8 Writing Tips: What We Learned from Watching ‘Mad Men’

Once in a while, we are lucky enough to come across a TV show that grabs us from the moment we watch the first scenes unfold, until the last scene fades to black.

Mad Men is one of those shows.

When Matthew Weiner wrote the pilot for Mad Men, he created a masterpiece.

(Warning: If you haven’t seen ‘Mad Men’, there are a few spoilers ahead.)

The first episode was unlike anything we had ever seen before. It gave the viewers a raw introduction to a time and place that some of us were unfamiliar with, and some of us were familiar with, but had long forgotten. It showed us a different life and gave us colorful characters that were complex and flawed—extremely flawed, but yet, we couldn’t help but root for them. It gave us scenes that shocked us, like at the end of the pilot episode, when Don Draper takes the train to the suburbs and goes home to his wife and kids.

It was an unforgettable episode, armed with the perfect script and a talented cast that seduced us. Our jaws dropped, and after that, we were curious. We were hooked.

As each character unraveled with every new episode, we latched on tighter and craved for more. With the perfect mix of career life, individual life, and family life, Mad Men’s writers surprised us, intrigued us, and inspired us. We laughed, and we cried. And like a good book that we couldn’t put down, we kept flipping the pages as we sat on the edge of our seats, eager to know what would happen next to Don, to Peggy, to Joan, to Pete, to Roger, and the rest of the amazing cast. Then, we turned the last page, and the book ended. But in our heads, the story continues. Because here we are, still talking about it.

That’s damn good writing.

8 Writing Tips: What We Learned from Watching ‘Mad Men’

1. Flawed Characters are perfect.
Yes, they’re perfect for stories. Why? Because they’re interesting. Who wants to watch or read about someone who has it all together? Flawed characters are constantly searching, trying, failing, and changing, making them interesting and relatable.

2. Create the unexpected.
The element of surprise can spice up a story. Twists are good. But don’t create one just to have one. Make sure it fits your story. Let unexpected things happen to your characters and make your audience think. A good example is from the pilot episode, when Pete shows up at Peggy’s apartment. That scene intrigued us, and it made us eager to know what would happen next to these characters.

3. Make your audience feel something.
Evoke an emotion. Any emotion. Make them think, laugh, cry, gasp, wonder, or even make them angry.

Here’s a tip: If you’re moved by your own story, chances are, your audience will be too.

4. Pick an interesting time and place to set your story.
The more uncommon, the better. People want an escape when they read a book, or a watch a movie or a TV show. Give it to them. Mad Men picked the ’50s to start their show, and it was a great idea. The heavy drinking and heavy smoking inside office buildings, are only a few examples of the things that we saw that amazed us, because they were so different from what we’re used to. These were important elements that enhanced the show, and it was yet another reason why we were drawn to watching it.

5. Character Development is important. 
Let’s take a look at Peggy Olson. She was Don Draper’s new secretary when the show started. She was young and naïve, but showed a lot of promise and determination. After her talents were discovered and tried, she was promoted to junior copywriter. As she continued to work hard and persevere, she landed the title of Copy Chief.

Although her career climbed at a steady pace, her personal life was a whole other story. For starters, she had a baby with Pete—a secret she had kept from everyone, except Don (Pete does find out eventually). She gave up the baby and struggled with that decision for years.

Peggy had affairs and had her heart broken many times. She was weak in other aspects of her life and strong in others, and we empathized with her.

How can we forget that scene from the Lost Horizon episode, when Peggy walks into McCann-Erickson carrying a box of her belongings, wearing a pair of sunglasses, a cigarette hanging from her mouth, and the old painting of the octopus under her arm? There’s a reason why we could not stop talking about it. It was a powerful scene. It showed us how much Peggy had evolved from the first time we had met her. And we liked this new Peggy. She’s strong and driven, and she knows exactly what she wants.

The more layers a character has, the better.

6. Write good dialogue.
Have you ever quoted a line or a dialogue from a movie, a TV show, or a book? If you have, it was probably because that line or that dialogue was memorable to you.

Sally: I’m sorry I broke your suitcase.
Don: Find out how much it is to repair and it will come out of your allowance.
Sally: I don’t have an allowance.
Don: Then don’t break things.

“Am I the only one who can work and drink at the same time?”—Peggy

“The reason you haven’t felt is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me…to sell nylons.”—Don Draper

If you’re writing a book, let your audience get to know your characters through inner dialogue by revealing their feelings and thoughts. Create outer dialogue that help your characters tell your story.

Keep in mind that dialogue has to have a purpose. Don’t just write dialogue to fill a page. Let your characters interact and start a conflict, or solve a problem. Dialogue is there because there’s a reason why it’s there.

7. Do your research.
If you’re going to create a story set in the ’50s, make sure to do your research. Mad Men did. From the magazines on display, to the outfits and the cars , they were all carefully picked for a reason—to tell their story accurately. The same goes for when you write books. If you’re going to write a novel about a boy growing up in the ’70s, do your research. Paint that picture for your readers and make them see it, feel it, and believe it.

8. Don’t be afraid to try something different.
Experiment and take risks. Matthew Weiner took a risk when he wrote the pilot for Mad Men and then pitched his idea to different networks. AMC took a risk as well. They had no idea how the show was going to be received. We all know their risks paid off.

Any successful TV show, movie, or book begins with good writing. So before you write your first story or your next story, think of these 8 Writing Tips. Or think of any of your favorite TV shows, movies, and/or books. Then ask yourself why you like these stories and these characters.

And then remember these reasons, gain inspiration from them, and start writing.

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