Sunday, March 29, 2015

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Have At Least Six Painful Decisions

My new big-deal manager gushed about how much he loved my horror-thriller in order to keep me from signing with another guy, but then as soon as he had locked me down, he told me that he wouldn’t actually send it out because, “Eh, at some point, the story all runs downhill.” Huh? What does that mean? But no clarification was forthcoming. I’ve tried to grasp his point ever since.

Here’s my best interpretation: the hero is fighting the villain, but neither one is really surprising us anymore. The story is locked onto a certain trajectory: there are still lots of exciting things going on, and near-death scrapes, and clever escapes, but these are all obstacles, they aren’t really conflicts. They’re hard to do, but not hard to want to do.

I’ve never stopped struggling with this. Surely, at some point, the hero can finally figure out what to do, right? I realize that the whole story can’t be a straightforward struggle of good vs. evil and still be interesting, but can’t we at least have the players sorted our properly in the final act?

As I’ve redone the 17 stand-alone-story checklists, I’ve focused in on one of the new questions: Does the hero have to face several smaller good-vs.-good or bad-vs.-bad decisions throughout your story. As I’ve been adding these up, I’ve thought about changing to the wording to “Does the hero face at least six tough good-vs.-good or bad-vs.-bad dilemmas spaced out throughout the story” (In screenplay terms, that would be about 15-20 pages.)

The audience wants to play along at home. To a certain extent, watching a hero overcome obstacles is like watching someone else play a videogame, which can be a dreadful experience. When you watch a hero overcome a physical challenge, you might think, “Ooh, I know what I what I would do in that situation,”, but there’s never a satisfying pay-off to that: Either they do what you would have done, and you’re mildly gratified, or they don’t, and you just get frustrated.

What the audience really wants to say is “Ooh, I don’t know what I what I would do in that situation!” Even better is when they follow that up with, “…and I don’t want to know.” That’s when they really start playing along at home.

Let’s look at Alien:
  1. Answer the distress signal? (Risk our lives to help people we haven’t met?)
  2. Break quarantine? (Risk all of our lives for one friend’s life?)
  3. Remove the face-hugger or not? (Risk killing our friend in order to save him?)
  4. Kill the alien or try to preserve it for the company? (Risk our ability to make a living for personal safety?)
  5. Blow up the whole ship to kill it? (Destroy everything we’ve done for personal safety)
  6. Go back for the cat? (Risk my life to save a small creature?)
The dilemmas just keep on coming, and they’re all questions that we wouldn’t want to answer ourselves. And they keep going right up to the end. What if we didn’t have that tough last-minute decision? What if the final act had all been a gung-ho woman-vs.-alien struggle without any more painful dilemmas? It would be inert.

I briefly posted and then postponed a version of this post a few days ago, but a commenter had already said that saving the cat always annoyed him, because it seemed to contribute to the deaths in future films. To me, that only shows the value of the dilemma: you can never be sure if it was worth it, even years later. 

Next time, let’s look at what we can learn about genre structure from looking at the six impossible dilemmas.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Rest of the Checklists Are Up

UPDATE! So I posted this late last night followed by a discussion of difficult decisions, but awoke up this morning this morning seized by the conviction that I should have delayed and expanded that section, so I’ve deleted it now and I’ll run it next week instead.  Sorry to Ted Cross, who commented on it already, as I had to delete that comment (because it wouldn't make any sense now)  I am re-examining the point you questioned, Ted!

UPDATE #2: Actually, I should throw my question about Ted’s comment to the group: Ted was under the impression that Parker and Lambert died in Alien because Ripley decided to go back for the cat, whereas the way I remember it is that they were already dead when she made that decision.  Which is it?
So the rest of the redone checklists are all posted now, all updated to v5 and better formatted for modern devices:
As I posted them, I was taking a closer look at the checklist item about having lots of dilemmas, so I’ll discuss that more next week!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Don’t Let it Write Itself

The checklist for Silence of the Lambs has been rewritten for version 5 and reposted in the new format, so let’s look at another rule hidden in this movie...
The scene where Clarice meets Lecter in Silence of the Lambs is a masterpiece of tense and compelling scenework. To understand how great it is, we must remind ourselves of just how weird it is.

