Sometimes being a writer can ruin stories for you because you can see endings coming a mile away. Unfortunately, I sometimes forget this is not the case for my friends and I totally killed the Breaking Bad ending for a few folks by predicting every beat.
Some people think it’s a magical power or that I have secret access to scripts that have not been released but I don’t. As they said in Kung Fu Panda “there is no secret ingredient.” It comes down to one thing: I spend a lot of time studying writing, particularly structure.
A few books helped me with this, namely Anatomy of a Story by John Truby and Seven Basic Plots by Chris Booker and the TV Tropes website, as well as a bunch of others. As an engineer I also have a natural aptitude for this type of analysis. I like to break down stories into their component parts.
As such, I’ve been at this long enough and I can see the trajectories of stories promised by the writer coming from a thousand li away. I know what the story is promising the viewer. There is an unspoken pact that writers deliver knowingly or unknowingly. It’s there, hidden beneath the surface, saying one thing: if you stick with me I will deliver XYZ for your patience. As a writer, I find it fun to predict story twists. Most people apparently don’t. Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the ending, but check out our hilarious IM conversation at the end of this article if you have.
I didn’t mean to ruin it. It happened quite innocently.
I actually like discussing the twists of plots. I find different things to enjoy in stories now that the twists of stories are obvious to me. For instance, Walter White’s conversation with his wife in the finale was a high point for me. I knew they would have a conversation, but I had no idea if the writers were smart enough to know that it had to be a “no more secrets” conversation. WW had to tell the truth finally. It had to be a heart-to-heart moment, something real that stripped away all the lies when there was nothing more to hide. Sometimes writers miss this but the BB writers nailed it. When WW said, “I did it for me. I was good at it. I liked it,” and not “I did it for the family” I knew this was going to be a transcendent episode. That emotional moment meant the writers really understood their character and they didn’t cheat us, the way Dexter’s writers did, by slapping on a ludicrous moralistic ending that was pointless. (I expected that too, because the writers had given a number of wishy-washy signs a few weeks before that indicated they were going to take the easy road, aka the Comic Code style ending, aka the moralistic ending of ‘crime doesn’t pay,’ when the show clearly stated that it did for 8 seasons.)
The more you study stories, the more you can predict any surprise, even if most people can’t see it. Even the best stories will fail to hide their twists from you. If you’re a writer that may scare you. Don’t be afraid. It’s all right. There is so much more to enjoy in storytelling. As you get better and better, the best stories will surprise you the least, because competent writers always deliver the goods.
Frankly, it’s only bad writers who can surprise me these days, because they can go totally off the rails and do something that sucks and doesn’t satisfy anyone. In Kung Fu, you learn the horse stance first, but if you keep at it, there are secrets that await you that reveal so much more about the nature of the universe. The masters are just waiting to show you, if only you persist.
Anyway, here is our conversation. I still find it funny and I only feel a little bad for my buddy. If you don’t want to know how you favorite story ends, don’t ask me because I’ll tell you with great enthusiasm, not knowing that you had no idea.
FRIEND 3:36 pm
they don’t seem too confident letting Walt be the dominant villain til the end
ME 3:37 pm
and he never was
and they are going to make him heroic
he will kill the guys (neo-nazis)
and his kid
and he will die
FRIEND 3:39 pm
And a few days later:
FRIEND 10:18 am
When the show’s credits rolled I knew I had a crucial decision to make. Is Dan so smart that I should never discuss ongoing shows with him again? Or is Dan too much of an asshole that I should never talk to him again period?”