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.

Joyce Carol Oates helped me with bringing out the work. More than anything the idea of writing for 6 minutes, 10 minutes and see what I can get. She is brilliant. Loved her. MORE, please.

Each time I finish a MasterClass it is as though my cup has been refilled. I can't wait to get back to writing and to put these lessons into practice. Joyce Carol Oates was a warm and wonderful teacher and I'm so glad I did this course.

JCA is so interesting to listen to, sharing lots of useful anecdotes and writing tips. Great class!

I learned that writing as a form and a craft is much wider and varied than I ever thought possible. It’s so interesting and kind of funny to me that while Ms. Oates emphasizes craft and form, her own writing is experimental and free form. I have a lotto think about and to try. Thank you very much.


Shalini P.

I'm so glad to be taking this class. It so true what Joyce says about interruptions stopping the flow of imagination. I have been facing it for quite some time now, and after watching this lesson I've decided to firmly let go of all the internal interruptions. Also, about writing the first draft in one go... sounds exciting to dedicate a whole day to write! Also to think that you're not writing about the life of a character, but you're writing about the one day or one event that changed your character's life- that makes it simpler to find our next ideas!

Christian W.

Where should we upload our stories? Is there a forum, or someone to read and get back to us? Loving it so far :)

Sonia F.

The way she explained the meaning of synecdoche, by showing examples like brushing teeth was brilliant

Amy W.

Hi! Loved this lesson and feeling so inspired. I have a question about the writing assignments. Are we meant to complete them all before we move to the next class or do we do them in tandem? Thank you!


I loved JCO's talk/lesson. It felt as though I was in a class with her. And such practical advice! However, I am a bit intimidated by the writing assignments at the end of this first chapter - actually Chapter 2. It seems a lot. I wonder if this is the typical workload for one of her classes. Are we supposed to post our work to the site here?

Kasy L.

Wow, this lesson was amazing! Joyce Carol Oates provided so much helpful information in just 21 minutes. I feel inspired to write more short stories--a form of writing I fell in love with years ago. I look forward to more classes.

Don McHaney

I have always wanted to write but have been intimidated by great writers such as Susan Sontag or Ray Bradbury who can make you feel totally inept with one sentence. Now I feel I can at least practice the craft and maybe produce something others might want to read.

Richard C.

I don't have to tell anyone how lucky we are to have this course available to us. Thank you, Professor Oates, and thank you, Masterclass. But to the video editors... please... when she says "synecdoche", show that word on the screen, along with a definition (such as, "using a part of something to stand for the whole thing"). Not everyone has an advanced degree in Rhetoric. And we aren't Princeton students with handouts we can refer to.

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.