(NOTE: I'm still looking for beta readers. If you want in, let me know soon.)
It feels like editors and agents online are constantly asking "What are the stakes?" when they look at queries or stories. For the longest time, I didn't understand what this meant. I'm still not sure, but I think I get it (though whether I can see it in my own writing is a different story).
It's like playing poker without betting. While it's a mildly interesting exercise in probability, it doesn't really matter who wins. It's boring, because nothing's at stake.
Likewise, the reader needs to know not only the protagonist's goals, but why those goals are important. What will happen if they fail? What will happen if they succeed? Why does it matter? Without that, the story (or query) is just a bunch of random stuff that happens.
Take Cars (because it's what my boys are watching right now). Lightning McQueen wants to be the first rookie to ever win the Piston Cup. That should be stakes enough, right? Well, not really. Winning is something, but just like in poker, it doesn't matter as much without something at stake.
That's why Dinoco is mentioned like 20 or 30 times. Dinoco is the big sponsor for the Piston Cup. They've got the helicopter, the glamour girls, the ritzy parties, everything. Their poster boy is retiring, and they're looking for someone new to sponsor - whoever wins the Piston Cup. This is in contrast to Lightning's current sponsor, an ointment for cars with rusty bumpers. It's gross, it's poor, and it's demeaning.
Those are the stakes. If Lightning wins, he gets fame and the high life. If he loses, he's stuck being the poster boy for old, rusty cars. Take the sponsors out, and the race doesn't have as much meaning. At least that's the idea.
So easy to see in someone else's work. So hard to see in my own.