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5 Things Writers Can Learn From 'Better Call Saul'

September 5, 2018

Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few years, you’re probably aware that Better Call Saul is a spin-off series from the wildly successful AMC TV series Breaking Bad.

Lauded as one of the greatest television shows of all time, Breaking Bad basically earned its creators carte blanche to do whatever they wanted with Better Call Saul, a sort of prequel centered on the breakout character of shady lawyer Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman (played to perfection by comedian-turned-dramatic-actor Bob Odenkirk).

Almost Dickensian in its pace, Better Call Saul is unique in television because it’s a series that takes its time with plot and leans heavily into character development. At times, the show unveils its story in a way you might see in a novel.

Here are five things every writer can learn from Better Call Saul (and if you haven’t seen the show, be aware there are spoilers):

  1. Give your character an emotional arc

The most interesting characters start as one thing and end up another. Better Call Saul is about how a former con artist — Jimmy McGill — becomes Saul Goodman, a lawyer to the criminal underworld. Jimmy, at heart, is a good person, but he can never truly shake his hustler instincts. In the first three seasons, we learn that Jimmy tried to turn a new leaf and become a legitimate attorney, but various obstacles and setbacks force him to become the character we know from Breaking Bad.

Even if your character’s arc isn’t as dramatic as that, it’s helpful to know where your character is emotionally at the beginning of your story and where you want them to be at the end. What realizations will your character come to? How will they be changed by their experiences? Does she or he start out as meek and timid and, over the course of the story, become strong and self-assured? Giving your character an emotional arc gives audiences something to cheer for, or, as in the case of Jimmy McGill, something over which to feel conflicted. Whatever path you choose for your character, emotional change makes the journey compelling for your audience.

  1. Make supporting characters as strong as main ones

The world of Better Call Saul is filled with rich, varied characters who all have their own goals and desires, which are often in opposition to the main character’s. Chuck (Michael McKean), for example, wants to prevent his brother Jimmy from becoming a lawyer — he will stop at nothing to derail Jimmy’s career. Kim (Rhea Seehorn) wants her business with Jimmy to succeed but finds herself struggling with the work involved, as well as Jimmy’s sometimes unscrupulous methods. Nacho (Michael Mando) wants to be a big shot in the criminal underworld but he’ll have to get past his terrifying boss, Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) to do it.

Mike (Jonathan Banks), another popular character from Breaking Bad, has an arc just as strong and involving as Jimmy’s: We discover Mike is an ex-cop from Philadelphia who killed two police officers after they betrayed and murdered his son. Just as people watching Better Call Saul want to see Jimmy make the transition from small-time con artist to criminal underworld lawyer, they want to see Mike make the transformation from ex-cop to hitman.

With so many supporting characters, you want to make sure your audience is as interested in their stories as your principal character’s, otherwise viewers will tune out when the main character isn’t on screen.

  1. Use obstacles to keep characters from their goals

Just when it looks like Jimmy is about to succeed, some obstacle is thrown his way to drive his best-laid plans off track. These obstacles are always organic; they are never contrived or random. It’s much more interesting to have a character’s hopes and dreams thwarted by another characters’ own ambitions than, say, an earthquake that hits from out of nowhere. Once again, the stronger your supporting characters and their goals are, the more opportunity you have for these goals to intersect and clash with the main character’s own.

  1. Create a framing device to heighten tension

Better Call Saul uses a framing device that shows lawyer Saul Goodman (or is it Jimmy McGill?) working at a Cinnabon stand in a strip mall. Obviously, something has gone horribly wrong with his legal practice. The presence of a thick mustache and his paranoid attitude suggest he is in hiding. What’s he hiding from? Where did all his money go? We assume this framing device takes place after the events of Breaking Bad (in the first episode Jimmy watches a Saul Goodman commercial on video), so it’s likely that his connection to the drug ring busted at the end of that series have forced him into hiding. The time period, however, is never explicitly stated, adding to the mystery.

By using a framing device, you can plant seeds that hint at your character’s past or future and position a question that needs to be answered, which will immediately hook the interest of your audience. Usually the more dramatic the framing device, the better equipped it is to stir interest.

  1. Show a world that hasn’t been seen before
In both Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, the city of Albuquerque is a character on its own. Before then, Albuquerque had seldom been seen in film and TV, and definitely not to this extent. With most TV shows being set in New York or Los Angeles, audiences found it refreshing to enter a new world. When thinking about where to set your story, think about places you don’t normally see on screen. Maybe it’s the town where you grew up. Maybe it’s somewhere you visited on vacation. The more intimately you know the location, the better you will be able to depict it and plunge your audience into a world they’ll want to know better.
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