The screenwriter behind gripping episodes of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul and Amazon's upcoming Lord of the Rings series explains why she's attracted to stories about "ordinary people in extraordinary situations." Written and hosted by Al Horner, produced by Kamil Dymek, with music by Nafets and Oliver Knowles.
GH: The types of stories I love to write tend to be stories about normal people in really extraordinary situations… I like things that are kind of totally weird or different, like, you know, I feel like Better Call Saul is such a great encapsulation of a show that plays with tone in so many different ways – maybe even more than Breaking Bad did. It's funny. It's shocking. It's like a family drama. Sometimes it's a crime drama. It goes all over the place but at its core, it's just about people dealing with their actions, the consequences of their actions, who they want to be and how their own decisions and the decisions of those around them kind of affect their ability to be that person…. I always want the people to feel really real – like people you would just meet in your daily life, because that to me is how you get to that emotional connection you get in storytelling.
AH: That’s Gennifer Hutchison, theMassachusetts-born screenwriter known for her work on shows like Breaking Bad,Better Call Saul and the upcoming Lord of the Rings TV series. Whether she’s telling a story set in fiery Mordor or just New Mexico, Gennifer loves finding the relatability within people caught in unrelatable situations. There’s something revealing she explains about seeing ordinary characters like BreakingBad’s Walter White pulled into something as extraordinary as Alberqurque’s methamphetamine underworld. Why? Well, because his behaviour in that pressure-cooker environment is behaviour that we all might have dormant within us. The type of TV Gennifer loves to write gives us a chance to see that side of ourselves, the parts we hide away or deny, dialled up to eleven.
GH: They don't have to be like everyday people – they could be extraordinary in the sense that they could be kings and queens. They could have magical powers. They could do all those things. But the core emotions are verygrounded and relatable. People ask me sometimes, like: “How could you writeWalter White on Breaking Bad? You're not a middle-aged man or a teacher with cancer, dealing drugs. And I'm like: “no, I am not. Fair. But I have felt desperate before. I have felt misunderstood. I have felt trapped. I have felt all those feelings that Walt has felt in some way. And I think that's whatI mean when, I mean like sort of “ordinary” – people who experience universal emotions because the specifics of their story make that story interesting. But those universal emotions are what allow you to connect to them.
AH: I’m Al Horner, and coming up today on How I Write, a podcast about the highs, lows and workflows of screenwriting –Gennifer Hutchison reveals how deadlines unlock her creativity, why the trick to first drafts is to let your characters “speak the subtext” of each scene and how you block out the noise when you’re writing a show that’s five seasons deep and hurtling towards a conclusion that millions of viewers are all deeply invested in.
GH: I'm usually wearing my headphones. Generally, rain sounds are playing. I will also listen to ambient music – I'm listening to a lot of Aphex Twin lately. And it's just me and my laptop at that point. [laughs]
AH: That’s all to come today on How I Write, presented by Arc Studio Pro – the screenwriting software that lets writers stay focused on the stories they’re trying to tell on the page. Get your free trial today to check out its intuitive design, seamless real-time collaboration feature, excellent outlining functions and easy-to-use import and export capabilities. More on those guys later – but for now, with no further adieu…
GH: I’m Gennifer Hutchison… and this is how I write.
AH: Life wasn’t always orcs, elves and Jesse Pinkman for Gennifer, who was born in Concord, Massachusetts but moved around a lot when she was little. That’s just how it is for quote-unquote “military brats” – kids like her who grew up in US army families. She credits that life –a life of often being the new kid at school and having to embed herself in anew community over and over again – with leading her to storytelling and shaping a lot of her screenwriting habits today.
GH: I think that actually did really directly help with my storytelling because it helped with my sort of understanding of character and different situations that can build people and really intense friendships. It sort of supercharges your friendships because you have to make them fast and then they end so quickly. And so you have to get a lot of friendship in, in a short period of time. And that's almost like telling a story, you know? Because you have to intensify those relationships so quickly. I think that actually really, really – I haven't thought about that in that way, but I think that really did, did affect it. And then just being open, I think there's an openness you have to have as a military kid that is really helpful in storytelling and finding an entree into different worlds and characters.
AH: The more you discover about Gennifer’s background, the less and less surprising it is that she’s become an important contributor to some many great TV shows, starting as an assistant on TheX-Files and Mad Men before graduating to the writing room on Breaking Bad. Gennifer always loved TV. In fact, her childhood was basically one big negotiation and renegotiation of bed times with her parents, so she could stay up to watch her favourite shows. Movies were great. But there was something novelistic and expansive about TV that she adored.
