Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Form Study: Miniature Narrative

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 12:04 min

Joyce analyzes very brief narratives—ones with no more than a few pages—for the language and structure they require. As an example, she reads from the William Carlos Williams story “The Use of Force.”

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Topics include: “The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams · Work Toward a Delicate Ending


[MUSIC PLAYING] - One of the most exciting exercises for a writer to do, particularly an emerging writer, is not to try to write a whole short story or a conventional story. Write a miniature narrative. This could be one paragraph long. It could be a page long. So a miniature narrative takes place very quickly. It's like a poem Robert Frost defined lyric poetry as the melting of ice on a hot stove. You have the ice and the stove, and the ice melts, and that's the poem. And when it's over, it's over. It's going to take place in two minutes. If you can tell a story as briefly as possible, it's more dramatic. If it's too long, then it has the problems of pacing. It could get a little slow. But the shorter you can make a story, the better. If you don't have time for characters, you have time for an incident or an event, something that happens. So I try to get my students always to work in short forms and work up to longer forms, not start on the longer form immediately. [MUSIC PLAYING] "The Use of Force" takes place in about five minutes. It's a brilliant and wonderful, memorable story, probably the best thing that William Carlos Williams wrote in prose. He was a distinguished poet. Now William Carlos Williams was a doctor. He lived in Paterson, New Jersey. He was a doctor, who had many patients who are very poor. Now in those days, a doctor would go out to people's houses. He didn't just wait in his office. Dr. Williams would go out to many poor people. He went out to people who didn't speak English in Paterson, New Jersey, so this story is about something-- I'm sure this happened. He would come back from work at the end of the day totally exhausted. He would go up to his attic. He had a manual typewriter, and he would tap out, maybe with two fingers, he would tap out as fast as he could write something that happened to him. So this brilliant story, obviously based on what happened to him one day. Now as a work of art, he may have revised it. He may have added to it. But basically, the beginning, the middle, what happens, and the end is all based on something that happened. So "The Use of Force" is the title he gives this experience. So he says, "They were new patients to me. All I had was the name, Olson. Please come as down as soon as you can. My daughter's very sick." There's no quotation marks. There's this-- the dialogue is all very rapidly remembered. "When I arrived, I was met by the mother, a big startled looking woman, very clean and apologetic, who said, is this the doctor? Let me in. In the back, she added, you must excuse us, Doctor. We have her in the kitchen, where it's warm, very damp here sometimes. So here we have a child who is sitting on her father's lap, and there's something wrong with her. And she doesn't want to open her mouth to have her throat examined. And the child sits there staring at the doctor, and the doctor tries to get her to open her mouth, so we can check her throat. Well, I said, suppo...

About the Instructor

The author of some of the most enduring fiction of our time, Joyce Carol Oates has published 58 novels and thousands of short stories, essays, and articles. Now the award-winning author and Princeton University creative writing professor teaches you how to tap into your storytelling instincts. Find ideas from your own experiences and perceptions, experiment with structure, and improve your craft, one sentence at a time.

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Joyce Carol Oates

Literary legend Joyce Carol Oates teaches you how to write short stories by developing your voice and exploring classic works of fiction.

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