Principles of Writing Short Fiction

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 21:50 min

You want to write. When and how do you get it done? Joyce explains how to draft, revise, and share your work with others. She also touches on rejection and how to protect your time for writing.

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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[WEIGHTY PIANO MUSIC] - Everybody has at least one story to tell. It may be about a mysterious event of the childhood. It may be like, why did this person disappear from your life? If it was a divorce in the family, why did that happen? You know, everybody has a fantastic story, often a mystery story. 'Cause when we're really young, adults are mysterious. We hear them talking a little bit in their bedroom. We hear them walking out. We all know why the door slammed. We hear a mother crying. We hear somebody arguing. We don't know what adults are doing, and they're hiding it from us. So that impulse to be a writer, I think, springs from that air of mystery. Like, what are these people doing? And when we're little tiny babies in a crib, we look up and we see these giants looking down on us. We have no idea who they are. But we know one thing, that they're much bigger than we are. And then when we got a little older ourselves, we're these little people and where these giants are around us, and we're always trying to monitor them and figure them out. And so I think in my own writing, I'm still trying to monitor like, what is society? What is a patriarchal society? What is patriarchal religion? What are these strictures and invisible boundaries that keep many of us in thrall? I'm like a little girl looking up at these people. But I'm also like Alice in Wonderland. And she's saying, I'm not afraid of you. You're big, but I'm smarter than you. And I'm going to write about you, and I'm going to analyze, and I'm going to dissect you. In other words, the writer has to have that feeling that he or she-- though intimidated by adults and by society, nonetheless, the writer has the power to analyze and dissect and understand the society. So the writer is both humble but also very independent and self-sufficient. So it helps to think of yourself as a writer standing on the edge on a marginal plane. There's a plane here of other people, and you're standing on the edge, and you're looking at them. So if you're a writer, think of yourself also as a photographer with a camera. And you're looking through a lens. And when you have your magic-- you have your magic camera, that's your writing. In other words, you turn this camera around. And with the lens, you see the subject, but the camera is your writing. And that's your position, your perspective, and that gives you the power. But to be able to do that, you have to have the language on the craft. You have to have some place to put it. You have to know how to divide it up and how the sentences work. [DRAMATIC PIANO MUSIC] So I start thinking about a story from the point of every character. I always-- my writing is all about people. So I'm only really interested in people and personalities. I think our personalities are mysterious and phantasmagoric because many of us have buried lives and secret lives and lives that they've never been explored. So I got to know the characters a...

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.

I've always loved Joyce Carol Oates and I've been working on starting my writing practice again. I signed up for MasterClass because I saw she had a class here. I loved it and am very inspired to write everyday again.

A great pleasure to get to know and hear Joyce. Her instructions are quite useful.

I loved this MasterClass with JCO...she's brilliant, yet so down to earth and kind and approachable. It was a privilege to sit in on her class with her students! Wow!

Lots of practical ways to get started and keep going. She shares her joy of writing and learning about yourself through the creative process.


mansfield K.

First things first. Iove her approach to a story. Plain , simple and interesting. Thanks. By M. Kalani Kauo

Bob J.

Good start. I like that she brings up the rhetorical device called synecdoche -- selecting one pivotal event to represent the whole. This is my first class with Masterclass and I'm still navigating, but it looks like an excellent way to learn something I've been wanting to do for years.

Kristine K.

I want to write a memoir. I thought this class would help me with my confidence and to learn more about writing.

Jeanned'Arc L.

Hi This lesson has re-energized me. Although I am feeling overwhelmed with all the reading (I have discontinues facebook long ago because I am too curious), I look forward to the book suggestions and prompts. This lesson has inspired me to settle into the new possibilities of more writing.

Valentina K.

I am a bit late to join, but the way she talks helps my fear of writing disappear!

