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5 Short Story Writing Prompts From Joyce Carol Oates
Bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates has written thousands of short stories, as well as 58 novels. As a professor of creative writing at Princeton University, she works with students on writing short stories and shaping ideas into narrative structures. Try these six writing tips from Joyce Carol Oates to find your next great story idea:
- Embrace limitation. Write a scene that occurs between no more than four characters in one single location over a unified period of time (a morning, a day, or even a long meal).
- Write a character outline. Think of a main character who interests you—they could be totally fictionalized or based on someone you know—and write a background for them. What was their childhood like? What are their significant memories? What are their regrets? What do they desperately want? What are they good at? Bad at? Now ask yourself: Based on the outline you’ve created, what’s a particularly interesting, sinister, funny, or dramatic situation in which this character can become involved? Use this situation as the basis for a story.
- Focus in on details. Pick an object or in the room and describe it in a short paragraph. Then describe it again. And again. And again. Describe this same object ten times. How does your last paragraph compare with your first? Do you see a progression in your descriptions? Does the object seem more or less familiar to you now?
- Write about an unsolved mystery in your life. Use Joyce’s phrase “An unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart” as your first line. Then, in an entirely new paragraph, begin explaining the mystery while keeping the first line in mind.
- Revisit a significant place in your memory. Joyce gives the examples of your first room, the first house you lived in, your parents when they were young, your first memories of your grandparents, or an important childhood smell. Now write about that memory. Describe it and even use dialogue and sensory detail; try your best to evoke this specific memory. If you evoke this memory well, it may make for the beginning of a good story.
Want to Learn More About Writing?
Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, mastering the art of fiction writing takes time and patience. No one knows this better than Joyce Carol Oates, the author of some 58 novels and thousands of short stories, essays, and articles. In Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass on the art of the short story, the award-winning author and Princeton University creative writing professor reveals how to extract ideas from your own experiences and perceptions, experiment with structure, and improve your craft one sentence at a time.
Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Joyce Carol Oates, Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.