GH: For me, because I love characters so much, and love doing incredibly deep dives into people, film is naturally limited. When you do that, that's more [like] you pick a moment in a person's life, which is great. But with TV, you can really explore the full spectrum of a person's life. And that’s really what ended up drawing me to it… you know, I have TV shows that Is till think about and I still love, and of course it's just, it almost feels inevitable that the bulk of my career would have ended up being in TV.
AH: When it comes to Gennifer’s writing process, it’s less a case of “how I write” and more a case of “we.” TV writing requires close collaboration with other writers, in what are known as writers’ rooms.Eventually Gennifer will be assigned an episode and will peel off to write it by herself in her apartment, on a desk that she proudly points out looks kind of like Jimmy’s from Better Call Saul. But before that point, these shows require a team of people working together under the direction of a showrunner, breaking the story for the season ahead and all of the story beats contained within.
GH: Writers' rooms are wonderful places, especially if you love writing. Because you just get to talk about, like, the little nuts and bolts of character and plot and “how do you do this thing?”, you know, until it's beautiful. And then everybody's almost shouting. You're like: “Oh yeah, and then you could do this! And then you could do that!” And then this!” Those are really beautiful moments in a room… An average day in a writer's room – on most shows, you will have a writer's room, which is basically [where] you come in in the morning. All the writing staff sits down and you are just with the showrunner, and there's usually a writer's assistant who takes notes of everything that's said and keeps track of continuity and the main sort of storylines. You just sit down, all of us together. And then we start working on: “what is the show going to be? What are the episodes? What are the characters?” Together you start. Different rooms do different things. Some use index cards, some use whiteboards, but ultimately what you're doing is you're writing, you're comingout together. You're coming up with the beats of the story, which is just all the things that happen in whatever level of detail your particular showrunnerwants, and you put those all down on some sort of board – [either] a cork board with cards or a whiteboard – you build your show kind of from the ground up.[laughs]
AH: The best rooms, Gennifer explains, are places where writers are free to pitch without judgement. In these rooms, there are no bad ideas because so-called bad ideas are often the seeds of great ones.
GH: Every showrunner is different. Every showrunner has a different way of running a room. I've been lucky in that I've been in really nurturing, safe rooms where the showrunners, they like good ideas [but] they understand that sometimes that means you have to get out the bad idea first to get to the good idea. You feel creatively secure. It's hard to be in a room and pitch because you're being very vulnerable. You always want to present your absolute best idea completely and fully polished. When you turn in a script, you've gone over that thing. Well, hopefully you have. So many times that it's like, “this is as perfect as [I] can make it right now until I get feedback.”When you're in a room, your job is to be not perfect. Your job is to generate ideas and sometimes they're ugly and they don't work right yet. One of the common refrains you'll hear in a lot of writer's rooms is “this is the bad version” or “this might be terrible but maybe it'll lead to something good.”And that’s actually something you want to hear because a lot of times what happens is “this is the bad version” will spark somebody else's creative flow and they'll be like, “oh, what you could do is this.” Because a lot of times when you're stuck on something and you don't have an idea, trying to make it exactly right is the thing that's keeping you stuck. And a lot of times what you need to do is say: “this is what I'm trying to do. This is what I'm going for.”
AH: Gennifer often positions herself in the room as a problem-solving force of optimism who’s able to keep a 30,000-foot view of the story and where it’s heading. She does this to keep the season on track, heading towards its narrative destination with precision and pace, and toalleviate some of the intense pressure that can come with a show as beloved asBetter Call Saul or Breaking Bad.
GH: My role in a room, I tend to generate a lot of stuff, but I also try to keep a very big picture view sometimes, like: “this is what's gonna happen in the next episode. This is what we're trying to do with this character.” Because a lot of times you can get really lost in detail and forget what you're trying to do and what's holding the whole thing together. I also tend to be very positive. I've been in writer's rooms where it feels like we will never crack this thing – like we've made a horrible mistake. I've seen real despair in writer's rooms – like, people get really down in their feelings when it's just not coming [together]. So I try to be like, “we've been here before! We can find it! We can find our way through!” It's probably going to be something really small and simple, and not, you know, [a case of needing to]deconstruct the entire show. And it usually works. Like, it usually is something small and simple.
AH: Of course, the mood and task in hand varies dramatically based on what story it is Gennifer and her collaborators are breaking. By season five of Breaking Bad, for example, the show had grown into a prestige TV phenomenon, watched by tens of millions worldwide – all of whom, by the way, had opinions on what should happen to Walt, Skyler and co. How do you even begin to deal with that kind of pressure? Do you try to block it out –or is letting a little awareness of that audience expectation into your writers’ room actually a good thing?
