In an 18 year-old Paris Review piece inexplicably linked to by Movie City News, David Mamet explains “the trick of dramaturgy” as follows: “The main question in drama…is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.”
And that’s fine, but I’ve long believed that the most affecting kind of drama (or comedy even) is one in which the main protagonist wants something and then somewhere during Act Two discovers that he/she actually wants something else. Something that is less a thing of mood or sexuality or a longing for wealth or advancement and more of a tender, deeper, more emotional longing. A personal growth move, falling in love, doing the right moral thing. A character who stays with the same desire all the way through a play or a film is not, in my view, an interesting one. We don’t want to see the protagonist’s wishes “fulfilled or absolutely frustrated,” as Mamet says. We want to see those wishes evolve and thereby reveal something unexpected.
Which is why I’ve frequently noted my preference for stories that adhere to three D’s — desire, deception, discovery.