In which I attempt to better understand the art of scene writing through a close reading of Breaking Bad, one scene at a time.
One way of reading scene-work that I’m going to experiment with in this post is looking at it as a tiny movie. After all, it’s been said that acts are tiny movies and scenes are tiny acts. But if acts are movies and scenes are acts, then scenes are movies.
So, though I have my doubts re the validity of Three-Act Structure, I think it could be a worthy tool to experiment with on the micro level. My theory, though, is that it won’t always be applicable. And if I’m right, then maybe that weakens the Three-Act Domination.
Though logically speaking I’ll admit that SCENES > ACTS > MOVIES, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Movies are just bloated Scenes. Conditional logic doesn’t work backward. Which means that if I’m not right and every scene ever has three acts, I still don’t necessarily have to cup the balls of three-act structure.
So let’s try to divide the following scene into three acts. I’ll admit up front that this is an especially tough one, because there’s almost no conflict or obstacle here, largely because there’s a big montage dead center.
EXT. COW PASTURE - AFTERNOON
Black and white cows graze in f.g. We drift off them and focus on a stand of WOODS in the distance.
EXT. WOODS - AFTERNOON
Familiar to us from the Teaser, the old WINNEBAGO is parked off a dirt road. Dupree’s Daytona is here, too. We’re in the middle of nowhere. There’s nobody around for miles.
The Winnie’s screen door opens. Walt steps out, looks around. Breathes deep. He’s got a plastic COAT HANGER he impatiently taps against his leg. Waiting.
With a faint CRUNCH of leaves, Dupree appears. He’s clomping toward us, carrying binoculars.
DUPREE: Nothing but cows. Got some big cow-house way over that way, like two miles. But I don’t see nobody.
DUPREE: (shrug) Where they live. The cows. Whatever, man. Shit yeah, let’s cook here.
Dupree walks off, attends to something in his car. Walt hangs his coat hanger on the RV’s awning. He unclips his tie, slides it in his breast pocket. He unbuttons his short sleeve dress shirt, hangs it on the hanger.
Dupree wanders back [just] in time to see Walt climb out of his TROUSERS and hang them up. Dupree stops dead in his tracks.
DUPREE: What. Are you doing?
WALT: These are my good clothes. I can’t go home smelling like a meth lab.
Dupree shakes his head, weirded-out. Walt, stripped down to his UNDERPANTS, climbs into the Winnebago.
WALT: C’mon, I’ve only got till six.
He disappears inside. Dupree considers, then reaches in his jacket pocket for...
This scene is divided into parts, so despite my earlier doubts, it’s actually quite easy to divide into “acts.”
It goes pre-cook (above), cook, and post-cook.
If that’s the
If the scene starts when the characters take their first step toward attaining the WANT of the scene, then the impetus for that first step could be alternately termed the “inciting incident of the scene.”
If that’s the case, and Walt is our central, then Jesse’s saying the coast is clear would be the inciting incident. This is backward-engineerable.
Walt’s WANT of the scene is to cook meth, so taking off his domestic clothes and donning lab attire is the first step. He can only do that when he knows that they’re in a safe place to commence.
So, still running with the Act Break Theory of
Also, I’m probably, very likely, almost definitely stretching the borders of what a scene is. In my mind, I’m taking the characters finite want (in this case: to cook meth) and seeing it through to it’s logical end (success, failure, or mixed outcome).
Most people would probably call this little bit in the desert the entire scene because in Hollywood scenes are defined by camera setups. I don’t find that to be the most useful definition when trying to improve as a writer by tackling
With a DING, up comes live VIDEO IMAGE of Walt, his back to us. He wears a lab apron, rubber
INT. WINNEBAGO - AFTERNOON
And we’re watching Dupree’s CAMCORDER POV of Walt at work. Walt is crushing scads of sinus pills in a mortar and pestle. This place is packed tight with lab equipment and supplies.
We hear Dupree SNICKERING o.s. He ZOOMS IN on Walt’s underpants, which show through the back of his apron.
DUPREE: (O.S.) This is a good look for you. You’re maybe only the world’s second-biggest homo.
WALT: Shut up and give me a hand here.