GH: Starting a new season in the room is really emotional in a few ways. If you've already done a season before, you're kind of coming off the glory of, like, “we finished it! We actually got through a whole season!” and usually you're very happy with it. And now it's like, “oh God, we have to do it all over again.” [laughs] There's definitely this fear of looking at this blank board that was previously filled and just being like, “I don't even know whereto begin.” But then conversely, there's the, like we could do anything. It's a blank – it's a clean palette that you can just paint whatever you want onto. As far as audience expectations, as a show gets bigger or if it's a high profile show, those are really daunting. I find that I always want to be thoughtful of fans. [But] there's also like, you know, I also feel a need to remind people, I am a fan myself. The first fans of a show are the writers, because we live this show.
I firmly believe that you can't write a show unless you love it in some way. There has to be something that's just like really pulling you in.I've been lucky to work on shows that I love so much that, you know, I think about those characters and they feel so real to me. So as fans ourselves, you know, we want to tell a story that is delightful and emotional. You hope that that is in line with what most fans also want, because if you get too caught up in expectations – because fans are not a monolith, like everybody views the show differently. Breaking Bad people, there are people who are like, “oh myGod, I love Walt. And I really don't like any of the storylines about, you know, Skinny Pete” or something. And some people are like: “Skinny Pete’s my favourite character.” Everybody likes something different on that show. BetterCall Saul is a huge example. Some people really are in it for Mike and Gus.Some people are in it for Saul and Kim or Jimmy and Kim. You can't go in going:“oh, well, the fans will want this or that” because they're different.Different people are gonna identify with different things. And if you get too much into that, you lose the thread of what you're actually doing. It's like, you have to trust your own voice. It's really hard. It's a really delicate balance. And it's something I think about a lot. And my hope is that fans just realize we love the show and we want to tell the best possible story we can that most – if not everybody – will love, you know? [laughs]
AH: Still to come on How I Write – the trick to opening and closing a screenplay in style that Gennifer often falls back on, why walks and video games are her crutch when she’s stuck on a story problem, and why revising her drafts involves Gennifer going through each line and working out if by saying less, her story can say more. But first, a word aboutArc Studio Pro.
Screenwriting to me is all about immersion. I want to stay immersed in that dreamy fantasy-like state while I weave my story and craft my characters. I don’t want to be distracted by anything and I certainly don’t want to be thinking about text formatting. Arc Studio Pro understands that. It’s so intuitive. It has a minimal and dare I say beautiful interface that allows me to stay completely focused on the story I’m trying to tell. If you like to work with a writing partner, well, good news – Arc StudioPro has seamless real-time collaboration kind of similar to Google Docs which allows you and whoever you’re working with to stay and literally and figuratively on the same page. Importing and exporting other formats like PDF and Final Draft files is easy. And best of all, it has an always free plan.Meaning you can sign up today and start writing. To take your screenwriting tot he next level, visit ArcStudioPro.com. Click the link in today’s show notes to find out more. Okay, back to the conversation.
GH: I try to bring my own authenticity to everything I write while also honoring the showrunner’s voice and tone. I think that Better Call Saul was a show that for me, I was able to bring a lot of myself into, particularly in Kim's character. I always, I feel such a strong connection to that character that whenever I had an episode with her, I would put in details that I felt were that were mine, that were really things that I would do…
AH: There’s a misconception around writing TV that because you’ve got lots of storytellers all contributing, that there’s limited room for writers to bring parts of themselves to the table in the way they might on a feature screenplay . That’s not quite true, says Gennifer. In the case of Better Call Saul, sure – these may be characters devised by Vince Gilligan, undergoing experiences decided by a team of people, but there’s still lots of room to add elements of autobiography to the page, that help ground scenes in something real. Writing Kim in Better Call Saul, played by Rhea Seehorn, for example, regularly allows Gennifer to pull from her own life and personality traits.
GH: This is really a silly one, but there's an episode where she quits her job and she rents a lot of movies and she's just like eating chips and watching movies. Jimmy comes home and he's like: “what are you doing?” AndI remember we were talking about, like, “what does she do? Does she go to a spa? Does she do this? And I was like, I know guys, she rents a bunch of movies and just eats a bunch of junk food. And that's what I would do. Like, that's100% me! I just took myself, made it Kim, and I think it works for the character. You know, we'd already established as a movie fan, all these things, and it was a real pleasure writing that scene and then seeing it and feeling like so connected to that character in such a silly way. But I was like, you know, I think there's the more traditional way of like, “oh, she would go to a spa or, oh, she would go drink.” And I was like, well, different people distress in different ways. And to me, this is the way that I like. And I would love to see that represented in this one scene in this one show. And it actually ended up really working, I thought, and being a really sweet scene. Um, so that's one example of that, a silly one, but… [laughs]
AH: When episodes have been assigned to writers, who each go away and tackle them alone, they’re often up against it. TV is a fast-paced environment with some intense deadlines. This, it turns out, within reason, is just the way Gennifer likes it.
