If August 11 is circled on your calendar, odds are you’re a fan of the AMC series Breaking Bad. That’s the date on which the show’s long-awaited grand finale, Season 6, begins—and no true fan has other plans for that night.
What does this have to do with writing? Everything. When a film or television series is as phenomenally successful as the now legendary Breaking Bad, you can bet writing has plenty to do with it. That’s why, when my husband received the Blu-ray version of Season 5 for his birthday, I was delighted to discover one of those behind-the-scenes video bonuses—“The Writers of Breaking Bad”—showing the program’s creative staff at work. Their approach is uncomplicated, incredibly effective, and fascinating to watch. Now admittedly, these are immensely talented writers who are highly motivated. They eat, live, and breathe writing. Students don’t always fit that mold—granted. Yet, as I watched them, I couldn’t help thinking how they used collaboration to maximum advantage. Even with genius running in your veins, it can’t hurt to have a strategy like that to fall back on. And just maybe that kind of intense collaboration could work not only for our natural born writers, but for students who find going solo both unproductive and sometimes downright frightening.
Think for a moment how writing process usually unfolds. Students come up with an idea, do some prewriting/research to get prepared, write a draft (in class or at home), and then begin to revise. For many, revision begins only after the draft is finished, and what’s more, it marks the first time any collaboration occurs. In a school environment, collaboration usually means conferring with the teacher or with a partner—or in some cases, simply sharing one’s writing aloud. Sharing has dramatically variable results because often, classmates aren’t certain what to listen for—or what to say to a writer who seriously needs help. How different might this scenario look if students could collaborate right from the earliest stages of planning (when motivation is at its peak), and could revise as they went along?
How professional writers modify that process
To find out, all we need do is look in on those Breaking Bad writers (who are up for yet another Emmy this September, by the way). Like most students, they begin with planning. Only they don’t do it on their own; they do it as a team—and they do it aloud. They sit around a table and talk, their purpose being to formulate a plan for whatever episode they’re currently working on. First order of business: What do we want to achieve? What’s the big picture here? For example, should Walter White (the ex-chemistry teacher turned meth king) hit new murderous lows in this episode? Show more of his good side and attempt to reform his ways? Fall victim to the ruthless impulses of hit man Mike (or turn the tables on Mike)? Or see his best-laid plans unraveled by the investigative wiles of his ingenious and insufferably pesky brother-in-law Hank? No matter what the writers decide, they share a common focus: Every scene (especially the last one in the episode, but ultimately every single one) must leave the viewer with an unresolved dilemma or unanswered question. This way, there is NO chance the viewer will stop watching. This is key—and it drives every decision they make. When you write professionally, it’s all about audience, audience, audience.
Planning begins with first and last scenes. Where should the episode open—Walt’s house, Mike’s car, police station, meth lab, out in the desert somewhere? Who’s there and what is happening? (Sound familiar? In CCSS terms, think lead, setting, characters, dialogue, transitions.) And then—what should happen in the final scene? As all fans know, Breaking Bad episodes usually end with one of the show’s heroes (Walt, Jesse, or Hank) making an alarming discovery or trying to get out of a life-and-death situation that cannot, surely, end well: e.g., Picture Walt and Jesse trapped in their dilapidated on-its-last-wheels RV meth lab (parked/hidden in a demolition lot) with police officer Hank, Walt’s brother-in-law, nosing around just on the other side of a very thin door. He hears voices within, but he has no idea whose they are. What if Hank manages to open that door, and discover that his brother-in-law Walt isn’t just a humble chemistry teacher after all, but has an unimagined (highly criminal, albeit wildly stimulating) life outside the classroom? Well, the jig will be up, obviously. Walt and Jesse will be arrested (or killed), and Walt’s image as a moral, decent father, husband, teacher will be blown sky high. Tension mounts. Escape seems impossible, capture inevitable. But remember, these are Emmy winning writers, and they thrive on twists. (By the way, it’s a real tribute to the writing prowess of these folks that we repeatedly find ourselves rooting for criminals. What??!! It’s disturbing—to say the absolute least—but those pangs of guilt are nowhere near powerful enough to keep us from watching. Face it: we’re hooked! And the writers are to blame.)
