Story Structure and Character Arcs in Breaking Bad

Novelists can learn a lot about crafting stories from the structures and character arcs that play out across many of the stunningly successful non-network TV series that have been produced over the last fifteen years. I’m talking about shows like Mad Men, Sopranos, The Wire, House of Cards, True Detective, and Breaking Bad. Therese Walsh of the great Writer Unboxed website has written a very insightful article about the latter and delved into how Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan managed to turn mild-mannered chemistry professor Walter White into a scheming drug lord over the course of six seasons and still keep the audience rooting for him.

The article ends with this golden piece of advice:

  • Persevere. Considering Breaking Bad’s incredible success, you’d think it was in a Hollywood bidding war or something, right? Nope. The show was famously turned down by many before AMC picked it up. Sometimes different is scary to the Establishment. Don’t let that stop you from creating innovative works or pursuing publication.

Narrative distance doesn’t have to be consistent

Using examples from Hemingway, author Ron MacLean has written a wonderfully concise post on the Grub Street website demolishing the oft-taught maxim that narrative distance should remain constant over the course of a piece of writing.


Narrative distance is analogous to shot choices in movie making, such as close-ups, POV, wide shots, birds-eye view, etc. There is absolutely no reason (other than a desire to be ridiculously pedantic) for maintaining a single distance over an entire novel or story any more than using the same shots throughout a movie. Thanks for the insight, Ron!

Photo credit: katerha / / CC BY

Setting isn’t the same thing as location

I’m getting back on the horse. That’s if the horse’s Latin name was equus socialmedius. In other words, I’m trying to post more often. Now that the first draft of Starley’s Rust has been written and is in the hands of my editor, I can put more time into blogging, posting, tweeting, and, um, tumbling.

Horses being social, without the use of media.

Horses being social, without the use of media.

That being said, I’m wary of spending too much time on social media work compared to, you know, work work. But to help stoke the flames of the buzzfire without having to write 800 words every day or two, I’ve decided to write more frequent shorter blog posts with links to articles by other writers or in the media (like yesterday’s post). So here’s another one. It’s short, but it makes a very good point. It’s written by an “award-winning author and paid CreateSpace contributor” by the name of Richard Ridley.

He’s written this concise article about the crucial difference between location and setting. Very good advice. I’ll add another cent to his two cents: basically, if you’re describing scenery, it had better have an emotional impact for the reader, otherwise you might as well be writing an IKEA catalog.


Photo credit: Βethan / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)



Will novels soon be as extinct as adults?

Hello. It’s been a while. It might be a while again. I’m writing two novels, taking care of my kids, and watching some soccer, so until such time as the novels are much closer to being done, blogging will have to take a back seat on the backburner while it cools its heels and a bunch of other metaphors I could mix together because mixology is fun.

In the meantime, here are two articles that on the face of it are very different, but which I happened to read in the space of 24 hours. First up, Emily Landau’s piece for The Walrus on the millennial generation and New Adult fiction: Never-Never Land. Second, an immensely dense exploratory delve by one of my favourite writers, Will Self, into the past, present, and future of the novel and its place in Western culture: The novel is dead (this time it’s for real).

I won’t go into any more detail about each piece, but it’s certainly interesting to read both in succession and let your mind make the connections.

Oh, and have a dictionary on hand for Will Self’s article…

Disrupted Worlds – out a day early!

I promised yesterday that Disrupted Worlds, a novel-length short story collection that features my own effort, The Information Monster, plus five others, would be published tomorrow. Well, it turns out that those digital printing presses at Amazon have been running on overdrive because it’s already available as a Kindle ebook.

You can read a free preview of the first story-and-a-half by clicking on the cover image below. But since The Information Monster is the third story, I’ve decided to post a short excerpt from the beginning:

“The darkness is our friend,” whispered Sigi.

Coleoptera snuggled closer. She didn’t understand. Darkness had always meant death. It was in the books with paper, so it must be true. The books that held stories of children losing themselves in deep, dark forests where wolves prowled, trolls lurked and witches squatted in their hovels waiting to feast on plump cheeks. Darkness had always meant death.

“Why, daddy?”

He kissed her hair softly. Maybe he was a fool. Maybe there was nothing anyone could do to defeat it.

“You know how plants need light to grow?”


“So does the monster, and that’s why the darkness is our friend.”

“I’m scared.”

“We’re safe here. Sleep now, Beetle.”

“Tell me a story. From when you were little.”

“Okay, just one.”

“Thank you, daddy.”

She rubbed the fabric of his shirt sleeve between her thumb and forefinger. He wondered whether the tactile sensation of its silky NanoNylon was more soothing than her own bamboo thread nightshirt. His mind flashed through molecular configurations.


