“Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” – Alfred Hitchcock
Story moves as the result of complications that arise, not out of plot, but out of character and theme.
As our protagonist attempts to get what he wants, he must overcome obstacles. Antagonists force our hero to react, to respond, and to rethink his position toward getting what he wants. But this never happens in a straight line. In other words, if our hero wants success, he does not set out on a quest that moves him continually closer to his goal. He repeatedly attempts to achieve his idea of success until arriving at the realization that it is impossible to achieve based on his current approach.
Think about Seth Rogen in Knocked Up. He seeks to build an empire by developing an Internet subscription series where folks pay to gaze at film stills of naked starlets. As the story progresses, he reframes his relationship to success and in the process grows up.
Story is not about our protagonist getting what they want.
Story is about the protagonist reaching a point where they recognize the impossibility of achieving their desires, and reframe the meaning they made out of this goal in order to find what they need. Ultimately, story involves the resolution to a dilemma, and our characters are simply functions of this investigation. Story is alchemy.
By putting our protagonist under pressure, they reach a breaking point. Their perspective on their goal shifts and they are transformed. As writers we are searching for conflict—not to milk the scene, but to clarify for the audience what is at stake. Attempts at subtlety, realism, or naturalism risk obfuscating the underlying meaning. What we are after is the appearance of realism. If we simply dictated moments from our real lives, the scene would not make sense in the story. Amidst the appearance of realism, we must also underline the scene’s thematic relevance.
Do not be subtle. Be clear about what is driving your protagonist. Even if it is an unconscious drive like: “When Jim gets Sally to go out with him he will know he is worthy of love.” Jim still wants Sally to go out with him. Make your hero’s want active. Make it playable. If it is not playable, no one will understand what is going on. Our job as writers is to find creative ways to show the internal struggles of our characters.