We’ve all seen movies and shows where the plot becomes meaningless white noise. A character yells, “We’ve got to get to the bifrost wormhole!” Another character shouts back, “Not without the allspark particles!” The story just becomes this thing, and this thing, and this thing. I see it all the time in action flicks, crime stories, and thrillers.
The thing is, these kinds of stories can have real emotional stakes. But how do you pull that off?
A while back, I went to a virtual networking event that featured a writer/producer from Better Call Saul, Marion Dayre.
Marion is a killer writer. She’s assisted incredible people like Joey Soloway and Jeff Garlin, written for great shows like The Act, and now she’s the showrunner on Marvel’s Echo. Her knowledge of craft is illuminating, and her commitment to her work is infectious. She knows things about writing, amazing things. So when Marion talks about storytelling, everyone should listen.
I also think Better Call Saul is the most sophisticated show on television. To me, it’s art. And there’s plenty of stuff for the lizard brain too. There are brutal takedowns and sniper attacks. Someone even drinks their pee to survive after getting stranded in the desert. It’s wild stuff.
And yet, for all of these pyrotechnics, Better Call Saul is also an emotionally complex drama about highly dimensional people. The show deals primarily in spiritual consequences, and its best moments are often as quiet as they are powerful.
I was curious about that balance, the line between action and drama, and how Better Call Saul takes such excursions into truly fantastic spectacle while maintaining the narrative’s human core. So I reached out to Marion recently to pick her brain some more. Lucky for me, she agreed to a chat.
Marion said that everything comes from character, everything. In the writers’ room, they talk about where the characters are in the show’s timeline and what emotional history they’re coming from. Plotting is out. She said they don’t really focus on what will happen ten episodes down the road. Sure, the writers have ideas for stories and twists, but mostly, they try to go moment by moment, building out the story as an intentional character study.
Marion’s own writing process is similarly centered on character-building up-top. Using an exercise from grad school, she develops her characters as if they’re for a video game. Marion told me that she thinks video games have some of the most well-developed characters because we need a 360-degree view of them in order to navigate their fictional world.
To crib this character-building work, Marion begins by examining
- A character’s personality and defects
- Their personal values
- Their professional values
- Their priorities and their wants
- Their key relationships
- Their history, their background, and their traumas
- Their ties to the location itself
Marion told me that it usually takes about 3-4 weeks to explore these details step-by-step. But she says that this character work ultimately saves time because it helps writers understand the materials they’re working with when they sit down to write.
I believe it. In my own writing experience, problems always arise when I’m trying to plot something, and when I catch myself asking, What happens next?
Trying to “come up with something” usually kills the script. That’s when cliches show up. The story gets complicated, and the once-vibrant script becomes white noise and slows to a crawl.
This is also when scenes start to feel modular. They can be moved around and put in any order without changing the characters or the story. Marion pointed out that when that happens, yeah, that’s usually a bad sign.
So the next time you’re writing an action movie or a thriller or even a comedy, don’t think about what comes next. Think about the characters, down to their bones. Learn their contradictions and weaknesses. If you know what delights them and what pisses them off, you can see where conflicts naturally appear, and the story will arrive on its own.