He clenched his teeth. It was so easy to slip. So easy to go down that path.

“Yes. Okay. When I was about your age, most of the books were paper.”


“Uh-huh. And they never changed. A story was a story with words, and sometimes pictures, and it was written by a storyteller.”

“Like my fairy tales.”

“Yes, and they used to be my books. But the fairy tales changed from one book to the next because they had lots of storytellers.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Sorry, Beetle, it’s complicated. And it doesn’t really matter for my story. What matters is that I had a book that was really special to me. It was about a bear who learned to read, and I loved it. Then one day my grandma took me for a walk and I brought the book along with me. But somehow it must have slipped out of my hand along the way because when we got home to my mommy and daddy’s house I didn’t have it anymore and I cried so much that my grandma walked all the way back along the route we’d taken to look for it. But she couldn’t find it.”

“Poor daddy!”

“Yes, I was really sad. But the next day when my mom came home from work she’d bought me another copy.”

He felt her tug a bit harder on his sleeve.

“The only thing was, I didn’t understand. I thought that the book I’d lost was the only one like it in the whole world. It was my favorite, and it was special. Suddenly I realized it wasn’t special because there was another one the same. And others in the store. Then when I grew up, things started to change. The books on screens took over. Soon nothing was special.”


“Because everything was a copy.” He kissed her hair again. “But now it’s time to sleep.”

“Why are we here, daddy?”

“Because we need to get away.”

“From mommy?”

He drew breath sharply. “No. From everything.”

“You’ll keep me safe, right?”

There was the slightest pause in his answer and he hoped she hadn’t noticed.

“Yes. That’s why we’re here.”

She squeezed his arm and let out a big yawn.

Once he was sure that she was sleeping soundly, Sigi carefully moved away from her sleeping bag so as not to disturb her. He rose and closed the door of the Correlator room. This was where they were “camping”. It was an adventure. That’s what he’d told her. She was lucky to be going on an adventure with her daddy – not a lot of five-year-olds got to do that.


A Symmetrical Strategy

Writing is a novel is super-duper easy. Oh wait, I got my words wrong. Writing a blog post is a breeze. No, that’s not even true. Okay, forget writing for a moment. The other night I was reading a bedtime story to my 5-year-old daughter when I was suddenly struck by the amount of cross-hatching in the illustrations. At first glance, the drawings of a little boy and his bear were fairly simple. I’d read the book several times to her and never paid much attention to the artwork, but for some reason that night I focused in on the cross-hatching, which is the technique for creating shaded areas in a drawing through the use of repeating lines. The length and spacing of the lines determine the amount of shade perceived by the eye at a distance. This drawing of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is a straightforward example.

Shakespeare probably just winged it: no planning, no plotting, and no rewrites. Riiiight…

The little bear in the story got lost one night when he was picked up in a swooping owl’s claws. The drawings of the moon, the owl and the bear in the nighttime sky were filled with cross-hatching far finer and subtler than in the Globe illustration here. I stopped reading for a few seconds and marvelled at the amount of time it must have taken the artist to produce such an effect. I thought to myself, I could never, ever have the patience to sit there and draw line after line with no margin for error. Then my daughter elbowed me with an impatient “Daddy!” and I boomeranged back from my reverie, acutely aware that parents aren’t supposed to space out in the middle of a bedtime story.

What does all this have to do with writing a novel? It’s all about the work involved. I sometimes forget that stringing together a bunch of words, then painstakingly going back over them and replacing some of them or changing their order is just as daunting for non-writers as creating a complex illustration would be for me. It’s hard. It’s often kind of annoying. And sometimes you get stuck. (Quick joke: part of my next novel is set in Paris and I’m worried that I might suffer from writer’s bloc.)

What does all this have to do with me writing a novel? Well, I promised I would publish the sequel to Silent Symmetry in “late 2013”. Now I realize that my writing strategy was wrong and I’m going to have to break that promise. Fortunately for my reputation, authors are notorious for breaking promises; we literally make things up that aren’t true for a living.

I don’t mind allowing readers a peak behind the creative curtain, so here’s my new writing and publication strategy for books two and three of the Embodied trilogy. Instead of planning, writing and rewriting book two, Starley’s Rust, then spending the time and effort it takes to publish and market it properly before embarking on the creation of book three, I’m going to plan and write books two and three back-to-back, then rewrite, publish and market book two. Once that is on the Kindles and iPads of a bunch of readers, I’ll rewrite, publish and market book three. This will allow me to more effectively control both the overall flow of the story and each book’s release date. This doesn’t just help me, it will also, crucially, give my readers a more fulfilling experience because, a) the books should be better; and b) readers of book two won’t have to wait nearly as long to read the conclusion of the trilogy.