A fellow student

Oh, how I wish I'd had Joyce's insights forty years ago or so! I went from writing poems to plunging into novel writing, and it was too soon. I've had that dark cloud Joyce mentions over my head for so many years, I don't know what the sun looks like anymore. I'm excited to "go back to the beginning" and do the lessons in full, one by one, learning how to write short stories well so I can get that Finished Feeling. I've had it a couple of times and had forgotten how lovely it is. Thank you so much, Joyce, for this powerful, practical lesson.

Andrew Stephen L.

Ps I made this track on (LPX or Logic10) often Called LogicX ... I studied it 2 years at Apple mostly at the flagship store in London near Oxford Circus. What is one of the most complex programs on any mac or computer that is commercial available to the public. Unfortunately I was told it wasn’t good enough,and I wasn’t an experienced enough singer (even though I had sang to over 60,000 people at Stonehenge)to get into university in the UK. I applied 4 years in a row and I’ve given up doing it for the next few years-filling in the entrance form is way too long and even though the same detail is asked every year-they also made me fill it out 4 times,and for a person like me that has been Registered Disabled over 20 years it’s just too much! After learning to speak 10 languages and playing over 20 musical instruments I decided that perhaps one is intelligent enough and possibly don’t need a certificate to certify my capability.I do think that perhaps one day I might visit a University and study-I’ve been thinking about this Polymath course that will be running in London from next year. Or perhaps some future date. Anyway at least I could learn such interesting information from people such as yourself.Thanks so much. x 🔴Red🔴x

Andrew Stephen L.

There’s one such song I recorded with one take each of about 6 parts,drum loop,vocals,guitar parts and flute. It’s 8 minutes long and after the recording I spent about a fortnight mixing the sounds-taking different versions into the car and driving along the motorway to listen. Music Producers and friends listened and most of the feedback was disdain so I never released another like that. However if you care to listen it’s on SoundCloud. Artist name: “The Infinicist &?” Track:Beach Dreams x

Andrew Stephen L.

Funny I have travelled for years and on very long bus and train journeys...I would sit and read a novel in one sitting...it could be quite interesting to open it and read 300 or 400 pages and finish it while on the journey-but I got this idea from my Father who would rarely read unless he had time to read a whole book,like at Xmas or something.He would start reading and then for a day or two just keep going until he finished;I think i took that one step further to read in one go... I learnt to practice music in the same way playing most days for 4-6 hours and sometimes sitting for 10-12 hours just stopping for the loo or a bit to eat or a cuppa! To realise a whole story in such a way is like a big step up of knowledge.I pushed that idea further in writing and I would sit and write a whole poem/story in one fluid motion without putting the pen down.It took creativity and allowing whatever cane out to be the final idea. I suppose I picked that up from travelling around the world being like a minstrel of old,wandering with a guitar strapped to me and improvising songs. I think I’m up to about 17,500 or something songs I created in such a way...to me keep repeating an old song is nothing interesting,and as I did it more and more not only the words developed into better shape but I learnt to embellish the musicality and embroider the piece. If I really liked a particular song I might play it again;but always a variant version. Years later I read a book about classical music that said Beethoven and other composers never actually played the standard versions of the tunes we know today-they just used the theme and improvised while touring concert halls around Europe. Much the same as my method.That way the ideas develop and are fun and interesting to play and we are not stuck in repeating songs over and over.However listeners like to hear their favourite songs on repeat ...and there’s more money in it that way. ... but I find that if I play for the love of music and Not the Money-I actually play a better tune-as soon as I record it I play differently... without attention to perfect playing I have special moments and I feel to be a uniqueo type of person that is original and happy to have the audience in front of me that care to listen. x Larger body of work manifesting in one realisation is like a epic exploration of discovery,across the forest and over the mountains to the highest peak and coming to safety and security to choose a homestead in a protected valley,like many settlers of old must have surveyed and chosen. Even short fiction coming such a way is exciting;stopping the need to go back and change parts or scribble things out gives completion in a matter of minutes or hours. Well worth having a go at if one has not done so already.x 🔴Red 🔴x

Margaret M.

Terrific lesson! This is really packed with good stuff. (I was so inspired I paused the video and sketched out two short middle-grade novels, thereby disobeying instructions.)