Let’s imagine some of the more traditional ways this scene could have gone. An FBI rookie is searching for a serial killer on the loose, so she interviews an imprisoned serial killer to see if he has any tips. The scene needs to be tense and compelling, with a ticking clock, right? Here are the obvious ways to do that…
  • The killer is angry, resentful and threatening.
  • He refuses to participate, forcing her to push and push to get through to him.
  • He doesn’t want her there and keeps demanding that the guards take her away, but she keeps pleading with the guards for more time with him.
That makes for a pretty tense scene right? It writes itself! And it’s probably pretty realistic, too, so that’s even better. But what if we skip over all the obvious sources of tension, ignore the most likely real-life scenario, and instead imagine something totally unexpected?
  • This killer is calm, witty and sophisticated.
  • He’s happy to have someone to talk to, provided that she’s smart enough to verbally spar with him
  • We get an entirely different type of ticking clock: She’s told in advance that he’ll talk as long as possible …until he gets bored. This might seem to be less of a problem than open belligerence, but it turns out to be far more threatening, because she has no choice but to play his games and submit to his interrogations in order to maintain his interest long enough to get some tips.
This is totally counterintuitive, but it works much better. The result may be less realistic, but it’s far more entertaining, fresh, and creepy.

In the DVD extras, Hopkins arrogantly says that no American actor could have played Lecter, because Americans are trained to make their characters organic and understandable, whereas British actors are willing to create characters externally, concerned more with the audience’s psychology than their own. His Lecter is essentially an inhuman devil: we’re not getting inside his head, he’s getting in ours.

To write this sort of scene, you can start with the question, “How would I feel if I’d been locked up for so long?”, which is fine, but it can also work to simply approach the scene externally, asking, “What sort of human monster have we never seen before? How can I create a scene that’s scary in an entirely different way from what the audience would suspect?”

Crucially, Lecter remains three-dimensional and believable, because (novelist) Harris, (screenwriter) Tally, and (actor) Hopkins have given him a clear (albeit demonic) internal logic, but he’s not a character that you would arrive at by putting yourself in this situation, or even by reading the literature on typical serial killers. This story doesn’t “write itself”, because Lecter is an entirely original creation.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: One Power-Packed Scene in Sunset Boulevard

I’m in the process of reposting the Checklist Roadtests with better formatting and rewritten for Checklist v5, along with new thoughts on the movies. The new Sunset Boulevard Checklist is up, so let’s look at  one amazing scene from the beginning which establishing six different necessary elements of a great story, all at once.

