Storytelling is conflict. Your characters want something and are willing to fight against great obstacles to get it. Maybe it’s a job, a relationship, fame, wealth, or survival. This is the foundation of story: somebody wants something that’s hard to get. Will they succeed or fail? This is where the most important question we can ask about our stories comes in:
What happens if your characters fail?
Answering this question makes us consider the stakes of our story. What is on the line? If there’s not much at risk, then who cares what happens? The issue of weak stakes is usually what I find lacking in new writer’s work. All too often, their characters can just go back to life as usual if they fail. This is the kiss of death for a story.
The answer to this question should be a matter of life or death. Sometimes, it’s literal: if the character fails, she or he dies. But more often it is figurative. Maybe it is the death of a deeply held desire, the death of a lifelong dream, the death of morality, the death of a livelihood, the death of an identity, or the death of goodness. Your characters must view failure as a kind of literal death. If they don’t, then they won’t be willing to risk everything to get it, and your reader won’t care if they succeed or fail. Not achieving their goal should be a devastating outcome for them. Spend some time asking yourself how you can increase the stakes of your story. Make them as high as possible.
This concept is true on the scene level as well. Every character in every scene should have something they are trying to accomplish that is at odds with every other character in the scene. Figure out what their desires are, heighten the stakes as much as possible, and your plot will spring to life.