There are four basic elements of story, whether you are writing a short story or a novel. The first of those elements is a strong hook. My favorite example of a strong hook is:
It immediately grabs the reader’s attention and pulls him into the story. Questions come to mind instantly and one is compelled to find out why the camel died and how the characters are going to make the trek through an apparently scorching desert without a ride.
I’m sure you can think of many more first lines that grabbed you by the throat and dragged you on to the inevitable end of the story. But a story needs more than just a great hook. It needs a hero/heroine with a desire he or she wishes to obtain and obstacles to that desire that prevent her from reaching her ultimate goal. The final element of story is a resolution, a satisfying end. The hero must obtain their final goal or come to grips with why they didn’t need what they desired in the first place. All loose ends must be tied up and the villain must be foiled.
Let’s take Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an example. She lives on a dull farm on the plains of Kansas with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and three goofy but sweet farm hands and her little dog, Toto. Dorothy dreams of a place where there is excitement, a place where all her dreams can come true. Along comes an old hag of a neighbor who threatens to take her dog away from her and down into the first painful valley of despair she goes.
She eventually finds herself in a place where nothing seems normal, there are frightening creatures and witches who want to destroy her and no matter how beautiful the place is or how kind some of the inhabitants are, her only desire becomes to find her way back home to dreary old Kansas and her Aunt and Uncle.
She meets some good people who try to help her on her way, but they have their own troubles, and being the kind young lady she is, Dorothy endeavors to help them with their problems while they try to help her. She experiences happy times and sad times, trials and tribulations along the way and eventually she finds her way back to her aunt and uncle and discovers that what she really wanted all along was never far from her.
While this is a simplistic view of the elements of story, it is easy to see what makes the story a classic. The heart of the story is Dorothy and her desire for a home, and the peaks and valleys of her journey is the road she takes to find true happiness.
Give your characters a goal, an achievable goal and put roadblocks in their way. Make them suffer, suffer and suffer some more. But above all, make their journey both internally and externally satisfying.