Climax, resolution, and story goal

The easiest part for most writers is to come up with a premise.

A computer hacker learns about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers. (The Matrix)

A serial killer helps an FBI agent hunt another serial killer. (Silence of the Lambs)

The patriarch of a crime syndicate transfers control of his empire to his reluctant son. (The Godfather)

You know what these are without seeing the title. And if you’re ambiguous with a few words, a premise describes multiple stories.

An orphaned boy is raised in the care of a powerless uncle but watched over by an aged but powerful wizard/warrior. When the boy reaches a certain age, the old wizard tells the boy about his true heritage and helps him develop his powers until he is able to avenge his father’s death. (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Eragon, King Arthur, etc.)

That’s the power of the premise—even a simple one can be used multiple times with small variations.

But some writers really struggle when it comes to the back end of premise, resolution. They come up with amazing premises that keep you riveted to the page or screen and then the end is a huge letdown. It should come as no surprise that these writers generally consider themselves “organic” in the sense that they do not plan.

Stephen King believes that the story exists within you and your an archaeologist brushing the dirt away to find the fossil underneath. As such, many of his stories had the exact same resolution.

A killer clown comes out of hiding every few years to kill kids. (It) Resolution: the monster was an alien.

An invisible dome cuts a town off from the rest of the world. (Under the Dome) Resolution: aliens did it.

M. Night Shyamalan has this issue as well. After the brilliant Sixth Sense, he decided all of his movies needed a twist ending (Dr. Crowe is dead, Mr. Glass is the bad guy, The Village isn’t real). I don’t have a problem with that, but if you’re not O. Henry, then this can cause problems.

So, when setting out to write a story that has a good resolution you need to start at the beginning. Yes, you may stumble upon the right ending by writing organically, King nails it in Pet Semetary, but it mostly you’ll get bad endings or obviously tacked-on endings where he just ran out of steam.

(For a better synopsis of this than I can write, go here)

Once you had your premise, you need a goal, something the protagonist has to achieve. Then you set the antagonist up in opposition. Some writers put the cart before the horse and come up with a hero and a villain before they know what the hero wants. That’s fine, but realize that you may realize as your planning that the antagonist is not a true antagonist but may be a contagonist. If you have a story goal, you can more clearly set your protagonist and antagonist against one another.

Once you have these basics, you need a solid climax. To me, this is the hardest part. I almost always know how a story is going to end, which you may think is the only thing you need, but for me it never is. A resolution without a convincing climax is not possible. The resolution flows from the climax, so even if it makes sense with the original premise, if you cheated to get there, your readers won’t ever trust you again.

The reason most climaxes struggle is that they come from outside the MC, and that’s no way to sell a story. You’ve shown your MC as either a tragic or a heroic figure and then you’re going to let the sidekick save the day (Star Wars)? No. The climax is about your MC either changing or not changing a fundamental trait that your story is based on. Andy Dufresne in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption wins because he never gives up hope. Michael Corleone in The Godfather loses because he is unable to stay true to his convictions at the beginning of the novel and turns into his father.

Once you have that decision in place, the resolution follows. If it’s a comedy, it ends happily, and if it’s a tragedy it ends badly. Right before the climax of a comedy, everything should look impossible for the MC. Right before the climax of a tragedy, it should appear that the MC is going to pull it off.

In a poor resolution, these things either aren’t connected, or the final resolution is affected from without instead of within. In Under the Dome, we see Barbie trying to maintain control of the town despite Big Jim’s machinations and the town survives because the aliens release the dome. How is that in any way satisfying?

And it took King three tries to finish this novel? I hate to think what the first two ended like because the last one is awful.

And it’s that way because the ending was never planned from the beginning and King was looking for a resolution that was at least plausible. But why not have the govt in charge of the dome? Why not have Barbie, who is trusted by the govt, realize that he is being manipulated and finds a way overthrow our domestic overlords? That would’ve been a fantastic finish. Just as everything is about to fall apart, Barbie makes a last ditch effort to find the source of the dome. He finds it and it reminds him of some govt research plan from his past military career. He puts two and two together and blows the whole thing up.