Down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis is begging a Hollywood producer for work, so the producer (Mr. Sheldrake, a name that Wilder re-used later in The Apartment) calls in his assistant Betty to get the coverage on Joe’s latest script. She comes in to deliver it, not realizing that Joe himself is the other man in the room:
  • BETTY: Hello, Mr. Sheldrake. On that Bases Loaded. I covered it with a 2-page synopsis. (She holds it out) But I wouldn't bother.
  • SHELDRAKE: What's wrong with it?
  • BETTY: It's from hunger.
  • SHELDRAKE: Nothing for Ladd?
  • BETTY: Just a rehash of something that wasn't very good to begin with.
  • SHELDRAKE: I'm sure you’ll be glad to meet Mr. Gillis. He wrote it.
  • Betty turns towards Gillis, embarrassed.
  • SHELDRAKE: This is Miss Kramer.
  • BETTY: Schaefer. Betty Schaefer. And right now I wish I could crawl into a hole and pull it in after me.
  • GILLIS: If I could be of any help...
  • BETTY: I'm sorry, Mr. Gillis, but I just don't think it's any good. I found it flat and banal.
  • GILLIS: Exactly what kind of material do you recommend? James Joyce? Dostoesvsky?
  • SHELDRAKE: Name dropper.
  • BETTY: I just think pictures should say a little something.
  • GILLIS: Oh, you're one of the message kids. Just a story won't do. You'd have turned down Gone With the Wind.
  • SHELDRAKE: No, that was me. I said, Who wants to see a Civil War picture?
  • BETTY: Perhaps the reason I hated Bases Loaded is that I knew your name. I'd always heard you had some talent.
  • GILLIS: That was last year. This year I'm trying to earn a living.
So just in this one small exchange we get:
  • The hero’s longstanding personal problem (which he’s aware of): He’s broke and disrespected.
  • The hero’s internal flaw (which he’s not fully aware of yet): He’s lost his soul and sold out his talent.
  • The hero’s social humiliation: This scene shows the value of the unintentional humiliation. It’s always good to have less open antagonism in a story, so it’s great to have the hero find out what people really think about him accidentally without anybody having to directly confront him. (This is also a way to include the dreaded “Do you know what your problem is” scene in a non-grating way. She doesn’t want to tell him and he doesn’t want to hear, but it simply happens accidentally.)
  • An assurance that, even though he’s got big flaws, he still has enough skills to root for. He’s not just a loser. He’s got potential to live up to.
  • An early “I understand you” moment with the love interest: Usually this comes much later in the story, but sometimes it comes early and also serves as the social humiliation.
  • We even end on a false goal and false statement of philosophy! It’s tempting in these scenes to have the hero be humbled, admit to his flaws, and vow to change over the course of the story, but it’s always better if he tries to reject the criticism and double down on his flaws until much later in the story.
And the fact that all six of these are established in one scene demonstrates another rule: It would be so easy to have six different scenes to establish these six elements. The result would be a screenplay that was clearly too long, but hard to cut down because every element felt essential. The trick is always to hit multiple beats at the same time in one small scene and still feel effortless. As in so many other things, Wilder is the master.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How to Generate an Idea, Addendum: Tweak the Right and Left Simultaneously

As I’ve discussed, I’ve always been a big fan of “24”, despite the nasty assumptions that fuel many of its storylines. I know a lot of people who just can’t stomach this element and they demand to know how I put up with it. I tell them that I like it for the same reason I like Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”.

Hugo’s novel has an audacious and somewhat cheeky premise: let’s take the ultimate liberal hypothetical and the ultimate conservative hypothetical and combine them into one man.

When liberals advocate humane treatment of poor criminals, they frequently cite the possibility that the accused was just a poor man desperately taking bread to feed his family, but this drives conservatives crazy. “Sure that could happen in theory,” they say, “but it’s never actually the case in real life.”

Conservatives, on the other hand, defend misbehaving members of the upper class in much the same way: They paint the accused as a bold “maker” who probably rose from nothing, had a great business idea, built a factory from scratch and magnanimously took care of its workers, all of whom would be thrown out of work if we peevishly insist on convicting him of some minor infraction. To this, liberals say, “Sure, that’s possible in theory, but it’s never actually happened that way, so let’s not indulge that fantasy.”

If a writer were to simply dramatize one or the other of these powerful myths, the result would be a partisan polemic, acceptable to only one side of the other, and that’s fine, but Hugo’s puckish genius was to smash the thesis and antithesis together, uniting them in a single hero. Jean Valjean is both the man stealing bread to feed his family and the unjustly persecuted factory owner all at once.

The result is both deeply ironic and wildly entertaining, as we watch poor Jean swim his way across an epic sea of troubles, encountering lots of ironic reversals, none of which fully confirm our political prejudices.

And so this brings us back to “24” and another hero known for his seemingly endless struggles. Why do I put up with the ultra-right narratives that so frequently infect the show? Because there are 24 hours in a day, and this plot never stops twisting, so those troubling narratives are constantly colliding head on with equally compelling counter narratives.

