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.

Joyce Carol Oates on Writing the Short Story is profound, evocative, and inspiring. I am astonished to be taught so much in such a short course. I learned as much about how to read as how to write and look forward to going on to use these lessons to my advantage.

She explains very clearly about her writing. I enjoyed a lot.

Excellent class! Useful and easily accessible. I suggest a second masterclass.

I now know I cannot write in a vacuum when I'm writing about people, I need to be around people.


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?


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.


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.