I can’t have a post without a Breaking Bad reference. In the final episode, Jesse is at absolute rock bottom. He’s being held prisoner and forced to cook meth for a bunch of new-Nazis. He tries to escape and to punish him they kill his ex-girlfriend, who happens to be a single mom. He knows that this is life. He will cook until there’s no more methylamine and then they’ll kill him.

Throughout the series, Jesse Pinkman has the most dynamic arc. In the beginning, you hate him and want him to die. Slowly, you understand him, then you pity him, and then you root for him. More than anything you want him to get free of all of this.

And when he breaks through that fence at the end, I cheer every time, choking back tears. That, my friends, is resolution.

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The dangers of overplanning

I’ve spoken before about being careful not to spend too much time planning your story before actually writing it, but there are other fears as well. Namely, ignoring where your story should be going based on the daily writing you do. And once again I’m going to reference Breaking Bad, and also Game of Thrones.

It’s an open secret that Jesse Pinkman was supposed to die at the end of season one of Breaking Bad and his death, at the hands of Tuco Salamanca, was going to push Walter into some pretty dark places as he exacted his revenge. For the entirety of season two, Tuco was going to be the “Big Bad Wolf” and he was going to drag Walter into a world of criminality that would begin the process of “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.”

But several things happened that changed the course of the series, and it’s truly hard to imagine Breaking Bad without these changes.

The writer’s strike

The writer’s strike of 2007 impacted many, many shows, and affected the state of the industry as a whole. Residuals from DVD sales and payment for webisodes were the biggest topics, but the strike took place in the middle of the season and had a huge impact on the rust season of Breaking Bad.

Vince Gilligan has repeatedly said that they’d planned to kill Jesse and decided not to because the final two episodes were canceled due to the strike but also because he saw the immediate chemistry between Aaron Paul’s Jesse and Bryan Cranston’s Walter. I’m not saying the writer’s strike saved the series, because Gilligan has also said that he realized after the filming of the second episode that he couldn’t kill him, but just the fact that such a huge plot development was changed at all show that Gilligan and his writers were always open to any development. As I’ve said before, everything was on the table.

It may sound like I’m quibbling because they never really planned to kill Jesse after a certain point, but it does follow the message that you have to be willing to adapt our outline once you start writing. Granted, TV writers also have to take into account the performance of the actors and the directors, but, if you’re anything like me, when you start writing, there will be many moments where you see things happening before you write them.

Your characters will talk to you—you’d better listen.

Another issue they had was with Raymond Cruz, the actor who played Tuco Salamanca. As I’ve said, the plan for season two was for Raymond Cruz’s Tuco to be the primary antagonist for Walter White. But that all fell apart when Cruz b came a series regular on TNT’s The Closer, and Cruz was unable to devote the time needed to be a regular cast member of two shows. At that point the decision had to be made whether to recast or to move on with another character. Many shows recast characters, usually minor characters, and Breaking Bad could’ve found another actor to play Tuco, but they chose to kill off Tuco.

That decision was important for two reasons.

First, the death of Tuco at the hands of Hank is one of the pivotal moments in the show’s history and dealing with it provides Hank’s story arc for that season.

Two, because they had to find a new bad guy, the show would move in a direction that would take from good to great to legendary. As they broke season two without Tuco they knew they needed to bring in a new bad guy. This led to the creation of Gustavo Fring, played by the inimitable Giancarlo Esposito.

Fring was the single most important character in Breaking Bad behind Jesse and Walt. More important than Hank or even Skyler, Fring was the ultimate counterpoint to Walter. He’s intelligent, deliberate, and vicious. In many ways, he’s everything Walt wants to be: an illicit drug emperor. And all this because Kyra Sedgwick learned how to fake a Southern accent.

