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.

loved it all. I learned valuable lessons from every one of the sessions and the exercises are/will be extremely useful in practicing the craft and understanding the nuances of writing and reading.

The class was designed well and the topics were really interesting.

It reminded me of the romance of being a writer writer not just a writer-for-money.

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


Tolga C.

Well, my structure in commenting is, to look forward to this chapter and talking about the last one. :-D The last tasks were a little bit much, but worked out quite well, except that one, imagening a whole story like movie-scenes, while you are outside for a walk or so. Yes, I get ideas, but only scene wise and like here in a way - in fragments. But then I created a charakter to it like in the first chapter and it startet to flow, while I was writing. The task, listening to other people and write a story that way, I skipped, if I am honest. I liked the concept of "moments of being" very very much and the thoughts of Virginia Woolf in the first parts of her journal; she seemed to be wise like a philosopher. Looking forward the structure-tasks. Thanks so far.

Peggy D.

I am really connecting with Joyce Carol Oates, I have to force myself to stop because I am enjoying her classes so much. I will re-watch and follow her ideas and really work at what she is teaching. Joyce is a great fit for me, and I am very inspired by her, I think her energy is remarkable and wondrous.

A fellow student

This was very inspiring, I liked Joyces original ideas for writing stories that are out of the ordinary, the Heat example, the maze story, etc. I immediately want to start writing something crazy like that too!

Raul C.

Listening to the experiences of Joice help me realize that I can bring to reality my old idea of writing I have since more than 15 years ago. Now I have the story more or less outlined and getting ready to start writing.

Susannah C.

I am loving this course, but found this lesson oddly unformed and ragged. She talks about choosing experimental forms but doesn't say anything about how form relates to content or how part of the art of choosing a structure and form is to look for something which resonates with the content. I bet she has some views on this and I'd love to hear them.

Jason M.

I am loving the way she teaches. She gives some form and some structure but never clips your wings from being able to fly anywhere you want to go.

Viviane H.

This reminded me of how I used to write poetry and text and play with it. I wonder why I stopped. Time to start playing again, great lesson. :)

Richard C.

At 00:08:15 in this video, Professor Oates seems to be reading from a different version of the story than the one shown on screen. She twice repeats an alternate version of the beginning of the fifth paragraph. Just saying. This is one of the greatest of the Masterclasses, and it would be nice to see these discrepancies cleaned up.

Steve J.

I'm really enjoying JCO's matter of fact but very informative way of teaching. I like her voice being calm and genuine.

Jeanned'Arc L.

Structure/Form Use the effect of the light to describe the observations. Dawn When the soft-grey glow has overturned the midnight darkness, and gently touched upon my consciousness, I lift sleep weighed eyelids . . . and blink at the dawn peeking in, at me. I see from my bed atop the tree line, the brightening of finger like rays, that reach far in shades of yellow, the in and out between the glowing branches, so that among their leaves and needles, together they dance within a morning’s fragrant breeze. Dusk Daytime hours meet late on this mid-summer afternoon. On the park bench, lovers sit close, their eyes lost in the horizon. Stilled silhouettes draped within the lingering glow as The sun’s final wink pierces the purple haze. Midnight From the rooftop I stand, beneath the midnight sky. Across the bay, the full moon mirrors long in misty light across charcoal rippling waters. Muted is the sprinkle of stars, as feathered clouds displace within the breezing of a warm summer-shower. At first there appears a mystic glow, from behind approaching clouds. For a few moments, like heavy curtains, they draw to a close, a full moon’s performance. She’s graced us with clear explosive glow, so that before you know- the curtains draw to a close, her magic act, veiled is the light until both have disappeared.