In the most recent season of the show, we had the standard right-wing narratives: British Muslim sleeper-agents plot the destruction of London, exploiting foolish Western tolerance, and an Assange-like character denounces imperialism while secretly selling the secrets he hacks to the Chinese. Yes, that’s all offensive to me, but we also had lots of left-wing red-meat tossed in: the terrorists are motivated by wrongful drone deaths, and they hack into those drones to rain death upon London, proving that they’re a terrible idea. We even get an American president forced to submit himself the humiliation of British question time, a longtime fantasy of the left!

So on the one hand I do worry about the effect of dramatizing and affirming various bigoted fantasies, but I love that they’re countered with the sort of left-wing narratives you wouldn’t normally see on TV, and I especially love that the advocates of the other side have my side thrown in their face as part of a program they deeply love and trust.

In other words, as is so often the case, irony makes it all work. Slamming these two counter-narratives against each other creates more narrative power (and fun) than either would have on its own.

Let’s look at one last example: If we combine the last story-starter (Ask “What if It’s All True?”) with this one, we get one of my favorite movies, The Manchurian Candidate.

Once again, this movie takes its premise from a then-current ultra-right conspiracy theory that was deeply offensive to most Americans (the fear that Korean War vets had been brainwashed by the Red Chinese before they were sent home) and yokes it to a far-left narrative (Posh Republican matrons and their McCarthy-ite stooges hate this country even more than the Soviets) Amazingly, the result offended no one and entertained everyone.

So now we have a rule and its two corollaries: One way to tap into the public imagination is to start with a current crazy theory and ask, “What if it’s all true?”, and one way to maximum the irony and fun of that exercise is to slam right and left-wing narratives up against each other.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

How to Generate an Idea, Addendum: Ask “What If It’s All True?”

We’ve already covered the topic of tapping into the public imagination. In the original post, I mentioned movies like The Parallax View, Winter Kills and The Package that take some of the most wild-eyed theories about the Kennedy assassination and bring them to life in a lightly-fictionalized way, but now I’d like to dig further into that and create a corollary rule.

Politically, those movies seem to be on somewhat safe ground, because America’s debates about the Kennedy assassination have never been particularly partisan. Many staunchly defend the official lone-gunman story, and many others passionately believe in various conspiracy theories, but no matter how righteous people get, they don’t really get morally offended by the other side.

But here’s the funny thing: Even when you look at some more inflammatory versions of “What if it’s all true?”, you notice that it doesn’t actually matter, because audiences tend not to take offense no matter what.

There’s no better example of this than “House of Cards”. I know a lot of Clinton-loving Democrats who adore this show...and that’s downright weird, because it’s predicated on one simple supposition: What if everything the ultra-right said about the Clintons in the ‘90s turned out to be true? What if they really were soulless Machiavellian psychopaths? What if they really were killing former allies with fake suicides? What if they really were having creepy threesomes with secret-service agents? It’s all there!

It’s funny how much people talk about the show without mentioning the Clinton element, despite the many obvious connections, both in front of and behind the camera: After all, Beau Willimon, the creator of the American version, worked on the 2000 Hilary Senate campaign, and star Kevin Spacey is an occasional F.O.B. (they infamously flew to Africa together on the jet of billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein). And yet almost everybody politely declines to note the parallels.

Why is this? I’m not sure. Obviously, the fact that the names and major details were changed makes a big difference. When CBS made a docudrama claiming that Clinton was somehow responsible for 9/11 (“The Path to 9/11”), there was enough outrage to pre-empt it off the air. But a fictionalized version of other allegations, even one that faithfully recreates a lot of very-specific allegations, is seen as harmless.

Actually, because most of my friends are either Democrats or leftists, I don’t actually know how Republicans feel about the show. I assume they like it, but do they? It would be fascinating if they didn’t.