Then look at Game of Thrones. It between seasons three and four, the part of Daario Naharis had to be recast, when Ed Skrein left to star in a Transporter reboot. But Game of Thrones, rather than going a different direction, kept the character and recast the part to Michael Huisman.

Now I’m sure many people will feel that the Game of Thrones creators had to stick with the source material and couldn’t bring in a new character for the part Daario’s character provides. But I’ve seen seasons four and five several times and I can tell you that Daario is not that significant if a character. But seeing a different actor playing the same role always bothers me. It’s jarring as a viewer and forces us to suspend our disbelief for just a moment.

Now what does this mean for a writer? How does the average writer not dealing with a billion-dollar TV franchise use this information?

Just realize that everyone has different ways of dealing with the same issue and so should you. The only way that is right for you is the one you decide is right for you. Don’t force your style of working any more than you can force your actually style of writing. Just as you need to let your writing flow to find your style, you need to experiment with your technique until you find what works for you.

And, above all, remember that you are creating this world. That means you have complete control over what happens and you can change whatever you want. No one can tell you what to write, and that includes the you that wrote the outline.

How to use sparks of inspiration

“It doesn’t matter if something is hard or easy. It should matter if it’s possible and important. If it’s both of those things, then it must be done.”

I came up with this phrase while discussing a problem with someone from my corporate office. As soon as the phrase came to mind I had to write it down. I didn’t necessarily know what to do with it or what it meant but I knew that it was important because it sounded exactly like a character I was currently writing. Once I realized that it was this character talking and I could use it in this specific novel I didn’t wait for a moment where it would work or look for a moment where it would work, I created the moment where it would work.

Every once in a while you’ll know you have something that’s important but you won’t have the exact place for it. Rather than scrapping it or writing a note down and looking for the best moment or forcing it into the scene, you’re currently writing, maybe just create that place. I had been struggling with this novel since I started. I knew where I wanted to start I knew where I wanted to end but I had no idea how to get there. The entire middle was a mess.

Once I wrote the scene that included this quote I knew everything that had to happen before that scene and I knew everything that had to happen after that scene. It was the most important scene I had written for that novel. And I literally wrote it thought about it when I was at work doing something pretty trivial.

It’s also an important message for learning how to break a story. I fear as writers we give up on something because it’s too hard. But that shouldn’t matter.

Every once in a while you’ll come up with a perfectly worded phrase. Sometimes it’s a string of dialogue that is particularly pithy. Sometimes it’s the way to describe an epic sword move. But usually what we do as writers is make a note of it in one of our many epic notebooks, or just on a napkin, and forget about it. A month or a year later, we see that scrap of paper and wonder what we’re supposed to do with it.

But what if we didn’t do that?

I was at work discussing bad weather with a customer when a thought popped into my head. It got me to thinking about how things are handled in govt or corp bureaucracies as opposed to how things are handled by the “boots on the ground.” It occurred to me that if something was too difficult, a bureaucrat either doesn’t do it or pawns it off as someone else’s problem. But people in operations don’t have that option. If something has to be done, then it gets done. If it’s considered difficult or even impossible. If it has to be done, then it gets done. And that’s when the phrase above came to my mind. I immediately wrote it down because it sounded exactly like something a character in my WIP would say.

Now, truth be told, this WIP is still very much “In Progress.” But I knew the broad strokes and wanted to capture the moment with that phrase. So, rather than writing the phrase down and remembering it for later, I created a scene around the phrase. What would be happening to my MC (who is not the person speaking this line)? Who would this character be talking to? What would be the context of him using this statement?

I had no idea if I could make it work, but I knew that if I answered those questions, I could find a way to create the whole scene and the scenes leading to it and away from it. And that’s what I started to do.