GH: TV is interesting because it's great that you have deadlines and you're really trying to work towards a very specific goal. It’s hard when those deadlines start to stack up and you have no time. I've been on shows where I've had friends who've been on shows where they have to turn around a script in two days. And that's not a world that you want to be in, [where] you know, there's just no time. I've been very lucky in that my writer's draft is usually due and I have two weeks to write it. And that's like really – that's tight, but it's a good amount of time for an hour script. I also firmly believe that the work stretches to fill the time. So, you know, part of my process is negotiating how long it's going to take me to write things. And if I have three weeks, I'm like, “oh, I'll be so far ahead.” And [then] it's like: “nope. That time just stretched out. I just took more time thinking about things or getting through the first draft.” If I don't have a deadline, I tend to just – the work just tends to stretch forever. If I don't have a deadline on something, I always have to self-impose deadlines and I have to make them firm in telling people “I will have this to you by this date” because otherwise, uh, my brain is just like, “oh, well, there's so many possibilities.” I do think there's a threshold for how much time is good for obsessing over details because at a certain point you just stop getting anything done.
AH: The first step in Gennifer’s approach to actually writing an episode of TV is getting down a “vomit draft” – named such, because you’re practically just expelling it from your body onto the page. A vomit draft will be messy, but well, it exists. You can polish and improve something that exists. You can’t improve a blank piece of paper. When it comes to these vomit drafts, Gennifer will let characters simply blurt how they’re feeling or what they want in a scene. The subtlety and nuance can come in revisions.
GH: I tend to write first drafts as vomit drafts. I just start andI go until the end and I don't revise as I'm writing. I'm someone who works better editing – revising something rather than generating on a blank page. And so, even if it's the worst thing I've ever written, I at least know what I need to change. So yeah. I tend to write very straightforward vomit drafts. As I've written more and more, my vomit drafts have gotten to be better quality, because I'm able to, especially on a show that I know well – you know, onBetter Call Saul, I knew those characters so well that by the end, my vomit drafts were actually in pretty good shape. There is a lot of writing exactly what the character is thinking or even writing “write a funny joke here” or find a way to, you know, she's trying to say this to him. Like just, just writing the subtext out as text. No one but me ever sees that draft. I have never shown a vomit draft to anyone in my life because I feel like I would just die of mortification. I think that that's an important distinction to make – the vomit draft is not to be shown. The first draft that you tend to turn in on a show is not your first draft. It's the first draft that they're reading. So, yes, I write a vomit draft. It's really important to get it on the page for me, so that I have something to work with. And then from there, my next revision is a very intense, like, you know, line by line revision where I work on each scene until I feel like it's in better shape or I've hit a wall and I have to move on. Um, and then I just repeat that process and it gets slightly less intense with each, uh, go through until I turn it in. Basically until I run out of time and have to turn it. [laughs]
AH: When it comes to opening and closing episodes she’s writing, Gennifer strives to find a really strong opening image that connects to the theme of the episode. Her script for the season three episode of Breaking Bad titled I See You starts with a hospital gown gradually coming undone to reveal a brutally bruised torso. Finding a way to visually tie your episode into what’s going underneath the surface of your characters adds a sophistication and resonance to the material, Gennifer explains.
GH: I like to start with a strong image, which is something I kind of learned from Vince Gilligan and that camp. A lot of times for the opening of a script, that is kind of my “in” – it’s like, what’s the opening image or you know, feel or tone? And then for the ending. It really varies. Again, you want to end it, it's like you want to end it as soon as you possibly can and it makes sense. You know, so it's sort of the flip of the beginning and I always want to end it on another strong image, usually with a character. If I can be on a character and whatever their reaction is to the scene, as opposed to a wide or something like that, unless having that larger perspective is helpful,I tend to want to end there. I think that's where my imagery comes in the strongest. That opening image and then the ending image are really, really important keystones.
AH: It can be emotional working on these stories and punishing characters who, like us at home as an audience, Gennifer has come to love intensely. Feeling emotional, she says, is often a sign that something is clicking in the writing process – that she’s on the right track in a scene.
