This post was five seasons in the making, fermenting over the years as I’ve watched AMC’s Mad Men and been left speechless, over and over, by how well-written it is.
A warning: although I’m a couple episodes behind this season, this post may contain spoilers for those of you who haven’t caught up yet, either.
But there’s a moment in a recent episode of Mad Men that I just have to write about. Not just because the writing’s perfect, but because it shows what makes great writing. It’s all in the choices we make. The writers could’ve chosen to go one way. They went another. And that (as Robert Frost would say) has made all the difference.
To set it up, Sally, Don Draper’s pre-teen daughter, is tagging along to a gala in which her father is receiving an award. Don’s partner, Roger Sterling, is going solo, so he takes it upon himself to be Sally’s date. It’s adorable, and innocent, and throughout the night as Roger teases her about how she’s had too many “drinks,” how she needs to help him remember people’s names, and how pretty she looks, it’s clear that Sally’s enjoying it. What little girl doesn’t want this kind of attention? She’s at that age where she’s anxious to be a woman, but too young to truly understand everything that comes along with it. She basks in the illusion of being the apple of Roger’s eye.
But of course there are other women at this party, and one in particular who clearly has her eyes on Roger. They drink, they flirt, they end up sneaking away to an empty room, where conveniently enough, there is a lone chair for Roger to sit back on and enjoy as the woman pleasures him. Poor Sally wanders off and catches them, then quietly sneaks away undetected and dumbfounded.
That evening, while everyone’s asleep, she calls a friend, her one true confidant. Since she’s staying with her dad in Manhattan, her friend asks how the city is. Sally answers with only one word.
“Dirty,” she says. And the episode ends there.
Most shows would’ve had that conversation play out very differently. They would’ve had Sally tell her friend about what she saw, and how it made her feel. But in one word the writers of Mad Men not only got it across, but they kept me thinking about it after the show was over. Days and weeks later.
Because they chose not to tell us everything, they left me with so much to think about. I admire this kind of writing because these choices aren’t easy to make. We wonder if we’re giving the reader (or viewer) enough when we go the subtle route. We worry that they’ll draw the wrong conclusion. If we don’t draw them a map, will they get to where we want them to go? But if we do, won’t it be a boring, unpredictable journey for them?
Great writing is carefully crafted to leave just the right amount of hints. But even then, not everyone will interpret them the same way. That’s part of the beauty of writing and being read: the work is a breathing thing, it’ll take on a life of its own (many lives) depending on who’s reading.
As writers we can only control how the story’s told, not how it’s read. We have to make a choice to focus on what we can control: the writing (always the writing).