At this moment, this character is separated from the MC and a significant point in the story. The character speaking this line, Mike, is talking to the sidekick of the antagonist, an obsequious toad naked Joey. Joey works for the govt, Mike works for Home Depot, and they’re arguing over gasoline prices during a hurricane. Joey is sequestering all the gasoline for govt use to prevent price gouging and Mike is trying to help the MC, Christine, find her daughter, who is missing after the storm goes through.

Now the whole premise of the story is about the chaos dealing with the aftermath of a disaster, but all I had was big picture problems between different govt leaders and businessman, all of whom were pretty awful. But I never had the subplot of why it personally mattered so much to Christine, who is the protagonist.

With this one scene, precipitated on one line, I figured out the whole climax of the novel. For me, climaxes are always harder than resolutions. I think where most authors fail is they pick the wrong climax (I’ll discuss that more in another blog about Stephen King and Kevin Smith). So, once I had the climax, I was no longer the tail wagging the dog, so to speak. If you know whether your novel is a tragedy or a comedy, which means it ends unhappily or happily, then the really hard part is the climax.

In a tragedy, the MC looks like they’re gonna big to win at the climax. In a comedy, it looks like they’re going to lose. So, if you know how the story is going to start and end, you just have to figure out the climax and then connect the dots.

So what does this mean for writers in general? For me, it means never taking anything for granted. You never know where an idea is going to lead you unless you follow that thread. Give it a good yank and see where it takes you. Allow your characters to surprise you. Let the bad guys win every once in a while. Let minor characters provide the death blow.

And always torture your MC as much as possible.

But, above all, remember that nothing is off the table. You’re creating a story here and it only belongs to you. When you get a crazy idea, follow it. In fact, it may be better to stop whatever you’re doing with your WIP at the moment and follow that crazy idea wherever it may lead. If it doesn’t work, that’s fine, too. Learning what your characters won’t do and where your story won’t lead is as important as what they do and where it leads.

That’s not to say I’m a proponent of Edison’s maxim of finding thousands of ways to fail, but I am a proponent of failure. You should learn from your mistakes. You should investigate why things don’t work when it feels like they should. And then you should apply those lessons in future projects, especially in the planning stages.

What techniques have you tried that hasn’t worked? And those that have?

Breaking Bad and ricin: How to use items effectively and avoid Chekhov’s Gun

This is a very difficult post for me to write because I’m not sure of the technical terms I’m using. The best term to use is “item,” and it refers to anything that a character physically uses that has great significance, either for the plot or symbolic significance. The best example I could think of would be the magical items featured in many fantasy novels (the One Ring in Lord of the Rings). But it’s not generally listed as a literary element the same way characters, plot, or tone are.

In general, when writers talk about items, they refer to Chekhov’s Gun or symbolism. An item is either important because a writer refers to it and then doesn’t use it, or if the item imparts great significance to the story. Rarely do they just talk about how to use items effectively.

Truth be told, I’m really bad at using items this way and am also pretty bad I’m forgetting things early in a story and never referring to them later. So maybe I’m not the best person to write about this. But if only experts were allowed on the Internet, it would be a pretty barren (and boring) place. And Wikipedia would have about five articles.

Chekhov’s Gun is a narrative principle that states one should remove everything unnecessary to the story.

“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

First off, this applies to all things in your story, not just items. Second, there are still times when it’s okay to do this, for instance when the element is a red herring. But you should avoid baiting the reader too much or without cause. Don’t attempt to confuse the reader simply for the sake of being clever. Make it serve the story.

Symbolism in items is more problematic. Tolkien was famous for saying that the One Ring did not symbolize the nuclear bomb, but many people still believe that today. Sometimes we can subconsciously give meaning to elements in our story without even knowing it. You may not remember your father always drinking his scotch with water when he was happy and straight when he was mad. But your subconscious does and it makes your MC do it without you even realizing it. And then, at a critical moment, he’s drinking scotch straight and everything ends up okay and the spell is broken. There’s symbolism inherent in our working without us realizing it and there’s symbolism the reader brings with them. Don’t fight it, but learn to find it.

