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Saturday, March 29, 2008

The necessity of conflict rather than goals

After the end of the first series of Ashes to Ashes, I was left pondering -- why wasn't it as good? Was it because Keeley Hawes is not as talented as John Simm? What was different? And the answer quite simply is conflict.
The Alex Drake character is never placed under pressure or forced to make impossible choices.
Her motivation and purpose is to get back to her daughter, and she feels that if she can discover why her parents died, she can save herself. Sounds great, but the viewer does not see her being put under pressure and forced to make hard choices. Neither does the viewer see the longing for the world she has been forced into.
With Life on Mars, Sam Tyler develops a genuine affection for 1973, and begins to become part of the world. One never feels that Alex Drake is there and that she sliding down the same slippery slope that Sam faced.
Equally the explanation of why the car blew up is not very well foreshadowed. You do not see Alex remembering odd snippets. And things suddenly do not become clear in her head. Her father's actions therefore seem out of character. He is never fully developed. He never gets the chance to play the Shadow. As an aside, the writers were also confused on whether or not her parents were both barristers or her mother was a solictior. In the last episode they are called both called barristers, previously it had been made clear that the mother was a solicitor.
In other words, the conflict was weaker. And yet on the face of it, the need to return to see her daughter should make for a huge conflict. A woman trapped in a world who wants to get back to see her child. But that need to be with a child means that it overwhelms everything and she can not be genuinely conflicted. A conflict only happens when a character wants two separate things. If they choose one, they can not have the other. Alex Drake only has one choice -- she wants to see her daughter. She has a goal, not an over arching conflict. She does not have to choose between her daughter and life. Or her daughter and her parents. Or her daughter and saving the world. Or even her parents who she knows die and a new friend. And one never feels like she might have a chance to make it back. Or at least change her future and make sure that the bullet misses. Or suddenly realise that the man who has taken her daughter away is actually responsible for the death of her parents and the man she has trusted all her life is the true Shadow, and is manipulating her. And that she has to stop him before he can have her killed. But that if she does not return to her own present, she will be dead and her daughter in danger.
Sam Tyler had a genuine conflict that grew and changed through out Life on Mars, Alex Drake doesn't. And that is down to the writers not forcing the hard choices. they have been too kind to her. It was like they had a great idea and it did not go anywhere and so it devolves into a series of vignettes with no overarching plot.
It is also something that I need to remember in my work. The temptation sometimes is to have a lot of sound and fury but to shy away from the hard choices, the choices that reveal true character. It is also important to keep my eye on the spine of the story and to make sure things move forward. And that I do not keep too much hidden for too long.

7 comments:

Janet said...

"A conflict only happens when a character wants two separate things. If they choose one, they can not have the other. Alex Drake only has one choice -- she wants to see her daughter. She has a goal, not an over arching conflict."

Very interesting. So a main character needs two goals. But can only ever have one of them?

liz fenwick said...

Michelle, a brilliant and timely post.........back to the editing now with greater insight. Thanks!

Kate Hardy said...

Very perceptive. I too was disappointed with A to A - DH and I both thought that there was no way it could be wrapped up in the last episode. He'd guessed that her father organised the bomb, but as you say there were motivational problems.

Alex doesn't have a choice, and she's separate from the 1980s - she's never really part of the team and I felt they didn't respect her in the way they respected Sam.

What happened to Molly's father? (And who was he? That could have increased the conflict. Bad relationship in the present, potential good relationship in the 1980s... would've helped, because then you have the conflict between wanting something for herself and wanting something for her child and they're mutually exclusive.)

Michelle Styles said...

Janet -- unless a character is forced to chose, she can not have a conflict. Conflict comes in choice. Sometimes, goals/purposes change.

Kate, yes, I see you and I are thinking on the same lines. I thought Sam was much morei nvolved in the world and came to respect the team far more. He also won their respect. Something that Alex did not attempt to do. She was still travelling in the popemobile by the end and had not really gotten out to walk about and even shake hands.
I agree that that sort of conflict would have been much better. And I did wonder about the father -- who was he and why was he not on the scene? Alex obviously wants a relationship, but seems to suffer from hero worship.

KAREN said...

What a great post. We were discussing why we didn't like Ashes to Ashes today, and I couldn't have put it better. You're so right about the conflict vs. goal. In Life on Mars, Sam Tyler's crisis was frightening and compelling, whereas I couldn't have cared less whether DI Drake made it back to the 21st century or not. Now I know why :o)

Michelle Styles said...

Glad it helped Karen.
If a character is never forced to make hard choices, true character is never revealed and as a result people do not find the character very empathetic. Characters need to be empathetic, not necessarily sympathetic.
Sam Tyler was a very empathetic character. Alex Drake, unfortunately is not.

Michelle Styles said...

Oh and a quick ps.

If a character has a desire, they haveto have a chance of obtaining it. One never feels like Alex Drake might have a chance of obtaining it.The phone never rings for her...