If you hang out with other writers in critique groups, you may get lots of advice about the mechanics of good writing. Watch the passive voice. Use strong verbs rather than adverbs. Use the five senses in descriptions. And so on.
But what about the overarching story? Are your critique partners watching that too? Often, critique groups are not set up to monitor this key issue.
So let’s talk about it a bit. A great story can generally be divided into three acts. The first and last, beginning and end, are short. It’s the middle, Act 2, that yawns before you like a gaping hole when you sit down to write. What do you fill it with?
Your character needs a goal and motivation to pursue the goal. And he or she needs conflict to pose big problems on the way to the goal. (This is the simple goal-motivation-conflict structure.) The main character needs both inner and outer goals: the heroine is agonizing over her past misdeeds and moving to make changes (inner journey), while trying to keep the aliens from eating her (outer journey).
She needs to move toward her goal despite increasingly difficult setbacks. She needs to be so motivated that she keeps going. And the tension level just keeps going up and up, like stair steps. Each page needs to have tension, each paragraph, even each sentence. What you don’t need is multiple trails that don’t really lead anywhere. You don’t want to lose sight of your main character and her quest, unless you’ve got a second main character also with a quest.
What if it’s not a suspense? You still need the tension, supplied not by the threat of being eaten by aliens, but by worry of being found out in a lie, for example. Without tension, the story becomes too easy to put down.
Sketching out your story ahead of time, think of three disasters that can happen on the way to the goal. You can build a great story around three disasters.
Personally I think some of the great plot coaches can be found at Susan May Warren’s MyBookTherapy.com . But she’s not the only one teaching about it. Look for very useful books on the topic by Jeff Gerke and Stanley Williams, for example.