Consider your next story to be a journey: your plot is a beast of burden, a camel. Oases are points of action (each one bigger than the last) that lead to the Great City, your climax. Balancing the elements of a short story on the camel’s back can be a tricky task.
The load must be diverse to generate interest at the market. The unwise camel herder may pack too much exposition or dialog. Sometimes, there is a real lack of sensory detail, imagery. Then, there’s all that stuff in our character outlines that we are itching to use: age, description, schooling, childhood traumas, etc… Then there’s setting the scene, imbuing it with mood.
The main part of the story must be the plot, the camel. Sure, you can pile everything else together, and then toss the camel on top, but you won’t be crossing the desert anytime soon. The other elements don’t have legs for the work of going some place.
Plot is the response of a character facing a problem. The climax is when he or she beats the problem or is defeated by it. The trick with establishing a tight plot is to focus your characterization on the problem. Tie them together so you don’t have characterization wandering away from the camel, getting lost on the trip.
Today, with the focus being on what modern writers call the “character novel” with its “character arcs”, it’s easy to craft a work that forgets where it is going and why. This isn’t a story, just an interesting portrait slowly being covered by wind-blown sand.
To keep direction and pacing going, chart your course carefully. Make a graph. The beginning point is the “hook”. This is a bit of intrigue or action like bait on a hook. It is the first paragraph of your story, your departure point. Next, decide on your destination, the climax. This is the most exciting point of the story, the event all others (the oases) should be pointing to. Don’t mistake your story elements for these. Then, draw a line to connect hook to climax.
One method to ensure that your story stays focused is to write its ending first. Create a high intensity climax where all conflict ends. Make it emotionally satisfying and exciting. Then, ask yourself, what are all the actions that got me here? These are the oases you use, no others. There are many oases in the desert. If you just go to everyone out there, you could wander in circles and never get to market. Discipline is essential; only draw your line through the oases you need to visit to get to where you’re going.
If you want to hit your mark, use a rifle, not a shotgun, or you’ll mangle your target beyond recognition. And have some compassion for the plot (the camel). You want it light on its feet. A common error is to overload the poor beast so it can’t take a step. This is akin to taking out a fly with an elephant gun. It may be emotionally satisfying, but the collateral damage will be horrific.
The desert, your editor, can be most unforgiving so don’t risk meandering until your story collapses in exhaustion, to be picked apart by buzzards. Frankly, this is exactly what most novice writers do. Remember, the readers are at the marketplace, longing for what you alone can bring. Why would you want to keep them waiting?