Breaking Bad, Tarantino, and the Art of Tension

breaking-bad

You might have noticed that the opening of the “Confessions” episode of Breaking Bad feels straight out of a Tarantino movie. In it, Todd and some fellow criminals sit in a booth at a diner, engaging in jovial banter as Todd recounts the train heist from “Dead Freight.” The story comes off as amusing and everyone has a good chuckle. Tarantino has similar scenes in about half of his movies. Surely this is no accident. This is an homage.

Another common trait between Tarantino and the makers of Breaking Bad is that both are masters of tension. In fact, I think tension plays a key part in why both are so watchable, and why audiences will follow them pretty much anywhere.

If you’ve watched Breaking Bad from the beginning, you can probably name a dozen tense scenes off the top of your head. Walt’s meeting in Tuco’s office, Jane choking, the twins attacking Hank, Jesse at Gale’s apartment, Gus straightening his tie, Walt and Hank’s confrontation in the garage. These scenes stick in your memory.

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Tarantino’s movies are also full of tension. He’s given us the stand-off at the end of Reservoir Dogs, Mia’s overdose in Pulp Fiction, the underground bar scene in Inglorious Basterds, the dinner set piece in Django Unchained, and many more.

These scenes have one thing in common: They’re the result of brilliant plotting. Two diametrically opposed characters or goals are are set in motion. The pacing of the show or movie is deliberate and controlled so each scene increases the dramatic tension between the opposing forces.

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, in an interview with Rolling Stone, said, “My favorite time as a kid was not Christmas morning. It was the night before Christmas, and the sense of expectation.” That’s a very telling anecdote, because he’s describing tension. In the best scenes in the show, the pressure ratchets up to the breaking point. Then, somehow, they stretch it even further–until it explodes. The scenes we remember are the ones that end with those cathartic explosions.

Creating compelling stories using tension and release isn’t some forgotten secret known only to Tarantino and the makers of Breaking Bad. Most writers understand how to do it in the abstract. Scenes like the ones mentioned above are so rare in pop culture because it takes a tremendous amount of skill and hard work to pull them off.

But when the elements come together, as they so often do in Breaking Bad and Tarantino movies, the results are better than almost anything else out there. Controlling tension with such mastery is what every storyteller should strive to do.1

  1. By the way, this building and releasing of tension isn’t limited to horror and crime stories. Think about the bus stop scene at the end of The Remains of the Day, or the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3–tension so high it could crack your TV.
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