That Wristwatch on a Pay Phone
June 8, 2017
“Breaking Bad” junkies remember that shortly before Walt White’s last trip home to settle his scores, he stops at a gas station to make a call from a pay phone. After the call, he glances significantly at his wristwatch — a gift from Jesse Pinkman, his hapless partner in crime — then takes it off and leaves it on top of the pay phone. The camera lingers on the abandoned wristwatch.
Oh, the symbolism! The poignancy! Walt’s time has run out. His bond with Jesse has been broken. He’s leaving everything behind. What a deep and powerful metaphor!
“Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan laughingly explained in an interview that the scene was a last-minute addition to the episode for a purely pragmatic reason. The last scene of the series had already been shot, and an astute crew member noticed that the wardrobe department had forgotten to outfit Walt with the watch during the shoot. He wasn’t wearing it, and he should have been. Oops. How to explain its disappearance? Enter the gas station scene.
I laugh, because continuity — ensuring consistency throughout a story — is a big bugaboo for me as an author. I’m more loosey-goosey than the average author and notoriously dismissive of non-fun aspects of novel-writing such as making an outline and keeping careful notes.
I’ve gotten better, and I’m hugely grateful to all the wonderful editors who have caught most of my mistakes before they’ve made it into readers’ hands. But much to my mortification, a few have slipped through the cracks.
For instance, I confided to a group of middle-schoolers once that the eye color of the grandmother in my novel, “Do-Over,” changes halfway through the book. In one scene, her bright blue eyes are sparkling with amusement. Thirteen chapters later, her brown eyes are clouded with concern.
One of the students in my audience helpfully suggested that maybe Grandma had switched to tinted contact lenses during the course of the story.
As much as I appreciated her suggestion (and as amused as I was by the thought of an old lady opting for tinted contacts), I have no choice but to own my sloppiness and resolve to do better.
And as I said, I have definitely improved through the years. But the editing process of my upcoming young-adult novel, “All the Wrong Chords,” reminded me that I’m still loosier and goosier than I’d like to be. (The single word, “Continuity,” was a frequent editing note. I sensed a tone.)
I noted in a previous blog that physical descriptions of characters are among the least interesting aspects of the writing process to me. There are only so many eye shapes, body types, complexion shades and hair textures to choose from, and I’m much more interested in a character’s personality than looks. But everybody has to look one way or another, so I’m stuck with deciding whether, for instance, Grandma has blue eyes or brown. I’ve found that it helps me to picture an actual person when rendering a physical description, and an author friend suggested choosing a single unusual feature — a crooked nose, a prominent widow’s peak, something like that — to vary my characters’ appearances.
This is all helpful. But once I commit to the details, I’ve got to, you know, remember what they are. Or — here’s a thought! — write them down in a list of notes. When I was in college, I was often asked whether I was auditing courses, seeing as I was the only student in the room not taking notes. It just seemed unnecessary at the time. I have a lot of intrinsic curiosity, so I was generally interested enough in the professor’s lectures to pay close attention. I didn’t anticipate forgetting anything, and my low-B GPA attested to the wisdom of this approach.
But I’m taking more notes these days and hoping for fewer eye-color reversals in the future. And if something slips through the cracks, I’m hoping readers will glean some hidden or profound significance.
Like the existentialism of a wristwatch on top of a pay phone.