I start writing to get a sense of the characters and setting. I might write the opening of the story, a scene or two from the middle or the end. In the beginning, I write whatever comes to mind, whatever makes the story and characters come alive for me. I keep writing until I get stuck.
When I get stuck I ask myself a couple questions. What does she want? What’s her goal? What does he want? His goal? The best stories have complex characters who desire several things, often these things are conflicted. Like the woman who wants excitement in her sex life but is afraid to trust. Or a guy who wants to commit to the woman he’s in love with but has a job that always puts him in danger. Once I know what the characters want I can use those goals to give the story shape.
The next ingredient is motivation. Why does she want crave excitement in her sex life? Sure, everyone wants excitement. But each character is unique and much of that individuality is expressed in motivation. Does she want excitement because she’s just left a dull but secure romance and wants to know what she’s missing? Or does she want to experience some wild sex because she’s just finished law school and has done nothing but read, write and study for the past couple years? What about him? Does he long to provide for his woman because while growing up he never had a home of his own? Or maybe appreciated his childhood and wants to provide a stable home for future children. The characters’ motivation propels the story forward by causing them to move toward their goals.
Next up, conflict. What’s in the way? There has to be something in the way ‘cause if there isn’t a problem there isn’t really a story. Readers are wonderful people, but, well, they do like to see the characters work hard for that happy ending.
The best conflicts are ones custom designed for the character. That woman who wants hot sex but is afraid to trust? Create a to-die-for hero who gives her a taste of what he has to offer but makes it clear that to get more she has to trust him. Even better, add in an external element that requires her to trust him, to do something she can’t, maybe help her achieve a goal that’s important to her.