers like John McPhee pioneered this attention to structure back in the 1960s and 70s.
Should journalists do theatre?
Journalists, documentarians and other communicators of fact and knowledge will undoubtedly be uncomfortable with the idea of ‘designing’ stories.
When This American Life ran a colourful and engaging story by Mike Daisy about the production of iPhones, other journalists began sniffing round, until they revealed he had fabricated large parts of the piece, forcing an apology by the programme.
Daisy’s defence was that he was a performer and it was all part of the theatrics. Journalists can quickly scoff at this, but, as Jay Rosen argued shortly afterwards, there’s more to it.
“It’s not just that Mike Daisy lied, it’s that journalists who do the hard work should also learn to do great theatre” he said.
And this is why story design matters. In a world growing more complex, and unpredictable and isolating and exhausting with every ticking minute, the need for the facts, issues and events to be explained and contextualised and made engaging is greater than ever.
But story after story — global warming, the eurozone crisis, Syria — exposes the industry’s repeated failure to do this.
What we do now does not work. But there is a better way, one which combines our integrity with a better understanding of story. Concluding her talk in Boston, Amy O’Leary put it like this:
“If we can uphold our standards for truth and accuracy and we can use the devices of great narrative and drama to keep our readers engaged with our stories, then we’ve won for the day.”
[Issue 4 of Inside the Story features more essays on the craft of non-fiction narratives, plus interviews with award winning storytellers and a masterclass on starting your stories the right way. Click here read.]