Good writers have to be concerned with more than just the specific story they are telling, because good readers expect the world they are entering into to be larger than a simple plot that affects only a few characters.
I call this the thing and the bigger thing. When I write, be it fiction or nonfiction, I try to keep both in mind.
Here’s some examples.
In the fat middle section of Huckleberry Finn – the travel motif, or the “on the river” part – the thing that Mark Twain had to be concerned with was two characters, Huck and Jim, and their actions. But he also had to set that little scenario in a much bigger thing that included the Fugitive Slave Laws and the social customs and prejudices of mid 19th century America.
The thing in The Summer of My German Soldier would just be another boy meets girl yarn if not for the fact that the girl was an American lass during World War II and the boy was a German prisoner of war. Romeo and Juliet would just be two kids falling for each other without that looming feud between their families and The Grapes of Wrath would be little more than a Joad road trip without the whole Dust Bowl business. None of the Post-Apocalyptic fiction that is all the current rage would work at all (if it works at all) if the world hadn’t crumbled away.
In other words, good stories can’t be just basic plots and subplots. They have to reflect the much bigger world and its problems that affect not only a few people but a great many. Old Homer knew that way back when he set Achilles and Odysseus afloat. Their adventures, while interesting, wouldn’t have made any sense without the raging Trojan War and a cadre of angry gods to fuel them.
When you write remind yourself constantly to think big. And I’m not talking about dreaming of sitting down to discuss your novel on the Today show.