WALT: (O.S.) Gimme that goddamned --
The screen goes to STATIC. BAM! -- as we bring up MUSIC:
This is a power struggle, but it also hits Walt where it hurts. His biggest vulnerability right now is that absolutely no one should know he’s doing this, and Jesse just documented it. It starts as a status game with Jesse trying to subvert Walt’s manhood, but Walt quickly dominates because HE’S NOT FUCKING AROUND.
TANGIBLE WANT: Cook the meth
EMOTIONAL NEED: The comfort of absolute anonymity — from the last
INT. WINNEBAGO - AFTERNOON - MONTAGE
Edited to the BEAT of some very hip, driving SONG, we see various ANGLES and JUMP-CUTS of Walt cooking meth, assisted by Dupree. Hours are compressed into seconds here.
For those of us who grew up watching “The A-Team,” this is that scene they’d always do where the A-Team builds a tank or a jet plane out of spare parts. Same feeling, same energy -- except here, our guys are making highly illegal drugs.
Without turning this into a how-to video, we watch as:
-- Powdered sinus tablets get soaked in a solvent, separated out as a paste and a liquid, then reduced down over heat.
-- Veterinary iodine is transformed into hydriodic acid.
-- The striker strips of dozens of matchbooks get scraped off with a razor blade, forming a pile of red phosphorus.
-- Red phosphorus is combined with hydriodic acid and mixed with the pseudoephedrine culled from the sinus pills.
-- The whole mess gets cooked into freebase meth oil.
-- Salt, muriatic acid, and bits of aluminum foil are mixed in a gas can. It gets connected to a length of garden hose.
-- hydrogen chloride gas bubbles through the hose and down into a big bucket full of freebase. White methamphetamine hydrochloride crystals float to the top and get skimmed off.
Throughout all this, Walt is working with the utmost gravity and attention to detail -- as if he were a scientist on the Manhattan Project. As the cook progresses, we get little hints that Dupree is taking it more seriously, too.
Seeing the way Walt works, seeing that he really knows his stuff, Dupree acts more respectful. He even starts wearing his safety gear. Clearly, he’s learning from Walt.
Very little to say about this. There aren’t a ton of obstacles, just Jesse’s initial fucking around. The montage does, however, instill in Jesse a kind of awe about Walt, which is necessary because Walt needs loyalty. Loyalty will protect his anonymity.
EXT. WINNEBAGO - AFTERNOON
The little RV sits hidden in the woods. Toxic-looking YELLOW SMOKE wafts through a vent in the roof. It curls up into the trees, filtering through shafts of red afternoon sunset.
End MUSIC. End MONTAGE.
Going with the 3-act theme, this would also be
THE END OF ACT TWO!
INT. WINNEBAGO - EVENING
It’s getting dark outside. The cook is done. Walt sits in his apron, tired. He rubs at the red line around his face left by his respirator, trying to make it go away.
They’ve made about a pound of fat, snowy white crystals. Dupree carefully dips into their product with a razor blade, lifting out a tiny sample. He taps it onto a sheet of yellow paper, swirling it around. His eyes are wide.
He’s a whole new Dupree now. Subdued. Awed. It’s as if he’s seen the Holy Grail.
DUPREE: This is...this is glass grade. You got...Jesus, you got crystals in here a quarter-inch long. Longer. This is pure glass. (turns to him) You’re...you’re Michelangelo. You’re a goddamned artist. This is art. Mr. White...
It doesn’t take an especially astute reader to notice the turn here. Jesse spent the whole Third Act talking about his cayenne-laced
He’s run out of superlatives. He’s actually tearing up. Walt is surprised by his emotion.
WALT: It’s just basic chemistry. (off his awe) But thank you, Marion. I’m glad it’s acceptable.
DUPREE: Acceptable? Every
If we’re talking act breaks within scenes, this would be the end of act
Uncomfortable with that idea, Walt intercedes.
WALT: No. We sell it, we don’t smoke it.
DUPREE: Since when? (Walt puts it away) Man, you been watching too much “Miami Vice.”
WALT: (checks his watch) So, how do we proceed?
DUPREE: You cook more tomorrow. Meantime, I know just the guy to talk to.
I can see the use of this manner of breakdown, and it works here, more or less, and maybe it’ll work more swimmingly down the road, but it’s a bit excessive theory-wise.