At the heart of a story is risk. What happens to the hero if things don’t work out? What’s on the line?
Risk grows through the story as the protagonist reaches out for their goal or desire. Each step only goes part way to the goal. The step didn’t go as far as the hero thought. Or the protagonist finds a new level of antagonism. There’s a new danger.
In Casablanca, Rick is fine until he takes a risk for the transit visas. Then there’s a new danger – Ilsa. Rick takes another gamble, and if it doesn’t pay off, Victor and Ilsa could end up captured, then – worse – Rick could be killed. In Back To The Future, Marty runs the risk of being caught by the terrorists. Then trapped in 1955. Then erased from existence. Then returning to 1985 where Doc has been killed.
Not every story revolves around life or death, or Nazis. In Kramer Vs Kramer, Ted runs the risk of losing his family. Blue Jasmine follows Jasmine as she struggles to retain control over herself. If she loses that, then what does she have?
When a story falters it’s sometimes because the risk is too small. The truth is that stories are driven by real risk. Things can’t go back to the way they were or there’s no story. The protagonist gambles with each step and that’s what makes the story captivating.