It’s interesting to compare the show to the remake of “Battlestar Galactica”. I wrote here about how that show’s premise seemed to be, “What if everything the far right claimed about Muslims was actually true? What if they really were a unified death-crazed theocratic hive-mind infiltrating all of our institutions in order to eradicate us?” In that case, this was clearly a show aimed at those who didn’t believe that, because it was implicitly asking “Even if that were true, what it be worth abandoning our values in order to defeat them?” And the implied answer was: “No.”

But “House of Cards” isn’t doing anything like that. It’s not, for instance, exaggerating Frank’s horribleness to make the point that he’s still better than the opposition (at least not in the first two seasons.  I haven’t started season 3 yet, so no spoilers!) Spacey, on “The Colbert Report” (the only place I’ve seen him called out on the Clinton parallels), made a half-hearted attempt to say, “Yes, but at least he’s getting legislation through!” but the show itself, to its great credit, has not done that. There is no sense of “Yes, but we need the Frank Underwoods of the world.” He’s just terrible.

So I can only conclude that audiences just don’t care. We may find a particular allegation wildly offensive in real life, but as soon as it gets fictionalized, we’re just ready for the popcorn. One wonders how far you could take this…If they made a fictionalized version of a “9/11 truther” theory, would people accept that? Last year on the Black List, there was a script about Stanley Kubrick faking the moon landings. That’s a loony theory that many people find particularly offensive…but would it bother them onscreen? I guess we might find out…

But wait, all of this brings another permutation to mind! Come back tomorrow for yet another similar type of story idea suggested by “Les Miserables”, The Manchurian Candidate, and “24”...

Monday, March 16, 2015

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Plant Solutions as Problems

So I’m hoping that the “Breaking Bad” checklist finally looked good on everybody’s computer, whether desktop or mobile. I’ve been fooling around with the format on these things forever, but I feel like I actually have it down. To celebrate, I’ll be reposting most of the old ones, all of which I’ve updated for Checklist v5. As I do so, I’ll revisit some of them, starting with Iron Man
The first time I evaluated this movie on the question of hiding plot contrivances with set-up and payoff, I focused on two that it failed to disguise:
  • Why does Pepper wait until the sun has gone down (a minute too late) to call Tony and warn him about Stane?
  • During Tony’s big fight with Stane, why is Pepper standing in the same spot 10 minutes after the fight began, insuring that she’ll be in danger again when they crash back down to Earth?

But upon re-examining the movie, I decided that I’d been too hard on it. The fact is that plotting action is extremely hard. You don’t just have to work out the story beats, you also have to time them precisely to all the other beats, because of the urgent nature of the situation, and, of course, you have to keep endangering the love interest without making her/him stupid or making the hero seem callous for endangering her/him.
If you’ve ever written action, you know how nearly impossible this is, and it’s all the more frustrating because nobody notices your accomplishment. Nobody ever walked out of an action movie saying, “Wow, they did a great job keeping the intelligent love interest constantly in danger for believable reasons!” They only notice if that isn’t true.

Keeping that in mind, the plotting in Iron Man is actually really elegant, and it demonstrates one trick that I’ve never highlighted before…

When you write an action movie, you have to constantly create impossible death traps and then have the hero get out of them anyway. That’s where the adrenaline rush kicks in. If the problem is within the scope of the hero’s standard skill-set, then it’s not exciting to watch him or her triumph. If, on the other hand, the hero utilizes an escape that’s never even been hinted at, the audience will feel cheated. So the whole job is to quietly set-up a future solution, then trick the audience into forgetting about it just long enough to freak them out about the next big danger…only to have the pre-planted solution unexpectedly pay off.

This is really hard to do, but Iron Man shows how it’s done: If you’re going to plant a solution, make it seem like a problem at the time, so that it won’t occur to the audience that this might come in handy later.

