Game-changing: plotting in Breaking Bad and Game Of Thrones

Following on from my previous post about Breaking Bad, I want to talk about its approach to plotting and the similarities it shares with George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series of novels, which I started reading recently.
A Game Of Thrones, the first book in the series (and the recent HBO TV adaptation based on it), begins with a clear setup; despite having several POV characters, we know our hero is meant to be, and we know what form the primary conflict of the story will take. At first, that is, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. As this blog post puts it:
Much of that, I think, goes to Martin’s playing around with different ways to deal with rising action than simply resolve it in a climax. In Game of Thrones, Martin initially does give us a hero in Ned Stark, antagonists in the Lannister clan, and the sharply-defined conflict of the eponymous “game of thrones” they play against each other. The action rises traditionally enough at first, but then, instead of resolving, the arc disintegrates.
Martin delights in defying expectations and delivering some genuinely shocking moments to the reader. By the end of A Game Of Thrones, the central dynamic that was set up within the established order of his world has broken apart: we are now presented with a number of different noble families and assorted individuals moving against each other in a vast array of shifting alliances.

Breaking Badfeatures a number of differences in its storytelling. The very clear preoccupation of the series is whether Walt (and his family) will stay alive and ensure the same for his partner and family. Vince Gilligan isn’t as kill-happy with his characters as Martin is; but he is still fond of subverting the traditional instigation-rising action-climax-denouement storytelling model.The third season, for example, begins with the appearance of a clear threat to Walt. He remains unaware of the menace bearing down on him for almost half the season — until a shocking explosion of violence shatters the previous directions the characters had taken. Reactions to this break inform everything that happens, right up until another threat emerges at the very end of the season, creating a terrific cliffhanger.

Gilligan has explicitly stated his intention to keep changing the status quo:

“Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades,” saysBreaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan. “When I realized this, the logical next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?” So Gilligan designed Breaking Bad to transform its hero into a villain…

and this can be seen in the way he keeps pulling the rug out from under our established view of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.

Martin’s novels and Breaking Bad both keep their audiences on their toes using this technique. Instead of a slow build to a climax, shocking twists hit you from out of nowhere, leaving existing subplots to spin off into their own stories, which in turn crash into each other to be obliterated or continue on a new course. It’s not an approach for every narrative, but it’s a wonderful way to blindside the audience and keep a story innovative.


Leave a comment

Filed under television

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s