How Breaking Bad Writers Nurtured Good Ideas and How You Can Too

Wade Foster
Wade Foster / Published October 15, 2013

It's been two weeks since the Breaking Bad finale aired and if you're like me, you're already suffering from Breaking Bad withdrawals. With just over 10 million people watching the finale titled Felina, Breaking Bad made its mark as having one of the most-watched finales in TV history.

But what you may not have known is that Breaking Bad didn't always have the viewership it did at the end of its run. In fact, in the show’s early seasons its writers were quite worried the next episode would be their last and that they'd be canceled.

During its first three seasons, Breaking Bad toiled to reach just over one million viewers per episode.

Breaking Bad Viewership by Episode

Writing staffs with similar ratings might be tempted to stray from the story they’re trying to tell in an attempt to start appealing to a boarder audience and thus boost ratings. Breaking Bad, however, never went that route. So with cancellation looming, how did its writers find a way to keep nurturing new ideas while staying true to Breaking Bad characters?

Luckily, Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air interviewed two of the show's writers, Peter Gould and Thomas Schnauz, and extracted insight into how the show’s writers’ room operated.

The full interview checks in at about 46 minutes and is mostly about various Breaking Bad plot points, but in a few sections Gould and Schnauz explain the way they work.

How to Nurture Good Ideas - Breaking Bad Style

Insert Picture of Staring Walter White
We've all been there. It's hard to nurture good ideas, especially in a team setting. Inevitably, some people start to feel like their ideas aren't being heard and stop contributing. Or perhaps there is the one person that pokes holes in everyone's ideas before giving them a chance to incubate.

To combat this scenario, the Breaking Bad writers’ room was understood to be a "safe room”—a place free of criticism. Its purpose was to get ideas out on the table, not to cull them.

If you feel like you're going to be criticized for something you say, then you're not going to say anything. You're going to shut up. And you've got to be free to say any dumb thing, because a lot of times when you say something stupid, a good idea arises from it. - Schnauz

The free-flowing nature of the room led to a lot of banter. A bad idea might be tossed out, but there might be some nugget of goodness to it. This approach encouraged the writers to play off each other. A bad idea would get iterated on until the writers had explored every possible option. Sometimes, it would still be a bad idea by the end. But other times, it would grow into something great.

Instead of trying to negate what the other person is saying, you try to build on it … Because you build on each idea, and then you come up with a run of thoughts. And then, at that point, maybe it just kind of ends, and then you move on and you find something else that you like better. But it's really a sophisticated form of play. - Gould

But Ideas Are Useless, Execution Is Where It's At

Walter White Ricin
Good ideas are certainly valuable, but a good idea by itself doesn't lead to much. You have to be able to execute on your ideas. Clearly, the Breaking Bad team executed on their ideas, an outcome evident in their process for scripting an episode.

Instead of scripting down to the details, the Breaking Bad team plotted dots for scenes in a group session where each writer would generally be in agreement. Many times there would be blank spaces that the writers would fill in later.

Then, once they agreed on the general parts of the script, they would go off by themselves to write the dialogue for the scene.

We go over every single beat, and we write them on index cards and pin them to a big cork board … and try to get every writer in agreement for every single beat. And once the board is full, the writer will take that board and go off and actually write the script and write the dialogue and the scenes and fashion the script for the actors and the crew to use. - Schnauz

In many ways, it's a lot like feature building where you'll come up with some wireframes and general idea for the functionality together, but the actual implementation is then left to a single designer or single programmer to make the magic happen.

Replicating This Process in Your Organization

Walter, Jessie and Mike Working Together

The Breaking Bad writer made everything sound so easy. It's easy to dismiss them as experts, but I think there's a few things we can learn from them that would be easily replicable in any other organization.

1. Set aside time for generating ideas

The Breaking Bad team didn't carelessly hope that good ideas would just pop in their heads. Instead they set a time and a place for exploration. This made sure that interesting ideas had a place to surface instead of getting lost in the mayhem of building a good show.

Key Takeaway: It's important to have some scheduled time to explore good ideas with other teammates. This allows a forum for discovering ideas and even if they don't get implemented right away, at least they aren't lost.

2. Set a no-criticism rule for the length of the session

By dictating that the initial episode planning sessions are strictly for brainstorming, the Breaking Bad team was able to explore lots of nooks and crannies to see where they might lead. Often times the nook was empty, but at least once they'd find the right road to take.

Key Takeaway: Provide a safe place for your team to explore ideas. It doesn't need to be all the time. After all, there's a time and place to get things done. But there also needs to be a safe place to explore opportunities you might be missing.

3. Realize that only so much can be used

The Breaking Bad team wasn't scared of exploring ideas and throwing things away. Some work might be good, but it doesn't mean that it's ready for primetime.

Key Takeaway: Sunk costs are sunk costs. Build in a place and time to explore ideas with the understanding that much of it is not going to see the light of day.

4. Have a leader

The Breaking Bad team wasn't a democracy. Vince Gilligan ran the ship there. But he also wasn't a cruel dictator, if anything, he was a benevolent one who let the good ideas from his team rise to the top.

Key Takeaway: Don't feel like you have to vote on everything. Make sure one agreed upon person is making sure progress is being made.

Wrapping It Up

It's not easy to build consensus and find the perfect ideas in an organization. But the Breaking Bad writers team, from the outside looking in, did a near perfect job at it.

How do you make sure the best ideas always win out in your organization? Share with us in the comments!

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