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Arts & Entertainment

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.”

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.


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

She's a superstar! So happy to hear advice straight from her mouth.

I thought this MasterClass was fantastic. Joyce Carol Oates is a brilliant teacher and I would thoroughly recommend this course. Thank you

She makes the obvious sounds so interesting, loved it.

JCO's kind voice, will I hope, remain in my head for years. The prompts are invaluable. I especially loved hearing the workshops. I think I've absorbed more than I can put into words at this time, but will surely come out as I continue to write.


J.C. S.

The black sky melted silently in the balmy summer heat, falling in fat drops like paint upon the white crests of the ocean's virginal surface. Grey clouds that looked like giant billows of barroom smoke, swirled angrily while forming huge cataracts over the face of the silver moon, which suddenly found itself upstaged during its most intimate midnight soliloquy. In the lamplight overhead, whose glow softened in the thick shore-line mist, her profile stood out in bold relief against the stark brilliance of the lone light. Wisps of hair, like jet streams, glowed radiantly around her face like the rim of the sun. Within the darkness of her silhouette, like the stars twinkling in the firmament, her eyes sparkled like jewels on dark cloth. I stepped back to admire her from a distance, like a painter must his completed canvas. I smiled. This, I thought, was time much better spent than idling away my hours in a meaningless relationship with an unapproving woodchuck.

Rose M.

I love her explanations of William short story, Use of force. I am an avid fan the short story method. I have taught this when teaching how to write stories for young children.

Julian D.

One of the most famous examples of flash fiction is the six-word novel reputedly by Hemingway in response to a bet that he couldn't do it: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." (PS an earthquake, someone with a machine-gun etc. are examples of story openings not endings, I feel)

Aldonza G.

I love her lessons. And I find fascinating the way she explains everything followed by those gracious movements she does with her hands, is almost hypnotic!

Michael C.

I love how JCO draws a dynamic between song and literature. Being a musician who's always found writing hard to approach, she makes it much more approachable for me with things like writing a short narrative or just blowing through a story not worrying about the quality at first. It's similar to how I write songs, just jamming on certain ideas til it all clicks. I think drawing parallels between mediums like that is the sign of a great teacher.


I examined several writers with different styles of teaching, however, Joyce Oats classes are by far extraordinary. They are very quick, straight to the point, and amazingly engaging. I am already a bit sad I might finish her classes a little fast, they are quite entertaining. I hope she creates a second class, I would be very willing to join.


Eeeek! I'm so excited! After listening to Joyce's lesson describing the interview of her mother, I decided to interview my parents and had started a bit of a crappy list of questions. Just found Joyce's wonderful list in the workbook. Thank you!


I just get flat-out mesmerised when Joyce describes writing using musical or visual art terms. Her brain is fascinating and I feel so lucky that she's sharing her thoughts and analysis with us.

Tolga C.

Flash fiction is nice, liked "Break" and "As the North Wind Howled". My own flash fiction try worked out so far, but I forgot to write in past simple tense and was not writing from the point of view of the main character. Has to be rewritten anyways, somewhen. Perhaps this flash fiction are quite interesting for short films, too.

Catherine A.

It's very engaging. I bought this master class, just because I find writers, creatures of interest. Particularly those who very good at their craft, it's interesting how they think, what they notice and I find it relaxing to listen to while I do totally unrelated work; writing programming documents, graphics, tax or whatever. But I find the classes have enticed me into doing the exercises and I'm getting a lot of value out of it. It would be lovely if we could form a community and share our work.