It's hard to know what is helpful when reading each other's fiction, both as a teacher and as a student. For workshops, however, I try to stick to a system much as we did with poetry that will help the writer hear what others are reading in her or his text. In general, we talk a lot about strengthening the conflict, though that is a very old-fashioned way to think about fiction. We talk too in phrases like "What is at stake?" This translates loosely to, Why should I bother following these people across the pages? What difference do these events and scenes really make to their lives. This too is only somewhat helpful. Yet with these imperfect means we must begin.
1. Situation: What is happening in this story? What is the POV--the point from which we know anything? Remember: there are an infinite number of ways to tell a story. Why is it being told this way?
2. Characters: Is the hero/antihero believable? Are the people around her or him believable? Do we know what these people want?
3. Conflict: What is the problem here? (This is often, but not always, the 'reason' for the story.) Is this problem big enough to hold my interest? Does it arise soon enough in the narrative? (Closely linked to: What [or where] is the emotional center of this piece?)
4. Setting: Where am I? Is this place real? What metaphors does the setting provide?
5. Resolution: Does the whole hold together? Does the ending belong in the version of reality that has been created by the story?
All up for discussion.