The difference between a good story and a great one, the difference between a book you work through slowly and one you can’t put down, is largely the stakes. What do I mean by stakes? What your character or characters have on the line.
Rather than a routine case, give your detective one that is personal. That implicates him or someone he loves. It’ll make the book more interesting. Instead of a rose-glasses first love story, give your romance heroine some backstory that makes trusting men impossible before you introduce Mr. Right. Or, like Timothy Zahn, start a war over something innocent – like radio waves leading to aliens’ deaths – so that both sides are justifiably in the right, with their whole civilizations at stake. The more you put on the line, the better the book.
To a point. I was on the debate team in high school, and the running joke was that every debate (at least the environmental year) ended in Global Thermal Nuclear War. Worse than global warming, worse than overpopulation, worse than whatever social side effects your plan was touting. End the debate in a GTNW and you win. Stories shouldn’t be like that. Nobody but Jack Bauer can possibly live in that kind of elevated stakes for more than an episode or two… and some of us turn him off, tired, after just a few more episodes than that.
If your hero can save the world, great. Keep in mind we’ll only be able to manage that once per book or you risk exhaustion and apathy. But don’t go straight to the top. Not every hero has to save the world to do something great – saving one, imperiled life can often be more than enough. The classic movie Speed puts one bus full of passagers on the line, and yet I connect to it better than many movies where the world is at stake. What makes a good story is putting something meaningful, something personal, at stake. Would it be the same movie without Sandra Bullock’s character on the bus? Not so much. With her, this is more than everyday heroics. This is saving one, important person’s future. And throughout the movie you feel it’s more than possible that they can fail. That she could die. It makes it riveting.
And there’s the key. Without the feeling that the hero could lose and lose everything, it’s not the same kind of story. Superman is an interesting character, but he’s literally untouchable. No matter what you introduce, there’s no real danger against him. Kryptonite is a temporary, writerly solution to the problem – but much more interesting is Lois Lane being held hostage. Because while he can’t die himself, she can. It raises the stakes to something interesting.
As you go through your next story to revise, ask yourself, what would make this worse? What more can I put on the line? Rather than just her next meal, how about putting your heroine’s house on foreclosure if she doesn’t get this job? Then the interview becomes a lot more critical, and her desperation a lot more real. For your vampire hero’s final confrontation, make it more perilous by putting dawn on the horizon and nowhere to go. Add a weakness going into the fight. Then, when the skilled hunter shows up, we don’t know who will win. And we’re sitting at the edge of our chair to find out.
Raise the stakes even on the quieter, more emotional scenes. Put your heroine’s self esteem at risk when she shows up to the party. She’s counting on it to show her she’s good enough… and then someone is wearing the same dress. The one she saved up six months to buy. Or your hero’s little brother is counting on him to bring the trophy home… but what if the brother is in a wheelchair, and sick? You don’t have to blow stuff up to have a story that resonates… you just have to raise the stakes.