A very long time ago I took a class on writing the short story from a community college. I had dreams of becoming a writer. I had a new laptop. I had story ideas. At that time (and often still today), my imagination skewed to horror and suspense—I don’t even think I’d read my first real romance yet. And I had yet to give up on becoming a writer for a huge chunk of time between then and now. But I still remember hard lessons I learned, and this is one of them:
One of the first assignments was to write one page about a closet. My impression was that the teacher, who’d been part of the editorial staff of a magazine dedicated to fiction, wanted a writing sample. I have no memory of him going into more depth about the assignment, very likely because the word “closet” had set my brain on fire. I think I was figuratively absent for the remainder of the class.
I buckled down and wrote a short short story about a woman who hears something from the vicinity of her closet. She goes to investigate, though she is already a little nervous. She opens it, summons her courage to look deeper, and is pulled inside to her doom. Dun dun dun!
I was very proud of this story. I think I even jimmied the fonts to fit a little bit more on one page. I turned it in and waited in agony for the stories to be returned at the next class. I got it back—he didn’t grade them, but if he did, mine wouldn’t have been stellar. He wrote comments, and his to me was that I had missed a massive opportunity in the story for character. I had glossed over the contents of the closet as clothes and shoes, some bags thrown in for a generally messy effect so that the woman couldn’t see whatever was going to “get” her. But the teacher pointed out that her clothes and shoes and whatnot would’ve revealed who she was—not just a random scared woman. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of that.
Character before story. I remember the lesson well some fifteen years later. And I really should do a little investigative work and find out who that teacher was to thank him.