Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Structure and Form

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 17:46 min

Some of Joyce’s experimental approaches to structure include considering the shape of a story on its first page and writing a one-sided dialogue. She reads from her story “Heat.”

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Topics include: Be Bold With Form · Experiments in Structure: “Heat" · Assembling Structure Like Memories · Write Visual Art


[MUSIC PLAYING] JOYCE CAROL OATES (VOICEOVER): It's very exciting to experiment with structure. I think that many stories are best told in some elliptical way or some unusual way. - There's only one rule of show business or writing, and that's don't be boring. So anything that you can do that's interesting, and novel, and keeps an audience engaged, almost anything you can do that's not boring will be successful. Like you could have a story that was just all the beginning. Now, I've never tried that. Just a story that kept having a beginning, but never went anywhere. But yet, it could have its own ending that would be very experimental, and it couldn't be too long. You could have a story that was just the middle. You could have a story that was just final paragraphs. I've asked my students sometimes to do a story that was just a description of the scene, where you're setting the scene very carefully for a story, using really good descriptions and really original metaphors, but then that's the story. The whole story is setting the scene. So that would be experimental. I've seen a story by somebody who's younger brother died of a drug overdose, and they didn't know he was even a drug addict. It was a shock because no one knew he was taking heroin. So he reported his death. So people in the family are so stunned by this, they just keep remembering when they last saw him, and did they have any hint? You know, people are always saying, oh, we had no hint. When people commit suicide, everyone said I had no idea. Or well, I might have had an idea. Or that's my fault. I didn't help. Or I didn't know what I could have done. All these thoughts lend themselves to a kind of like question and answer. You could have a whole story that was a questionnaire. I probably have done that. You know, a question, a answer. Okay, that would that be a nice story for a writer who wants to experiment. A story in a question and answer mode. Another story could be just the answers. I once wrote a story that was answers. Like the question, you don't see. You just see the answers, and that was fun to do. So I recommend for any story that you have that you like that you're haunted by-- to find some unusual way of telling it. Some experimental writers like Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and John Barth, have done all sorts of wild things. I once wrote a short story that was just notes to contributor-- contributors. You know, at the end of a magazine, I have notes on contributors. So my story was called "Notes on contributors," and it was in the magazine. So when people who read the magazine thought that was the notes on the contributors, but it really wasn't. It was a short story. But anybody could do that. I mean, that's something that somebody else could try. Notes are on contributors. I think it'll be really great for a new writer or a young writer to say to herself or himself, I'm going to write a series of prose works so original and novel that there'...

About the Instructor

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.

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Joyce Carol Oates

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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