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Arts & Entertainment

Structure and Form

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 17:47 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.”

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] 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'...

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 was absolutely fabulous. She gave me the courage to share my work without it being perfect. I also learned many key writing concepts. It was such a pleasure listening to her course.

The case studies and discussion were something different to see here and they were very beneficial.

ALL these speakers are so wonderful. I love it all. JC Oates is a gracious and knowledgeable and encouraging. Thank you so much. Love Masterclass

Not as helpful as I expected it to be. I didn't like the last class reviewing others work. That isn't helpful to me.


J.C. S.

My entire family tree is evidence of strictly taboo subject matter. My great great grandfather died a cowardly death in the War of 1812. He died in the battlefield of a self-inflicted canon ball wound. When word got around of the nature of his death his wife and children were soon ostracized by the community and town leaders ordered them to wear furniture pads on their heads whenever they left their home, making it nearly impossible for his wife wife to remarry or the children to get strong enough grades in school to get them good-paying jobs that would have helped lift the embattled family out of poverty. Jump ahead 100 years to my great grandfather Giddison Leroy. He worked in vaudeville. He was a narrator for bad mimes. One night, while he was waiting to perform, Houdini was on stage doing his now famous Water Tank of Death illusion when he got stuck and his appendix burst. My great grandfather rushed to him from the wings wielding an ax to break him free when he tripped over his own feet and landed throat-first on the blade of the ax and died himself. His wife was sitting first row in the audience. She too, worked in vaudeville. She was a "peripheral visionary." She could see into the future, but only way off to the sides. And what she could see that night when she tried to peer into her now husbandless future wasn't particularly reassuring. She could see that at her age, she had a greater chance of being mauled at the zoo than remarrying.

Christy Sheffield S.

This particular lesson almost made me fall off my chair. I was listening late at night and wondered if I'd heard correctly or was it a dream that Joyce spoke welcomingly of spatial and font considerations in fiction! I've been working this way for thirty years with many of the pieces well-placed. I've known forever that Joyce Carol Oates was one of the few people who could actually choose whether or not to be an experimental writer. And I have to say I love both of her paths. I find her so grounded in humanity but ready to adventure. For poets, we have had the example of Mallarmé's Throw of the Dice for over a hundred years. And the web space has made amazing leaps possible in terms of typography, movement, and spatial considerations. But the largely unexplored territory is taking these spatial – including images and graphic –considerations into fiction. In my Antioch thesis I did this 1993. I didn't really know how to articulate what I was doing. I can only say that all but one piece was published in fine literary magazines. The last one was accepted but unpublished. At one point, Joyce speaks of concrete poetry or visual poetry, which dates back to illuminated manuscripts and more recently to Apollinaire. I think that's been pretty well covered. What has not been done is play with space and time that takes off from Mallarmé and Gaston Bachelard and Gertrude Stein. I am not speaking of content here but rather of the world of ideas. For example, Stein wanting to create a play like a landscape, something you could comprehend all at once. In terms of Bachelard, I think of rooms and treating the page as a room. For Mallarmé there are arrows of connection to material that is central and material that diverges but is interesting. There is a new translation of his last work called The Book. This is rough and, to my mind, should be shaped but it's present now and contains so many ideas that are relevant. I hope Joyce goes further into an experimental mode. I guess that's selfish, on my part. I so admire her content and form. Either way, it's a win for the public. Christy Sheffield Sanford

Clara S.

To all students who are not enjoying Joyce Carol Oates's lecture on Structure and Form, I remember having to sit through many lectures while at university where lecturers used their own notes and lingered over their own prose (painfully boring.) Something to take away is the essence of the lecture—basically is to try and take a different approach to linear writing.

Clara S.

I really enjoyed Carol Joyce Oates lecture of Structure and Form--the idea of structure—arranging the story in parts to later deconstruct the story and give it a free form it’s something that piques my interest especially trying to do it with the arrangement of fonts –sounds like fun (no pun intended.)

Anna-Lee R.

I'm sort of struggling to understand the form aspect, does anyone have more insight into that?

Rose M.

What a great story and explanation to go with her story, Heat. I love the reveal JCO is doing for us in this masterclass. It her process of how she writes. Truly a master.

Julian D.

Strange - the usual advice when submitting short stories to magazines is to keep to a standard font with no fancy layouts or colours.

Jonathan O.

OMG, I just started this class today and I'm watching Billy on the Street and he mentions her! Sorry, just had to say.


She spends almost half of the time reading her own work out loud, and then she spends the other half repeating it.

A fellow student

I love Joyce's enthusiasm for the craft of writing and encouragement of bold creativity. This lesson really spoke to me in its validation of unique forms and just giving something new a try.