The best example I can think of in the use of an item is, you guessed it, Breaking Bad. From the first episode of season two to the series finale, ricin plays a significant role in Walt’s and Jesse’s predicaments. The first attempt to use it ax gains Tuco Salamanca, a psychotic drug dealer who has taken them hostage. But the plan is foiled by Tuco’s uncle, who is debilitated by a stroke. It’s not too significant here, just one more example of Walt using his chemistry knowledge for nefarious means.

But in seasons four and five, it is absolutely critical and provides a valuable lesson for writers. Walt again makes a small vial of ricin to again kill a psychotic drug dealer, this time named Gus Fring (I’m sure we can argue about whether he’s psychotic or not, but killing Victor the way he did counts for me). Walt makes the ricin and plans to use it himself, but when he realizes he can’t get close to Gus, he gives the vial to Jesse who hides it in one of his cigarettes. And that’s where things get interesting.

Jesse decides not to kill Gus so Walt needs a new plan. Jesse no longer trusts Walt so Walt needs to find a way to convince Jesse to help him. So he poisons Jesse’s girlfriend’s young son—though not with the ricin—and makes it look like Gus did it. When Gus is dead, Jesse learns that Brock was poisoned with berries from a plant called Lily of the Valley, which, unbeknownst to him, grow in Walt’s backyard.

And then the writers did something they would fight with for the next two seasons. When Walt gets the vial of ricin back, he doesn’t throw it away but hides it behind a wall plate in an electrical outlet in his bedroom. At this point, the ricin is Chekhov’s loaded gun, right on stage for everyone to see. The writers knew that at some point they would have to use the ricin. This couldn’t be a red herring, and it wasn’t.

When Jesse eventually realizes that Walt did steal the ricin and manipulate him into killing Gus while also almost killing a young boy, he finally turns on Walt. It was the last straw and Jesse’s betrayal sets the final five episodes in motion. But the ricin still isn’t been used. When the writers had Walt hide it, they knew they had to use it.

In fact, in the teaser for episode nine, they show Walt, in the future, going back to his abandoned home and retrieving the ricin. At this point, they admit they had no idea what they were going to do with it, which is amazing, but they felt they had to get it.

In the final episode, Walt is extracting revenge on everyone who has wronged him, and the ricin finally makes an appearance. Lydia, the super uptight executive that had been surreptitiously providing Gus with the precursor to make meth, always puts stevia in her chamomile tea. She also had a standing appointment with Walt at 10 on Tuesday in the same restaurant. Walt goes to the restaurant, knowing she’ll have her same routines and sit at the same table and switches out the stevia with ricin. As she puts in her tea, the camera closes in as the poison sinks to the bottom of the up and she stirs it in.

Now, this isn’t an amazing piece of writing that sets the whole series apart from every other but it is an example of the attention to detail that true fans of the show looked for and the writers felt deserving of a payoff. Isn’t that how you want your readers to feel about your writing?

In the podcast, Vince Gilligan talks a great deal about how the ricin played into the final episodes. It didn’t have to be a major plot point, though it does end up being one. But it does need a resolution. Some argue that there were many plot holes in the series. What happened to Huell? Or Ted? How did Walt know where to park in the compound when he’d never been there before? And how did that sliced pizza land on the roof in one piece?

And you’re going to have them as well. In fact, if you’re very lucky one day you’ll have a whole Reddit about mistakes in your oeuvre.

Can failure be an option?

If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.

Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a part of success.

The master has failed more times then the beginning has even tried.

Give yourself permission to fail.

We hear these motivational bromides all the time, but what do they really mean? And how can they help you become a better writer?

There’s nothing wrong with screwing up or writing crap. Just keep trying. Even if you haven’t written in ten years and decide “Today I’m going to write a novel.” When you say this you’ve taken the most important first step of your life.

