5 Story Techniques from Better Call Saul

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

There’s little debate that Better Call Saul is one of the best-written shows on television right now. The writers have managed to take a side character from a different hit show and develop him into a multi-layered protagonist that we can all empathize with. Even though the show is only part way through its second season, it has already provided writers with a number of different methods and techniques for making a story interesting and appealing to an audience. Here are just a few of the lessons they’ve offered.

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1. BUILD A GREATER GOOD

A great deal of your story will center around the protagonist serving their own interests. They will pursue their goals – both internal and external. They will usually reap the rewards for all their work themselves. However, one of the most powerful characteristics we can provide a character with is selflessness. Giving your character something greater than themselves to care about will endear that character to audiences like nothing else.

Mike Ehrmantraut, portrayed by Jonathan Banks, is a key reason for the success of Better Call Saul. The humor, development, and heartache of Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill is fascinating, but Mike provides a layer for the show that wouldn’t be there otherwise. In season one, we learned that Mike has an Achilles heel. He feels a great deal of guilt over the death of his son. He tries to create a balm for the guilt by caring for his son’s widow and, especially, his granddaughter. Mike has proven on more than one occasion in this story that he cares for these two people much more than he cares for himself. He would do anything for them. In turn, we love him for his selflessness.

2. KEEP YOUR ENEMIES CLOSE TO HOME

In the pilot season of the show, Jimmy McGill also had someone he cared about more than himself – his brother, Chuck. We watched with a heavy heart as Jimmy cared for Chuck and accommodated his unusual condition. Chuck was Jimmy’s motivation for trying to walk the straight and narrow. When Chuck betrays Jimmy at the end of season one, we feel the sting as sharply as Jimmy does. How could Chuck do this to his brother? The writers in this character arc relied on a time-honored tradition of story: the greatest conflict comes from those closest to the protagonist, especially their family.

When a member of your main character’s family betrays them, it causes universal pain. No one has to explain to us why this hurts so much. We all understand the stakes of betrayal by those we love the most. Creating antagonistic forces from your character’s family will generate empathy for your character and reactions from your audience.

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3. SPOIL YOUR ENDING. THE THRILL IS IN THE JOURNEY

Often, young writers pitch to me and are afraid of giving away the ending of their story. This is usually a characteristic of a writer who has yet to develop confidence in their abilities. Unless you are M. Night Shyamalan, give away your ending – and do it even then. Granted, some stories are based around a surprise turn at the end of the film (Primal Fear comes to mind). Most, however, are not. Most stories are powerful because of the journey it takes to arrive at the ending, not the ending its self. This is why we can watch a film we have seen a number of times and still feel all the same thrills again. Knowing how the story ends doesn’t preclude us from investment or enjoyment of the story.

The writers of Better Call Saul began their task knowing what eventually happens to their characters. Their audience knows as well. Breaking Bad spells out the fate of Jimmy, Mike, and other characters we are meeting along the way. We can be aware of a character’s demise years later and still very much invest in their journey. Sometimes, when we know how things turn out for the character in the end, the joy and suffering experienced along the way has an even greater pay off for the audience.

4. SHOW STRENGTH IN WEAKNESS

In life, many times our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. Someone who is extremely generous might also struggle with keeping healthy boundaries. Someone who is excellent at managing money might also become greedy and miserly. Someone who is funny might never be able to take things seriously. Our characters should have these same realistic battles. Jimmy McGill is wonderful at talking his way out of situations. Unfortunately, this means he often does not avoid situations that he should. He also thinks extremely well on his feet. This is, of course, what makes him a great con man.

One useful trope in storytelling is to give your character a choice between two very compelling or less-than-compelling options. Over time, Jimmy is being forced to choose between flying straight and the life of shortcuts that he has such talent for. Both choices have their advantages, but both have their pitfalls. If Jimmy plays life straight up, he quickly becomes bored, and his life seems to lack meaning and direction. If he chooses to act on his love of cons, he occasionally hurts himself or, even worse, others he loves. His greatest strengths are also his weaknesses.

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5. CREATE IRONICALLY LIKABLE CHARACTERS

Most of the key characters in Better Call Saul give us reasons not to like them. However, they all also embody qualities we simply find irresistible. Jimmy is a con man, but he is extremely loyal. Mike uses brute force to his benefit, but underneath he is a big softie. Kim is hard on Jimmy, but she really seems to love him. There is an irony inside each of these characters that gives them complexity and makes them feel real to us.

We need a reason to root for the protagonist. We might not like everything that character does, but we need to like them – or at the very least feel empathy for them. Creating complex yet ironically likable characters will have audiences tuning in every week to follow the journeys of the people you commit to your story. Because in them, we will see ourselves.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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