For those wondering about what makes a great story from an agent's perspective, this post from the Greenhouse Literary blog as well as its second part are a great read. The author of the posts breaks down how she knows when she's reading a submission if she's got something she wants to take on, both something that's a great story and something that's going to sell. Because make no mistakes, publishing is a business and anyone who doesn't treat it as such is going to get burned.
I agree with her wholeheartedly on all her points. If a manuscript isn't making me want to know what happens next, I already know I'm going to reject it. If I get interrupted after twenty pages and I come back to it and think, "Eh, if I didn't finish this, I wouldn't really care," that's a problem. I can't agree more with her points about the emotional resonance and themes of a novel being so important. Oftentimes when I can't put my finger on what's wrong with a manuscript at first, it's that the characters don't feel real. Their struggles don't resonate with me emotionally. I want the author to convince me to care fiercely about these characters. For me personally, plot can always be fixed, but characters are so important and hard to get right. And if you have well-developed characters, the plot will follow from putting them in challenging situations.
I like that she points out that the stakes can be high even in contemporary stories. Just because it's about a high school girl living in an ordinary town doesn't mean the stakes can't be high. What does she want most? Put that in jeopardy. And likewise, just because a story is set in a world alien to our own doesn't mean it doesn't need to feel real. For example, Marissa Meyer's Cinder sounds absolutely insane: a retelling of Cinderella where she's a cyborg in future Beijing, oh yeah and there's a race of people that live on the moon. But our protagonist wants what we all want: acceptance, freedom, love. She wants to move out on her own, away from her stepmother who hates her. She wants desperately to help her stepsister when she gets sick. She decides to try to help the prince even though it might mean revealing herself as a cyborg in a society where her kind are reviled.
Oftentimes, I read something and think, what is the point of this manuscript? The author introduces all these themes or motifs but doesn't say anything about them. To use another YA example, Across the Universe takes place in a setting alien to our own: a giant, self-sustaining spaceship. Many people dismiss science fiction stories as "not good literature," but the best science fiction stories are about what it means to be human (see The Twilight Zone if you want some amazing examples). And the Across the Universe trilogy (without giving too much away) explores what it means to be human when you've never lived on a planet. How much of our humanity comes from living on Earth? Can we still be human in an artificial world? How will a person who has only known life on a planet react to this spaceship? It also explores secrets and knowledge. The whole trilogy is like an onion, peeling back layers of secrets to get to the truth. When is it okay to keep secrets for the greater good? Do people always deserve the truth? Can you really love someone when you have no other options? In the face of unspeakable atrocities, how do you go on? Can you maintain hope and faith even when everything inside you wants to give up? I could go on and on about this novel, but I'll stop here.
I think something important to think about when writing is what makes you as a reader, engaged in a story? What about those characters and plots keeps you turning the pages? Use those techniques to construct your story, while adding an element that is completely your own.