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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Joyce Carol Oates
Teaches the Art of the Short Story
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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[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...


Find your voice in fiction

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.



Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

It was great to hear where she gets inspiration from and the things that she pays attention to when writing

Excellent insights and helpful tips for writing short form prose!

Ms. Oates gives practical insight on finding your story and your voice by observing the simplest things.

With this class i was forced to open myself not to plot and action, but to a poetry of writing, looking inside not above. sometimes it hurts. thank you.


Comments

Jeanned'Arc L.

I enjoyed William Carlos Williams narrative. This for reminds me of my journals and how easier it is to write this way. Lesson 07 Assignment #1 , WC 605 A Test of Confidence It was late into the dull weathered, October day. I had driven up alone, to surprise Darlin, in his hometown. The first reason for this, was for the surprise, the second for the thrill of the long autumn drive. Well into the thirteen hours trek, I felt the car pull to the left. Increasingly I had to correct the hold on the steering wheel. There should to be a gas station soon. I kept telling myself. When I heard the strange sounds coming from the passenger back side of the car. Shoot, that doesn’t sound good, I thought. I slowed down so that when I came to a clearing in the roadside, I pulled off. What a beautiful view, I thought as I inhaled the fresh air, making my way around to examine the car. Sure enough, the tire sat spread out thin onto the ground. Flat as could be. Maudi, is all I could come up for words as I berated myself for having left the comfort of home. Should have checked. Asked about cell signals you dummy. I scolded myself out loud to calm my fears. Relax, breathe . . . This resulted in the calming of my nerves because the cursing was increasing the fear and not inflating the tire. Well girl you need to give it your best shot, I now thought out loud. Open the trunk, take out the junk and find the tools. Just do that. Breathe. There’re in there somewhere under the matt I kept saying as I emptied the trunk of the suitcase, cooler, box of stuff and lay those onto the moss covered rock. Just look around and breathe. Yes, I had to remind myself to breathe all the time because I realized that tension was making me hold my breath. You’re good. I kept reminding my ego. I lifted the matt and took out the tools and the tiny tire, placed the items beside the car where I sat myself to read the instructions. Good girl, instructions. The car was parked on a bluff overlooking a deep valley where I suspect a river coursed through, but I could not see past the foliage, just that it went down for as far as I could see. The view below was mostly of treetops, but the colors were spectacular under the bright blue of the still, sunny skies. The tall pine trees that skirted the roadway, had given me a sense of security in that I saw them, as soldier. I read and I pull apart the jack. Installed it beneath the frame part of the car. How perfect, you parked on the hard surface. Rock is best to support this flimsy gadget that lifts a car. I told myself with annoyance. I read the instruction with an exaggerated French accent. Kawlis, was my most satisfying curse. Oh yes I cursed a lot in both French and English to propel myself forward as I awkwardly used the tool. Securing the jack, I pumped up the car enough to pull off the injured tire. At this, I made a mental note to write to the company about the shortness of the bar that loosens the tire nuts. After I had lowered the car, taken the jack away, once I’d laced everything back in the trunk, the tire into the back seat, get going I screamed into my brain from within. In the end, I had not driven more than two kilometers when I came up to the town’s, Welcome sign. Yeah, welcome, the surprise is all mine, I laughed. I used the same story for assignment #2 making changes to accommodate the matter-of-fact approach of building darker but I am not certain I captured it. Assignment #2 Short story consisting of a matter-of- fact approach to something darker WC 1,242 Surprise It was late into the dull weathered, October day, and the weekend forecast held no promise of change, I was lonely. I decided to drive up to the cottage alone, to surprise my husband, who had been there for three week, winterizing the cabin. What a beautiful view, I thought as I inhaled the fresh air, the car window all rolled down. The road led me deeper along the tall pine trees that skirted the roadway, giving me a sense of security in that I saw them, as soldier. Intermittent sections like that brought me to spectacular arrays of colors under the bright blue, of sunny skies. Oh I felt the good feeling of liberation. I’d abandoned the books and writing to focus on absorbing any surrounding out of, and away from, the small apartment. Jared will be so surprised, I though laughing to myself, as I drove in the silence of my heart. The fragrance of tires against asphalt was a subconscious reminder of what I was doing, so that my hands were on the wheel and my foot pressed the pedal with amazing gentleness, as I absorbed the beauty inhaling the fresh earthy air. By now it seemed I’d driven away from the depressing weather, and that too encouraged me along in the spontaneous decision making of my day. Thirteen hours of driving had to be a respectable sign of love. Jared would surely be glad to see me, I thought with minor trepidation. I ignored the reminders that feathered across my mind, hearing my own warning to the family. Things like, it’s a desolate and long drive up, the lack of communication towers makes an emergency, a more serious one, I’d always say. Jared would never surprise me in such a display of risk taking. But it was too late to reconsider. I had abandoned all common sense after having filled the gas tank for the second time, the half way mark to the cabin. No turning back, I told myself. It still applies to my rule of thumb. Although I was feeling a bit tired of sitting, the thrill of feeling liberated energized me. I opened the bag of chips, snaking as I listened to an old, K.T. Oslin CD I’d pulled from the glove compartment. She was singing, “Hold Me,” when, I first felt the car pull to the left. Increasingly I had to correct the hold on the steering wheel. There should be a gas station soon. I told myself. I turned off the radio and focused on the sounds inside and around the car. That’s when I heard the strange noise coming from the passenger back side of the car. Shoot, that doesn’t sound good, I disrupted nice thoughts. I slowed down so that when I came to a clearing in the roadside, I pulled off to investigate. Sure enough, the tire sat spread thin, onto the ground. Flat as could be. Maudi, is all I could come up for cursing as in berating myself for having left home without telling anyone where I was going. No cell signals you dummy. I said that out loud in effort to calm my fears. That’s when I thought, where is my cell? But I ignore the sinking feeling as I made the mental search through the possible places I could have set it down. And one very obvious place was at the last stop, on the over-crowded counter, when I paid for the treats and gas. Relax and breathe. I reminded myself while my nerves unraveled. Cursing was only increasing the fear and not inflating the tire. As I rummaged the car for the missing cell phone, a sense of survival kicked in. Well girl, you’re on your own, you need to give it your best shot. I now spit every words at my ego. Open the trunk, take out the junk and find the tools. Just do that. Breathe. The tools are somewhere under the matt. I kept talking as I emptied the trunk of the suitcase, cooler, box of stuff, and lay those onto, the moss covered rock. Just breathe. Yes, I had to remind myself to breathe all the time because I realized that the tension was making me hold my breath and I felt sick to my stomach. You’re good. I soothe my bruised ego. I lifted the matt and took out the tools and the tiny tire, placed the items beside the car where I sat myself to read the instructions. Good girl, instructions. The car was parked on a bluff overlooking a deep valley where I suspect a river coursed through, but I could not see past the foliage, just that it went down for as far as I could see. I took a deep breath and returned to the problem. I read and I pull apart the jack. Installed it beneath the frame part of the car. How perfect, you parked on the hard surface. Rock is best to support this flimsy gadget that lifts a car. I told myself with annoyance. I read the instruction with an exaggerated French accent. Kawlis, was my most satisfying curse. Oh yes I cursed a lot in both French and English to propel myself forward as I awkwardly used the tools. Securing the jack, I pumped up the car enough to pull off the injured tire. At this, I made a mental note to write to the company about the disadvantages of the shortness of the bar that loosens the tire nuts. I must say that this was the most difficult part. There was no way I could take all of the nuts off. The sun was setting. I should have arrived by now. I was ready to give up but I sat with the instructions again. Then it hit me. One safety nut needed a special tool. So I located that without too much more looking. Without too much more work, the nuts were off and I was able to pull the deadweight tire off. Who would want to steal a Ford tire? I laughed at myself as I secured the tiny spare tire into place. After I had lowered the car and taken the jack away I stood back looking at the job. Maudi, that can’t be right. The car seemed lopsided. By now I was too angry to cry. I was angry because no one drove past in all that time. More than an hour, more! The sun was setting. Just shut up and breathe. Put the stuff back in the trunk and get going I screamed into my brain from within. In the end, once everything was back in the trunk, the tire into the back seat. I examined the car. Classy I told myself. Good girl, you did it. I flattered my ego dubious of the tire’s capabilities. I drove off felling lopsided, but with caution along the majestic pines that lead me to the town. The sun had set by now. I parked on the curbside of the house I thought was the address. From my car, through the renovated picture window, there in the dim light of the dining room, sat a lovely lady, dining clinking wine glasses with my Jared. I had arrived at the right address. Surprise, the word rattled my heart, from my brain to my toes.