Between the opening and closing scenes, we switch gears a number of times (it’s very like a roller coaster ride), and each new scene is akin to a new paragraph in a piece of writing. How big is a scene? Well, think bigger than a one-line event (ordering a pizza), smaller than a chapter (figuring out how to foil the investigators). A typical one-hour episode might contain 10 to 15 scenes. Each one must include an important happening (something to advance the plot) or a revelation about one of the characters.
In planning these scenes out, the writing team brainstorms under the direction of the lead writer for that episode. He (or she) invites everyone to contribute possibilities. What ought to happen next? What will viewers hope for, expect, dread, never even think of? Ideas that don’t feel quite right are usually met with the comment “That’s an interesting possibility.” This is followed by hoots of laughter from the group because they know that the word “interesting” is the kiss of death. Ideas that grab everyone’s attention (plausible, yes, but also unpredictable) get a “Let’s run with that” approval, and are immediately summarized on a 3×5 card and pinned to a bulletin board.
Think how visual this is. Within minutes, the board is filled with cards (like a low-tech flowchart)—and because they’re posted in order, everyone sees exactly how the plot unfolds, and can offer suggestions for modifying that flow. Remember, no actual writing has occurred yet. The beauty of push-pins is that cards can be moved (or removed) at any time. These folks are revising as they prewrite. This is writing process at its best.
You may be wondering how the actual drafting works. Scenes are assigned to particular writers. There might be five or six writers collaborating on a given episode, so a given writer might have two or three scenes to flesh out. When everything has been written up, the writers review the whole draft together to improve transitions or make changes that affect plot, character, or dialogue.
The main point is this: These writers collaborate from the birth of the first idea right through drafting and revision. It’s a seamless whole, and everyone takes advantage of every other person’s perspective and creativity. There are no silent partners. Instead, writers engage in a continual conversation about an evolving creation. They learn from and teach one another, gaining skill with every episode.
Could it work in your classroom?
Consider trying the Breaking Bad planning process (which is actually used, of course, in the writing of many programs and videos) with groups of three to five students. Have one student designated to lead the discussions and capture the “best” ideas on 3×5 cards. And there’s no reason to limit this kind of collaborative writing to narrative, either. What gets recorded on the cards would shift with genre, so that . . .
- In narrative writing, cards could contain important events or scenes—as described above.
- In informational writing, cards could contain blocks of information, all relating to a given topic (e.g., where sharks are found in the world, the shark’s life cycle, species of sharks, why some sharks are endangered, whether sharks are as aggressive as they appear in films, how sharks benefit ocean ecology, what to do if approached by a shark while swimming or diving, and so on).
- In persuasive writing, cards could contain the “bones” of a good argument: an assertion (e.g., a vegetarian lifestyle is important for good health), evidence (projected lifespan and quality of life for vegetarians versus non-vegetarians), counter arguments (benefits of eating meat), and closing arguments (what might happen if 50% of all humans were vegetarians).
For struggling writers, the chance to collaborate early on could be a real survivor strategy. But it offers so much more than this. Collaboration is fun. Writers who work this way look forward to writing because it’s exciting, fast-paced, interactive, and highly, highly instructive. It also offers immediate feedback—something many young writers say they want and rarely get thanks to the logistical challenge of overly large classes.
Best of all, it works. Collaborators stimulate one another’s imaginations. Some students have no idea how creative they are, how good they are at dialogue or detail or coming up with a gripping ending. They need the immediate comments, suggestions, and questions of other eager writers to bring out the very best they have to give.
To view the writing team at work for yourself, see Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season. “The Writers of Breaking Bad.” 2012. Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures. Blu-Ray disk.
A hot tip: Our colleague Connie Spiegel continues to entertain and enlighten us with her online forum on current writing issues. For a terrific discussion of word choice and how we can stifle it through misguided attempts to improve students’ vocabulary, I urge you to check out Raters of the Lost Art (ratersofthelostart.com). Click on “Forum,” then “Word Choice.” This essay (and its well-chosen examples) will have you laughing, pondering, cringing, and asking yourself, “Are standards consistently taking us in the right direction?”
Coming up on Gurus . . .
I (Vicki) will be reviewing the very compelling Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz (grades 6 and up) next week, and offering a number of classroom ideas.
As summer draws to a close, you may be thinking about professional development in writing for the coming school year. We can help. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.