One example is the rescue of Pepper, when Stane catches her downloading files in Tony’s office. Let’s look at the potential ways Pepper could get away…
  • Let her slip away easily? No, this lacks suspense, and makes the villain look dumb.
  • Have her break a vase over someone’s head? No, this is an old cliché born of the desire to have a woman be good in a fight without any actual fighting skills.
  • Have her suddenly busts out some kung-fu moves? I suppose, but it strains credibility when everyday people have fighting skills. Audiences want realistic characters, even in action movies. Not every woman needs to be a fighter in order to be a strong female character. (In fact no character in this movie, male or female, displays any unaided hand-to-hand skills, which is refreshing for an action movie)
  • So that means she has to benefit from outside intervention. (Yes, it’s okay for a female character to get rescued every now and then, especially if she got into this by doing something heroic, and she’ll do something heroic as a result.) So who should rescue her? Tony? No, this violates another rule: you have to limit the number of direct confrontations between your hero and your villain, because, we all know that these will be inconsequential confrontations until the end of the movie, and the audience only has so much tolerance for those. Even an action movie can’t be one long direct confrontation.
  • So that leaves one option: an unexpected rescuer.

But we can’t have that rescue be totally unexpected, because that would feel like a cheat. So how do you set it up surreptitiously? By introducing the solution as a problem. In addition to dealing with Tony’s outlandish needs throughout the movie, Pepper also has to run interference for him, putting off people like Mr. Coulson, a government agent who keeps meekly requesting a moment of Tony’s time. By making Coulson a persistent annoyance, we don’t notice that he’s being set up to be there to rescue Pepper when the time is right.

(…and even then, it feels like she’s rescuing herself, because she uses her special skill to solve this life-threatening situation: scheduling access to Tony. It just goes to show that any special skill can have a nice pay-off!)

The movie does this again with issue of icing. At the end, when Iron Man fights Iron Monger, it has to be clear that Stane’s armor is more powerful than Tony’s so that we’ll feel that adrenaline rush, but Tony has to defeat Stane anyway in a way that makes sense. Once again the solution was established as a problem: When Tony was first testing out his armor he took it too high and almost died when it iced over. This felt like its own harrowing moment, not a set-up for a later rescue, but it’s the perfect solution to his later problem

(And, yes, this taps into Tony’s special skill: Stane may be able to steal and max-out Tony’s original plans, but he doesn’t have Tony’s insatiable urge to endanger himself and then tinker around to solve the problems he encounters while doing so. Thus Tony has solved the icing problem and Stane hasn’t.)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Storyteller's Rulebook: Combine An Old Generic With A New Specific

One last little neat thing about the “Breaking Bad” pilot. Sometimes things become clichéd for a good reason. Maybe there’s an over-used metaphor that feels tired, but still rings true because life really does feel like that.

This pilot does a good job revivifying an old cliché. While Walt is being told his cancer diagnosis, all he hears is a wooshing sound. We’ve all seen this onscreen before, but it’s worth repeating, because we’ve also all experienced it: hearing bad news in slow motion, and being unable to process it at the time…even if it’s just a lesser form of bad news such as getting dumped.

But this pilot makes the old seem new again by adding a bizarre new very-specific detail. Walt isn’t just fuzzing out, he’s focusing in on a yellow dot on the doctor’s white coat: presumably a drop of mustard from his lunch. Walt finally acknowledges the diagnosis dismissively, then redirects the conversation to a more pressing issue: the stain.

This is great in so many ways: The yellow dot is such a unique image, and it symbolizes both the cancer itself (an unwanted blob) and the general failure of doctors (who wear these white coats to prove how spotless they are, in every sense.) The addition of the bizarrely specific detail nicely revivifies an overused idea.


And hey, just for fun, let me tell you my own diagnosis story, which was so different from the version you always see onscreen: I’d had the permanently-swollen lymph-node in my neck tested before, and it had come up benign, so my doctors had told me to forget about it, but I went on WebMD and convinced myself it was advanced Lymphoma, probably of the Non-Hodgkins variety (55% fatal if caught late) but there was a small chance it was Hodgkins (only 25% fatal if caught late).

