Scott McCloud came to town recently, and as part of his talk at Dreamhaven Books, he mentioned that the thing he is obsessed with now (and as we know, his obsessions can be rather intense), rather than being comic storytelling-related or technology-related, is story-related.
Every story begins at the beginning of a character's desire, and ends at the resolution of that desire.
Not the most earth-shattering notion, and I'm sure that if you've thought about writing at all you've come to a similar conclusion yourself. However, it made me think about a post I made a few weeks ago, Emotional and Logical Storylines, and the point that I was trying to make about Emotional storylines is basically summarized in that one sentence. In fact, to my mind, this notion represents the fundamental concept in creating a story.
As sympathetic human beings, we relate to a person's desire. We all desire something, and we want to help people we like achieve their desires. The presence of a likable character with a palpable desire for something is the nucleus of interest around which all stories revolve.
Similarly, it's a useful acid test for a story that seems to be losing steam. Are we still working toward the main character's goals? Does he or she still want that thing? Did he ever really want that thing in the first place, at least any more than anyone else? If so, why?
Stories in which everyone is chasing after an item that ultimately turns out to be worthless are a perfect example of why it's desire that makes stories compelling. It's the want that makes the story move, not the thing itself. And the fact that the item is worthless often helps to reveal the reasons that each person chased it, and therefore, reveals something about their character: always a plus.
Next time you write something, think about what your main character wants. Think about what your secondary character wants, think about what that guy standing there in the background wants. All of a sudden, you'll find yourself being pulled through the story and plot elements that seemed pale and perfunctory will come alive as they help or hinder your hero get where he or she is going.