Katharina R.

The end of this short story doesn't sound that smooth to me, actually... in any case, a good example. Thank you.

Naomi

Joyce, thank you! You have been very inspirational. Your lessons make me want to write again. I had writer’s block for over 2 years and now I have not only finished the first draft of a work, but it speaks to me. I have completed something! It is a short story. I got a writing prompt from a competition and I was bold with form and structure. I cut each paragraph into a strip of paper and rearranged the paragraphs on the carpet to because the story had the pieces I wanted but not the flow. You helped me see to be bold with this. Very quickly I recognised what story I was trying to tell and the ending altered. Writing this short story as been wonderful. I cannot thank you enough!

Leisa W.

I found this really interesting,somewhat like flash fiction writing which is what I have been working on..She is mesmerizing and so helpful..

Kristine K.

This lesson made me look up Memoir poetry. Not sure why but I did. I'm going to work on that also.

A fellow student

I have written a poem about my life. Do I send it to anyone or anywhere to look at?

Thomas

Sounds like a great exercise to help focus on a single idea, and maybe also sharpen it up in the mind for possible expansion. I will definitely explore this idea.

Victoria

I've got a thousand little narratives in my head... moments in time... some sad, some brutally hilarious. All worth telling. I'll be working on this exercise today!

CeeJai J.

Great concept. As a retired clinical psychologist, college adjunct, and battered women therapist; I have a deep well to draw from for such short stories. Getting started, choosing the subject, and finishing it quickly will be my challenge.