I started watching Breaking Bad recently, and just finished the fourth episode. I love it so far. The writing is fantastic, and the premise is compelling (the moral degradation of a cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher as he begins cooking meth in order to provide for his family). There was a line of dialogue in the episode I watched last night that made me think about efficiency in writing, and making your writing multi-task.
Jesse Pinkman, meth dealer and addict, ends up back at his parents’ house. His younger brother, Jake, is a sweet, very intelligent kid, about 10-12. They’re in Jake’s room, talking, when their mother walks in to check on them, and makes a point of leaving the door open. Jesse is incensed at being treated like a criminal (which he is…), and makes the comment to his younger brother that their mom doesn’t want him influencing their “favorite son” (Jake).
Jake replies, “I’m the favorite? Yeah right. You’re practically all they ever talk about.”
I loved this line of dialogue, because it said volumes in only a few sentences. It does multiple things at once. Jesse’s parents worry incessantly about him, and Jesse is oblivious to this (or, perhaps, can’t face how intensely his actions have influenced others). Jake, despite his numerous accomplishments and straight-edge appearance, doesn’t feel like the favored son. He feels some jealousy over the amount of attention focused on Jesse, the screw-up. Because of this one line of dialogue, we understand, much more clearly, the dynamic of the Pinkman family.
It sets up the next scene perfectly, wherein (**SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER**) Jesse’s parents kick him out of the house for the umpteenth time because they find a joint hidden in his room. It’s not Jesse’s. It’s Jake’s. The revelation surprised me, though not in a throw-the-book-across-the-room manner. It made sense.
Although we get a lot more space to explain things in a novel than in a television show, efficient writing helps speed the reader along and doesn’t bog them down in overly wordy prose.
What if Breaking Bad were a novel? The author could have shown Jesse’s parents talking about him worriedly. Or perhaps even told the reader that Jake was envious of Jesse. But neither of these methods performs more than one function. And neither, I’m guessing, would blow the reader away.
The way we interact with the world and with other people is shaded in layers – layers influenced by our past experiences, personalities, mood, surroundings, and our expectations. Efficient writing exposes more than one layer at once, though not in an as-you-know-bob-way. It does so subtly, reflecting the way people actually interact with the world and each other.