We've heard the Voice, we've met the Protagonist. Now comes the Big Question: What's the problem? And there must be a problem or else we gots no story, baby.
The technical term is Conflict - a disagreement between your protag and an outside force. Something or someone has challenged him, and he must act. He can't keep doing what he was doing prior to the problem. He can't call in sick. He can't pass it on to someone else. This is his new job.
And it's what makes the story move.
Your readers will always want the who and the where, but no amount of background or backstory will ever equal their hunger for old fashioned conflict. They're positively begging for things to go wrong, to see how folks will deal. Because it's interesting. Suspenseful. This is what readers seek when they flip through your first few pages. (Nice to meet you, Mr. Protagonist. Why are we gathered here today?) If they don't find it in a reasonable amount of time, say, in the first chapter, they'll mosey on to something else. And we can't have that.
Let's test your Conflict Content...
First, describe your story's major conflict. If you can do this in one sentence, your nimble fingers are wrapped tightly around its neck. Which becomes apparent on your very first page.
Second, write a brief summary of every chapter in your manuscript, noting only the action. Not the little actions that deliciously define character, such as storming into a room or pouring liquor into one's morning coffee. But the big actions that awesomely advance the story, such as finding a bloody knife or finally speaking to one's attractive neighbor. - (This is what I do when I read your manuscript. Helps me track the movement of the story.)
Now study what's before you. Do all your scenes contain at least one of these big actions? Can you see your protag steadily approaching a climax?
If you're nodding right now, go to the back of the room. And remember us when you're famous!
If you're shaking your head, it's time to take the third test. Time to consider why you're writing this story in the first place. What are you trying to say? It's no huge leap from conflict to theme. Your unspoken message not only helps you create the problem, it dictates the actions your protag will take.
For instance, let's look at The Legend of Birdie Haywood. (And please, think me not a self-absorbed windbag for using my own story. I just finished editing a few scenes, and it's fresh on my mind.) On the surface, this story is about a teenage girl who hides in nearby woods after seeing a horrible sight, eluding family, townsfolk and the sheriff so well she becomes a local legend.
But the theme is denial.
We see it in her milieu. Those trees literally hide her from the world, and figuratively delay her acceptance of reality. We see it in her character. She is an exceptional runner, which mirrors her run from the truth. Most important, we see it in her actions. She refuses to accept a traumatic event while the rest of the world demands she do just that.
All great fodder for conflict. But this story wouldn't be a story if Birdie possessed coping skills. Her denial creates the problem.
So... discover your theme, discover your story's conflict. Once you have that firmly in place, why, it's just a hop and a skip and a twist and a turn, and maybe an occasional gunfight, to resolving it.
Elizabeth Guy is founder of ReadingWriters, editor of The Verb and a script analyst. Visit her at http://www.readingwriters.com