GH: I absolutely get really emotional writing certain kinds of scenes and those emotions can be like, “wow, that was really intense” or like,“this is so fun.” I've written scenes where I'm like, “I'm having so much fun here” that like, you get that emotion. I've also had scenes where I cry when I write, because the emotional intent is landing really well – for me, at least as I'm writing it. There's a scene I wrote that I cried when I wrote it and I cried literally every single time I revised it. And it's not even a sad scene.It's ultimately a good scene, a positive scene… Sometimes it's hard.Sometimes it can mean you don't want to write a scene. Uh, but usually it's a positive thing.
AH: Next up, when revising, Gennifer has a couple of tricks that help each scene crackle with the kind of electricity that you’ll know well if like me, you’ve devoured each episode of Breaking Bad andBetter Call Saul a hundred thousand times.
GH: When I'm revising. I think the thing that works the best for me as far as getting scenes in shape is saying the dialogue out loud as I'm reading it. I don't use my full projected voice, but just actually speaking the words is probably my most consistent tool for getting dialogue to sound great or where I want it to be. Once you start saying it, you automatically start thinking in the character's voice, because you're like: “oh, what does that character sound like?” And so if something doesn't feel right for them, that comes through more, as opposed to reading it, which is always more of an intellectual exercise. Because in your head you can fill in those gaps. When you're speaking you have to actually, you know, make those words make sense. There are no gaps you can fill in, like you can in your brain. Another thing that I like to do, or I always do, is try to say it with fewer words. So there's always the like fewer words revision where I go through and try to make the lines as efficient as possible without being clipped. Sometimes you need a scene to breathe. You have to have pauses. I'm a huge fan of punctuation and using punctuation as away to communicate rhythm. But I also can be really repetitive and over-overexplain things or over-over express the emotion in a scene. So I go through like, “have I already said this? Can I make it shorter?” So those are kind of my big things.
AH: It’s usually the first draft where Gennifer will encounter problems or moments of self-doubt. Overcoming these hurdles usually requires talking out the problem with colleagues and friends. Well, that and lengthy sessions on the video games Dragon Age and Mass Effect.
GH: One of the things that helps me get past stuck points is talking about writing and story because I love it. So fundamentally, I need to reconnect with that. Like, why am I doing this? Talking out the story problem that I'm having – what is it that's blocking me specifically, finding someone and talking it through – a lot of times I'll come up with a solution myself.
It's just having to explain the problem to somebody often illuminates the answer. Um, I take walks. I will go play a video game. I will work on a hobby that's not related to writing, you know, that's just something to do with my hands that [means] I can just completely unplug that part of my brain. But I think the most common one and I resist doing it a lot is just talking to people about it, you know, just talking about the scene or writing in general. And then I do talk about it and I feel so renewed and refreshed.I'm like, why didn't I just do this the first time? You know? [laughs]
AH: For Gennifer, it’s worth pushing through those tough moments, because the personal rewards are enormous. People connect to these series, these characters. The satisfaction she gets from knowing that reminds her why she writes.
GH: When people have said, you know, they responded to somethingI've written, like that is like one of the most humbling feelings in the world of like, I can't believe that, like, the thing that I always wanted to do, like, I actually managed to do it. Like I said, I want to be able to make people feel things with stories. And then people were like, you made me feel this thing with this story. And it's just like, I cannot believe that, like that worked. I actually did it. It's a really wonderful feeling and I wish more, more, more things got made so that more people could feel more often. I think the reason I write is because I want to connect to people. Growing up,the best movies and TV shows and books and video games and all those things made me feel less alone. You know, somebody else has felt this feeling or somebody wrote something that was so exciting or so compelling that it activated a feeling in me that I didn't didn't have before. And that's what I want to do. Make other people feel not alone, or feel something that maybe they didn't even know they could feel something like that. It really is about connection to me, and understanding people. I'm fascinated by people and relationships and, and how we work and why we work. All of the little things that go into making very complex people. Storytelling allows you to explore that in a collective way. Stories are meant to be shared. I love that part ofit too, where it's like, “well, this is my experience” and someone will belike, “oh, I had that experience too.” But also this, like, and then it just sort of builds and builds and builds. And again, it makes you feel this sort of collective communal feeling. Um, yeah, I guess that's what it is, you know? Um, just feeling like you're not alone connecting with other people.
AH: Gennifer Hutchison is a WGA Award-winning screenwriter who’s worked on series like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.She’s recently been hard at work on the much anticipated Lord of the RingsAmazon series. You’ve been listening to How I Write, hosted by me, Al Horner, with production by Kamil Dymek. Music is by Oliver Knowles. Our theme song is by Nafets. How I Write is brought to you by Arc Studio Pro. Get your free trial today by visiting Arc Studio Pro.com. Thanks for tuning in – we’ll see you next time.