YOU’RE MISSING SOMETHING. No, you remembered a title; there’s a series of sentences on the page; on the outside, your story seems to have everything it needs. But on the inside, it’s sorely lacking. It’s almost like you’re sending a human out into the world missing a liver and a pancreas. It’s not going to get far. Make sure your story isn’t missing any of these absolutely crucial elements.
Scene, scene, scene. It’s tempting to write a story that includes all the requisite plot points — but doesn’t actually show them happening in real time. It’s the difference between going to see a movie, or reading the summary on Wikipedia. We want scenes, and we want the important events in the story to develop in front of our eyes. Don’t just tell us the girlfriend cheated and they broke up; show us the scene of getting caught, getting confronted, and having the fight!
More than one character. There are exceptions to this, but not too many. We often write a first draft of a story as though one or two characters exist in some kind of vacuum; they’re the only human beings left on the planet, and so have to run into each other and talk to each other all the time. But a more realistic vision is a populated world, one full of taxi drivers and shopkeepers, nosy neighbors, annoying teachers, and casual acquaintances. Make sure your characters live in a populated world, or else it won’t feel real at all.
Choice. This is probably the most crucial element of a story, but you’d be surprised how many beginning stories just don’t have it at all. A story is not just a series of events happening to your character; it’s your character, actively making choices about what to do in the face of different events and circumstances. A climax isn’t just some kind of explosive action; it MUST involve a choice. That choice might be to refuse to act; that, too, is a choice. But a story just won’t feel complete or compelling without it.
Resolution. When I read student stories, I’m astonished how many of them end in car crashes. It seems that writers panic when they get to the end and just try to kill everybody off in a fiery explosion rather than actually try to resolve things. Here’s a tip: don’t do this! Your story must have an ending. That doesn’t mean everything needs to be wrapped up in a tidy bow. We may be uncertain of what will happen next; but we must feel that the ideas and the emotions of the story have reached a point of no return, when the world has been irrevocably changed in some small or large, but meaningful, way.