Death by Screens: the newsletter

Why Breaking Bad sticks: using story glue to make it flow

Published 12 months ago • 2 min read

Hey folks. Yesterday I got to the final proof of the book. So close!

In preparation I've improved how these articles appear on the web, do take a look and share (if there's anything you've enjoyed reading, that is!).

Anyway, this week... useful lessons from Breaking Bad, Southpark, and what not to do, courtesy of Game of Thrones.

Character and motivation

As the writers room worked together to craft that story, they were obsessed with character and motivation. They would ask: “what would Walt do next?”, not “what happens next?”. The plot comes from characters with clashing motivations interacting with each other.

So many stories are written the other way round; people think of a series of events, and then try to create compelling characters around those events (looking at you, final season of Game of Thrones). Breaking Bad is exceptional because it takes the opposite approach. We’re compelled to watch because the motivations of the characters drive the plot: it’s the glue that holds the entire thing together.

And this brings me to the thing that people often miss when attempting any kind of storytelling. What’s the stuff that holds it together?

Good story, bad story

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, follow a simple rule: bad stories use ‘and then’ between each scene, they are just a sequence of events. Good stories use ‘and therefore’, ‘so’, ‘but’, or ’however’: events build on one another to form a cohesive whole.

That’s the glue. Compare these two examples from the life story of coach and speaker Jeff Gothelf:

BAD STORY: I graduated and then I joined the circus and then I met the human cannonball and then he told me how he got his job.
GOOD STORY: I graduated with no plan so I joined the circus therefore I met some crazy characters like the human cannonball, but his story was nothing like I imagined.

Finding your story glue

Crafting a design presentation isn’t really like writing fiction, but it still needs story glue. Imagine the things you’re trying to say in a presentation as a jumble of scrabble tiles. When you pull them out of the bag and try to put them in a sensible order, what guides how you do that?

Here’s an example of story glue, applied to some elements from the book:

  • So the user needs dinner on a busy night (SCENARIO)
  • But choosing the right food with an allergy is a challenge (PROBLEM)
  • Therefore we’ve learned from their previous orders, and prioritised items that match their dietary requirements (SOLUTION)

Next time you're crafting a story: look at the spaces in between the items in your outline, and ask yourself what goes there. With a little bit of thinking and re-ordering, you’ll often find something better to hold it together.

Find the glue to make it flow!

Death by Screens: the newsletter

by Ben Sauer

My book "Death by Screens: how to present high-stakes digital design work and live to tell the tale" - is here to help designers tell better stories about their work. Get three winning presentation tips from the book by signing up below!

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