A story is more than a series of events that happen. Scenes have to be interesting, they have to build and they have to play a role in communicating the overall narrative. But how do you know if the scene you have written is helping to tell the story or distracting from it? One way to decide is to look at the scene and ask yourself what is its significance? Not to the character, or even to the writer, but to the story.
Most things that happen in a story can be said to have some sort of influence on the greater scheme of things if you really push it. A girl walking down the street on the way to school who notices a red sports car, which is then never mentioned again, could be said to have some symbolic or metaphorical resonance with the themes of the story. That's fine, but once you know that, you are then able to decide whether that's the best way to achieve that effect (which it may well be). Problem is most people don't do that and leave it hanging as a thing that happened in the story just because. And that's what it will read like.
If a woman is getting ready to go for a job interview and the phone rings and it’s some guy trying to convince her to switch phone plans, and once she gets rid of him she goes off to her a job interview, what’s the significance to her story? If it makes her late and she misses the bus, then that could have a very strong impact. If the guy tells her that she'd be stupid to pass up this limited special offer and she gets very irate, calling him a cocksucker who should stick his head up his own ass so he has somewhere quiet to eat his bag of dicks, and then puts the phone down and goes back to being very normal and getting ready (pink shirt or white shirt?) that tells us something about her but it has a particular significance since she's going for a job interview where that aspect of her personality may prove to be a liability (although personally I'd hire her on the spot).
The great the significance, the stronger the scene. But that doesn't mean you have to be overt in making sure the reader understands that significance. What is important is that the writer knows.
On the page, the reader doesn't need it to be spelled out, and the effect may not become apparent for many chapters. But when all the chapters in the story have a unifying thread, even if their attachment to it is a little tenuous, as the story develops all those separates moments will be drawn into a single, focused throughline that will add to the richness of your story. And very often when you get stuck and can't see your way to the ending, you will find that somewhere in those minor scenes will be the answer to your problems, thanks to the fact that deep down they are all interconnected.
Unrelated events that occur within a story can individually be quite interesting, but they don't build to anything if they are left unconnected...
Reading a lot helps give a broader understanding of what can constitute a good story, but trying to learn what makes the story interesting from an interesting book is difficult because you end up being too interested in the book to notice. And if you make notes and try to break it down it can be quite a tedious experience.
If you do break it down, what you get is an understanding of why that book may be interesting but not necessarily how to make yours interesting. Just because a monkey appears on page 6 doesn't mean putting a monkey on your page 6 is going to make your story better.
People tell stories every day and it is fairly easy to tell the difference between something worth listening to and something that is just small talk. It is a natural ability we all have, to know when something that happened is going to be of interest to those around us. Do you want to know why the guy at work locked himself in an office and refused to come out until the police came and broke the door down? Or do you want to know what I had for lunch? You don't know the answer to either, but one is more of an unusual occurrence than the other, and that's what draws our attention.
When somebody says something like, "You won't believe what happened at work today" the actual thing that happened may or may not be of interest, but they are leading with the hook: something out of the ordinary occurred. Something unexpected. This is what makes it a story and not just a list of information.
Within a story, the key underlying structure is this: Things don't go as expected.
As long as things don't go to plan, the reader will want to know what the character is going to do about it. This doesn't mean that a guy visiting his wife at Nakatomi Plaza has to discover the building’s been taken over by terrorists (although it is very inconvenient when that happens). The unexpected thing that happens can be big or small depending on the story and the characters. Watching a character deal with a situation they are not prepared for is very engaging.
If Mary has been dumped by her boyfriend who is going away to college, and she's upset about it, and her friends are trying to console her, that is a narrative. Things haven't gone to plan for her, but this is still quite a dull story because she didn't really have a plan, and neither is she planning to do anything about the predicament. She is just having a good, passive cry.
The fact that the reader can see all parts of the situation, and understand them, means there is no reason to go into it any further. This kind of story will appeal to people who happen to be interested in overly emotional scenarios that produce a physical response in them. Like with porn. The story doesn't need a strong narrative because that's not the purpose of the story.
But if Mary's boyfriend has dumped her and started going out with Mary's recently divorced mother, and Mary is upset by that, then that is a much more interesting story for this reason: Mary will have to do something about it.
He isn’t just disappearing, leaving her with a vacuum to deal with, he’s upstairs banging mom. Things can't remain as they are so the reader knows there's more to come but they don't know how it'll turn out. They don't even know what they would do in that situation. Even though they completely understand the predicament they don't have a list of possible solutions the way they do most situations.
For the story to work best not only must things not go as expected, the way they do go has to be unexpected. Because solving a simple problem is easy.
"Are you still here? I thought you'd be gone by now."
"I know, I've lost my keys. Have you seen them?"
As you can see the options are fairly simple and well known. If he can't find is keys, he will have to make other arrangements. The reader might not know exactly how the scene will proceed, but they have a pretty good idea of the options available.
"Are you still here? I thought you'd be gone by now."
"I know, a monkey just stole my passport. Did you see him?"
Because the reader has no idea what they would do in this situation they will be willing to keep reading. Not that you should introduce a monkey into every story (although it can't hurt).
It is important to remember that the scale of the problem does not necessarily relate to the level of interest of the reader. Somebody who puts out a massive oil fire because they know what they're doing and things go smoothly, is going to be of very limited interest to people. Somebody who runs out of milk on a Sunday night when all the local stores are closed and his ex-girlfriend, who thinks he can never get himself together, is coming round, poses a much more engaging problem. Especially as the neighbours won't talk to him since he accidentally killed their cat...
1. Establishes the significance of each scene to the story.
2. Make sure things don't go to plan.
3. The unexpected always grabs the attention. But don't overdo the monkeys (unless you really like monkeys).