So how can you incorporate the “permission to fail” ideology into your daily writing routine? There are two ways. First, when stuck with a difficult situation for your characters, choose a solution that absolutely cannot work. Then make it work. Finding out that it didn’t work, and more importantly why it didn’t work is as important as anything else. Second, look back at previous writing and see what didn’t work and why.

I’ll give you some examples from my own writing.

I wrote a short story about a grandmother who falls victim to a confidence scheme. When I was trying to figure out how the granddaughter, who was helping the conman, was going to become involved, I couldn’t think of a reasonable reason for a granddaughter to take advantage of her grandmother. So I decided to make it all about the money. Ridiculous, right? What granddaughter is more concerned about money than family. So I made the granddaughter’s situation more desperate. I had her kids at risk. Then it all started to make sense. While I didn’t use it in the end, it gave me the answer for how to push the grandmother over the edge. And it ended up tying the story together in a neat way.

In the one novel I’ve managed to finish and self-publish, Grasping for Dreams, I wrote the bulk as my NaNoWriMo project. I laid it down in December and didn’t return to it until March of the following year. I then figure out how to write a few scenes, polished up what was there and gave it to a few people to edit before sending it to CreateSpace for my free proof copy.

I’m proud of it, as I think it turned out pretty good. But I never thought it was 100% right. There was always something nagging at me and I could never figure out what it was. Enter Scribophile.

I’ve written about Scribophile before and I’m going to again. It’s an online community of writers where you critique other writer’s work and they critique yours. You had to write a lot of critiques to earn “points” that allow you to post your own work, but there is a premium option where you pay a yearly membership fee and earn points faster and can post more stuff. If you can afford it and lack a writer’s group, I highly recommend it.

I posted the first half of my chapter for my novel as my first post and got a lot of amazing feedback. And most of them said the exact same thing: lose the first scene, nothing happens, open with the second scene.

I went back and looked and realized how right they were. It sucked because I’d written the novel so that it began and ended with the same line (which I stole from S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders) but that didn’t bother me that much. It was a device that wasn’t necessary for the story and I could lose it. But I really enjoyed the scene. I remember writing it that very first day of NaNoWriMo. The scenery and imagery it evoked were both very powerful to me. But it had a ton of problems too.

First, the scene introduced the MC and his best friend, but it didn’t move the story forward in anyway. Second, the MC does this thing where he obsessed over a piece of dirt on his shoes as though he’s OCD, but I never show that aspect of the character again throughout the entire novel.

As I went back through the whole story, I noted mistake after mistake. Truly, it was pretty disheartening to see how awful it was. There are three key scenes, one where the MC is injured playing baseball, another where a student is playing for him is injured, and then the MC is injured again.

First off, I never describe the scene where the student is injured. That’s just foolish. It would’ve been a key plot point and I could’ve tied another moment to it. But I missed it. And second, when the MC is injured again, I don’t tie it back to the original injury scene. How did I miss that?

In A Farewell to Arms, there are three key scenes that are all connected by the imagery of rain and mud. Hemingway does a crazy good job of setting you up for the big moments and you don’t realize it unless you’re really paying attention. Symbolism and imagery are rarely evident in the first draft, but one should be cognizant of them when revising and look for those small moments where one sentence (or even one word) can change the impact of a scene.

Now I know you’re thinking that this has nothing to do with faults, this is just bad writing. But it has everything to do with failure. I screwed the revision of this novel in many significant ways. But, I can still go back and fix them all. I can make the novel better and resubmit the manuscript to the publisher.

But, and this is far more important, I now see that I have a tendency to make these mistakes. Most editors advise you to skip a soft opening and get right to the story. I don’t always do that on the first swing, but I know how to spot it and get rid of it in the editing process. I look for that symbolic scene and try to tie t together with other scenes.

It’s not the failure that makes you better. It’s recognizing the failure and fixing that makes you better. Never worry that you’re going to get it right the first time and never worry about weaknesses in your first draft. It’s called a writing “process” for a reason. There are many steps in the process and screwing up is one of them.