So I went to an expert on these needle-draws and told him my suspicions. He pulled out some fluid and cheerfully said he could help me out by running the test right away. I sat there in in the cold waiting room as I heard his steps recede down the hall, and then I soon heard the steps come back. He stuck his head in the door and said, “Congratulations, it’s Hodgkins!” then closed the door again and went on his way. Soon the nurse came and told me they needed the room for the next patient. End of diagnosis!

So it just goes to show that there’s always a version you haven’t seen on screen before!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: Everything and the Kitchen Sink in the “Breaking Bad” Pilot Pilot

As I mentioned before, it must have been very tempting to end the “Breaking Bad” pilot with Walt’s proposal to Jesse that they cook meth.

After all, Walt starts the pilot so far away from that moment, and it takes so many details to move him towards it (the birthday, getting mocked by the student at the car wash, the cancer diagnosis, getting mocked by Hank, the news story about Hank’s bust, the unexpected reunion with Jesse, etc…) Surely all of that escalation could have filled up the entire pilot.

But the show somehow manages to cram all of those twists into just the first 30 minutes. This leaves creator Vince Gilligan time to fill the second half with a foreshortened version of a typical episode: a drug deal gone wrong, a harrowing brush with death, a chemistry-based solution, and escalating damage control.

What are the advantages? First of all, it ensures that the first half really flies, which is great, because Walt’s life in this section is really frustrating and he’s not really pursuing any goals yet (Or not that we can see...In retrospect, he may have been considering this life change even before his diagnosis.)

Most remarkably, it manages to do so without ignoring small character moments that have nothing to with the plot. In one odd little scene, we see Walt drive home from school in his Aztek and notice the handicapped mirror-hanger. He gets annoyed by it and tries to toss it in his glove compartment, which won’t close, forcing him to bang it over and over. It’s a little 20 second moment, but it goes a long way to assure us that this isn’t just a Rube-Goldberg-contraption of a story mechanistically headed towards one final outcome. (It’s also a nice hint of suppressed frustration with his son’s handicap, despite how admirably he interacts with Walt Jr. the rest of the time)

But the best reason to compress the story is to ensure that the pilot delivers not just the premise, but also the promise of the show. We see how things might go down and go wrong every week, and we see that it’ll be entertaining.

Of course, it should feel ridiculous to move our idealistic school teacher all the way to his first botched drug deal and his first killing on his first day on the job, but the progression of events feels natural enough.  Actually, the final version is even more sped-up than the pilot script.  In the script, Emilio and Crazy-8 show up on the second day of cooking, which makes a lot more sense, but in the finished pilot, they seem to show up on the first day, which implies that Jesse rushed back to town to sell the first batch while the second batch was cooking. Nevertheless, it doesn’t feel that absurd as it goes down.
One neat trick was to have the deal go south instantly because Emilio recognizes Walt from the earlier bust and assumes he’s DEA.  This not only gets Walt into trouble faster, it’s also far more compelling and believable than the lazy version they could have gone with, in which Emilio and Crazy-8 simply come there to kill Walt and steal his product in the first place. It’s always better to have things escalate because of an ironic sequence of events, rather than sheer aggression that doesn’t match the villains’ best interest.

One last trick that that allowed the pilot to cover all this ground is something that most pilot writers can’t do: it cheats on the time. The episode takes up a 58 minutes without breaks, which means that, whenever AMC runs it, they have to show it with limited commercials or expand it to 90 minutes, which messes up their schedule.

You might assume that this was because it was developed for HBO or Showtime, but no, it was developed for FX before it made the jump to AMC. Basically, Gilligan just used the clout that he had accumulated on “The X-Files” to demand special treatment, and he got it.

So don’t try this at home, right? Well, some spec-pilot-writers claim that their pilot is intended for pay-cable, even though they know it’s more likely to find a home on FX or AMC, and they just want more pages. It’s a cheat, but if it gives you the freedom you need to write something as good as “Breaking Bad”, it just might be a cheat you want to take.