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From the first scene of Mad Men.

I love Mad Men. I loved it when I watched it on AMC and I’m loving it now as I make my way through the complete series.

When I watched it in real time, I was struck by how “writerly” the show was. Themes, characters, plot, metaphor—everything a writer strives for in the written word was apparent on the show. Of course those things should be present in any good TV show, but I’ve never seen them work so well together than on Mad Men. Now that I’m rewatching the series, I’m seeing how useful it is in terms of helping me work on my own writing.

With that, I thought I’d begin an occasional blog series that uses each Mad Men episode as a writing prompt. I hope that these prompts can be useful for whatever you write—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenplays, etc.

With that, here it goes…

Season 1, Episode 1: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”

What I like most about this episode is the reveal at the end. For 45 minutes, we think we know who Don Draper is. In the last two minutes or so, we discover what we thought about him is completely wrong. This creates an incentive to watch future episodes. Who is this guy, really? Will we ever find out?


Can you set up a mystery for your main character? In your first chapter, or section, or verse, or whatever, can you make readers think they know your character but at the end, reveal something new and shocking? But don’t lie to your reader. In “Mad Men,” viewers are making assumptions about Don Draper based on his actions. It’s not like we are told one thing and then the rug is pulled out from under us. We realize, at the end of the episode, that our assumptions were wrong. We were really never told anything factual about him, especially about his personal life—we made those leaps ourselves. It’s the classic case of “Gee, just when you think you know someone, then you find out…” We probably all know people like that in our lives. What secret does your character have? How can you stretch out the reveal to keep people reading?