Breaking Bad getting it right and wrong

There are amazing things to discover when we’re allowed behind the scenes to discover a writer’s process in actually crafting a story. Learning why they choose specific words or how they discover a character’s course of action can be incredibly valuable to writers trying to learn.

One resource I’ve discovered, and mentioned many times in the past, is the Breaking Bad Insider Podcast. The Podcast is hosted by Kelley Dixon and Vince Gilligan, the editor and creator of the show, respectively. The podcast has an incredible wealth of information that any writer would find useful.

Now, if you’re not a fan of the show, you won’t get anything out of the podcast. It’s not like being able to read Stephen King’s On Writing even if you’re not a fan of his work. With knowing how the story develops, you may extract some information, but it won’t be much.

The podcast began in season 2 and contains 45-90 minutes of information about each episode. They bring in writers, directors, producers, editors, actors, music supervisors, and others to help tell the story behind the story. Because the podcasts were originally released the Monday after the episodes aired, they can go into great detail about the plot without worrying about revealing spoilers.

The final eight episodes of Breaking Bad were brilliant, and the podcasts do a great job of describing the work in the writer’s room of how they broke the story of Walt’s descent into pure evil. When you learn how long they spent on each episode, how many different avenues they went down, it’ll really hammer into you the idea that when creating the story, the sky is the limit. Try everything, ask questions, listen to your characters, and don’t be afraid to backtrack if something feels wrong.

In the final episode of the first half of the fifth season, Hank has discovered that Walt, his brother-in-law, may, in fact, be Heisenberg. He does this when he finds a book in Walt’s bathroom that was given to Walt by a man that Hank knows was a meth cook.

But it’s not 100%, so when we come back in the next episode, which aired over a year later, we watch as Hank meticulously goes over all of the evidence to see if his suspicions are correct. And while this is going on, the writers decided that it was also a good time for Walt to find out what Hank was up to.

Now, first off, that was an incredibly audacious plan. Anyone who has watched Breaking Bad knows that the whole time it appears as if we were leading to a point where Hank would find out that Walt is Heisenberg, and they would have a big showdown that would be the entire series’ ultimate climax. But the writers chose to put that showdown eight episodes before the finale, meaning they were going to have to do a lot more to tell the story.

Now, in hindsight, it seems obvious, because the real battle was between Walt and Jesse, not Walt and Hank, but at the time, everyone was shocked that they’d put this amazing showdown in the first episode of what was essentially the sixth season. But the writers had a problem. How was Walt going to know that Hank was on to him? Hank was playing his cards close to the vest, for many reasons.

First, when it would be discovered that a DEA agent’s brother-in-law was a drug kingpin, that agent’s career would be over. Second, Hank knew that Walt was shrewd enough to cover his tracks if Walt knew that Hank was coming for him. And third, Hank just wasn’t the kind of character that would blow things up until he was absolutely sure.

So the writers had a real problem. And they solved it in two ways, one of which is brilliant, and one of which is not.

First, they had Walt discover the book is missing. As the book was on the back of the commode, it wasn’t in a place that Walt would generally notice, you’re usually facing the other way. But, because his cancer is back and Walt is back in chemotherapy, he’s throwing up into the toilet, facing the back. And that’s when he sees that is missing. He proceeds to tear the house apart, trying to find this book. This is clever because it ties this critical discovery into the series’ first plot point: Walter White is dying from cancer and needs money to take care of his family. When you look at the layers involved in the discovery, it’s a truly brilliant development.

They talk about this scene in the podcast a great deal. Walt lays down a towel to rest his knees on, recalling a previous pivotal scene in the series. He’s dealing with his cancer again, just when it seems like everything is finally working out for him. And then, boom! the book is gone.

But it’s not enough. It still doesn’t connect Hank to Walt, it just shows that the book has gone missing. Truly, it could’ve been anywhere. So they needed something else to convince Walt. And that’s when they have Walt find the GPS tracker that Hank has surreptitiously planted in the wheel well.

