Why "Breaking" Experiences Makes Them Better

TV shows engage an audience. At least the good ones do. Every once in a while, a *great* show like Breaking Bad comes out and *really* engages an audience. Within an episode, over the course of a season, and over many years. Engagement is something that many of us in the digital, tech, product, software, service, non-digital, even ...shudder...marketing world are often tasked with. We have a lot to learn from television writers and how they envision, plan, and execute stories over time for maximum engagement.

While products aren't stories, the way our audience experiences a product is the story. It is therefore our job as people who build successful products to make sure that story is as engaging as possible. The best way to do that is to break the story into little pieces. And put it back together again. Just like a TV writer does.

While I call this literal act of mapping out stories “storymapping,” fiction writers like John Gardner call it “plotting.” Vince Gilligan, co-creater of Breaking Bad and former writer for The X-Files, however, calls it “breaking.”

What exactly is "breaking" and how does it work?

Here's how Gilligan describes it: 

Watch the full interview with Writer/Producer Vince Gilligan.

Breaking. The act of deconstructing and mapping out a story over time to ensure that its structure is sound, flows well, is exciting at the right times, grows, and, in the end, engages an audience.

According to Gilligan, “the writing is an important part, but it’s not the hardest part and it’s not the most crucial part.” The team might spend days or, more likely, weeks "breaking" a story before they start writing. In this workflow, writing is a layer built on top of the "broken" structure. Once you have that structure, writing fleshes out the story and completes it. I would argue that the same holds true for interactive experiences.

You need a solid narrative structure at the core upon which you can build and flesh out a holistic experience.

As Gilligan explains, the blueprint and structure support everything else. He even uses a metaphor that I often see designers and information architects use: 

“You can’t build a skyscraper unless you have the architectural blueprints to begin with.”

What I love about Gilligan's approach is this: while I think that people like digital architects and engineers should learn from television writing, television writers are learning from architecture and engineering. And why not? Film and especially television are still relatively new industries. They borrow techniques, approaches, and philosophies from other fields all the time. And so do we. It makes the work we do better.