So what we’re really dealing with here is some delayed gratification. Fortunately, I’m not illustrating my books too, or the delay would be far, far longer than the gratification!

Photo credit: Futurilla / Foter / CC BY-NC

The power of storytelling

Beowulf is the name given to the oldest surviving English-language poem. One of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature,  it is a true epic, with a legendary hero: Beowulf of the Geats, a Scandinavian tribe.

The story begins when Beowulf receives a message from the Danish king asking him to come to Denmark and fight a monster called Grendel which has been terrorizing Heorot, the king’s mead hall (basically a huge private pub).  The Danes are in a right pickle. I mean, nobody likes the idea of being eaten by a monster while knocking back a few pints of mead, swapping battle stories and comparing lustrous facial hair with one’s fellow Danish noblemen. Yet they just can’t bear the thought of drinking at a different pub, so Grendel continues feasting on them.  In sunny Sweden, Beowulf sighs, goes, “Fine. I’ll put on a clean pair of underwear and set sail, even though the weather forecast is a bit nasty.

When he gets to Heorot he not only kills Grendel with his bare hands, but also slays Grendel’s mother (bizarrely played by Angelina Jolie in the 2007 movie version), thereby saving the Danes and receiving a free pint of mead for his troubles.

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript

Geatland, 50 years later: Just like Danny Glover’s character in Lethal Weapon, Beowulf (now king of the Geats) is all set for a nice, long retirement, possibly contemplating a Baltic cruise with his wife or a leisurely trek through Tuscany in a motor home. Then a terrifying dragon attacks the country, burning everything in its path. Beowulf once again realizes that he’s the only man who is man enough to do a man’s job and sends his soldiers away so that he can take on the dragon single-handed. All except for one trusty fighting companion, Wiglaf (in the Mel Gibson role), who teams up with Beowulf in archetypal buddy film fashion and ultimately slays the fiery beast.

Sadly, our hero is mortally wounded during the battle. As he lies dying, Beowulf commands Wiglaf to build a huge burial mound called a barrow atop a cliff so that sailors returning home will remember his heroic deeds:

A barrow bid ye the battle-fanned raise
for my ashes. ‘Twill shine by the shore of the flood,
to folk of mine memorial fair
on Hrones Headland high uplifted,
that ocean-wanderers oft may hail
Beowulf’s Barrow, as back from far
they drive their keels o’er the darkling wave.

(Modern English excerpt from Beowulf chapter, 38)

No, Wiglaf didn’t say, “Huh?” on hearing those words; he actually went and built the burial mound. Here’s a photo of it, bedecked with cows.

Beowulf's supposed burial mound.

Beowulf’s supposed barrow, or burial mound.

Beowulf was clearly aware of his own heroism and greatness. His instructions to Wiglaf were intended to make sure that he went down in history. It makes sense, right? Build a big monument, just like countless other leaders have done in the centuries since. Yet here’s what’s interesting: the only reason that Beowulf’s heroic deeds are remembered today is because of the two unknown scribes who wrote the poem. One single copy of the work survived for over a millennium. Old English words beautifully transcribed in a crumbling manuscript have preserved the legacy of King Beowulf better than any physical monument could have.

This is the power of storytelling. It rouses emotions. It inspires. And it persists.

A scene makeover

This week I rewrote a scene from my YA novel Silent Symmetry, the goal being to make it a bit more suspenseful. I’m sharing my rewriting method in case it’s useful for other writers, either aspiring or already published.

When I need to give a fiction or screenplay scene a makeover I find it unproductive to work on the existing scene. Why? Because I’m too precious about what I’ve already written. Oh, those wonderful turns of phrase and deliciously appropriate vocabulary choices! Right. It wouldn’t need a makeover if it was so amazing…

Blank pages

The dreaded blank pages can be your friend!

So I find it best to set aside my original scene, start a new Word or Final Draft document and rewrite it from scratch. That way, the best bits from the first version of the scene should automatically pop into my head when needed, while the chaff will be forgotten. Even though most writers hate the blank page, it’s actually the most effective tool if you want to truly revamp your scene rather than simply tinker with it.

Then, when you have your brand new version, you can see whether it’s an improvement on the original and incorporate whatever elements you’d overlooked but were actually good (since the human mind, and hence this method, isn’t infallible).

Oh yeah – here’s some news – the Silent Symmetry rewrite is done. I started proofreading yesterday. Out loud (as I discussed in a previous post). It’s kind of fun and really is the only way to make sure the sentences flow and that you haven’t made any mistakes.

And now it’s time to get back to it!

[“Image courtesy of adamr/”]