Now I do think that this was a great way for Walt to discover Hank’s suspicions because Walt knew about the GPS tracker when Hank was tracking another character with Walt’s help. But I don’t like the way Walt finds it. He is looking throughout the bedroom for the book, asking his wife about it. She says it’ll turn up. Then he lays down and asks about Hank, who’s been out sick from work all week. She says it’s just a stomach bug. The camera focuses in on Walt and he is clearly concerned.

We then cut to an outside shot of Walt’s house. The light comes on and Walt emerges in a robe and slippers, looking around. He walks around the vehicles in the driveway and still sees nothing. Then, he turns to go back inside but stops. He goes back to his car and starts looking everywhere. Then, he reaches into the wheel well, discovering the GPS tracker. And the game is afoot.

Now, I know that Walt had to find the tracker, and I can see Walt behaving in that manner. He’s a meticulous man, who would notice something strange is going on. But he has no real reason to feel this way. A missing book isn’t enough.

In the podcast, they talk about this scene a lot, as well. Gilligan says that Walt just “feels” that something is wrong. To me, that’s just not good enough. They could’ve done a lot of other things to give Walt the opportunity to discover the tracker. He could’ve had a flat tire, or been in a car accident. But he has no real reason to be suspicious because he believes everything is over. That part of his life is done, and he shouldn’t be so persistent. Something should have pushed him into finding the GPS tracker. Maybe neighbor Carol saw Hank putting it there and says something to Skylar, who then finds it and tells Walt.

And it could’ve been done. Here, I don’t think they’re being lazy, I just feel like that was a choice they made for the character. But I don’t think it was the right one. Walt doesn’t go on hunches and superstitions. He is a man of reason, a man of science.

How Thanksgiving informs the writing process

Thanksgiving and writing—how can these two things have anything to do with each other? Mostly, it’s about planning, making time, and being flexible. If you really want to write every day then you should find a way to write every day, even holidays and workdays, birthdays and off-days. It’s not even about hitting 1,000 words every day but find some time to do something. And plan it ahead of time.

For instance, I planned this blog post these days ago. I remembered that I’d written a blog on the Fourth of July and it was about how that holiday had something to say about writing. I was wondering on Monday if I could do the same thing for Thanksgiving. So, I opened the “blog” folder on my iPhone and opened a note for this date. I then wrote a title and a little blurb describing what the post would be about. Then, I did the same thing for Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tuesday may have actually been a harder day to write because I had so much to do and only one day off. I got done with everything and was sitting in bed watching Jeopardy! when I remembered the blog. A big part of me wanted to just forget about it and relax, but I pulled my phone out and wrote the blog. Was it a masterpiece? No. But I’d planned it and I wanted to stick to my plan. So I wrote until I got 1,000 words and called it a night.

Yesterday, the blog on collaboration was really tough, and I didn’t think it was making a whole lot of sense. But I pushed through the doubt and the “inner editor” telling me that it was pointless, and I eventually found the point I was trying to make.

And now, here it is, Thanksgiving morning and I’m writing the blog I planned three days ago. I’m at work so I won’t get it all done at one time but I’ll pick moments here and there and by the time I’m done, I should have 1,000 words.

And that’s the important thing—moving forward all the time. If it takes you six months to write your first draft, who cares? Because Stephen King said that a first draft needs to be complete in three months, there’s something wrong with you if it takes you longer? The hell with that. Remember the only rule should have: if it works for you use it.

And what would King say about Under the Dome? He started that one in 1972 and abandoned it. Then he tried again in 1982 and failed again. He finally published it in 2009. If Stephen King can take 37 years to write a book, you can take six months, or a year, or as long as you want. Just keep writing.

And yes this blog is too short, but that’s okay to. Even if you write 25 words, you’re still writing and that’s good enough.