Boring Alternate Storyline

In drama, there needs to be conflict. Often there is a decision point, where a character could take one of two paths, and one path leads to a happy and predictable conclusion, whereas the other leads to more conflict. The former path is the Boring Alternate Storyline, the one that most people would like to take in real life, but often the author of a drama needs to take the path of conflict to make the story work.

Breaking Bad is a television show with loads of Boring Alternate Storylines. Walt could take his friends up on their offer of employment and health care, and we can see where that reasonable choice leads. But the author can’t let Walt be reasonable, because then there’s not much conflict. We can play out that alternate story line in our heads and see that it’s uninteresting, even if it’s the choice we’d personally make. Walt could have been content to work with Gale, could have been content to do things Gus’s way, could have many times been happy with the smaller amounts of money he made and stop. The show is not actually trying to make Walt a sympathetic character, one whom you want to emulate and put yourself in his shoes, so it’s acceptable to have him make poor decisions that do not reflect the decisions made by the audience members.

House of Cards is another show with many Boring Alternate Storylines. Frank has many opportunities to work well with others, to avoid revenge and to be honest in his dealings with people. We can see how those storylines will run, with things easily falling into place and fair success at his endeavors. That doesn’t make enough drama, and so it doesn’t make a good story.

Many times the Boring Alternate Storyline is just for the characters to communicate with each other better. Too damn many sitcoms trade on this dramatic element, because the story will easily resolve when the characters actually talk twenty minutes after they set off on their unnecessary conflict. It’s a tired story, and the Boring Alternate Storyline is so obvious it makes the drama hard to enjoy.

Game of Thrones generally has characters making the best decisions they can given what they know and believe, and yet they still have difficult situations. Rarely does the audience see the characters making a choice that is obviously bad just for the sake of propelling along the conflict in the narrative. And that’s why it is such a good story.