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.

I now know I cannot write in a vacuum when I'm writing about people, I need to be around people.

A great class. Very informative and helpful about the craft of writing. Lots of masterful knowledge to pass on.

Love the ending about the window it was almost spiritual hearing her say those things.

I love Joyce Carol Oates' style of teaching. I'm completely enthralled listening to her.


A fellow student

This was a very good lesson. I love the idea of writing in ways that are experimental.

Valerie C.

I'm finding Joyce inspirational, and the people who can't appreciate the gift they are being given of being taught by such an excellent writer will find their way into my next story, entitled "Arseholes."

Mary-Anne P.

Hi Ben - thank you for directing me to pdfs. So far Oates has given me plenty to think about and I am only on Structure & Form. Now I know I have the pdfs to back up 'lessons' I think this course will be of benefit if only to get me thinking. I wanted to hear from authors and their thinking processes so I am finding this intriguing so far. I guess I didn't want step by step direction but some inspiration and that is what I'm getting but watch this space!

A fellow student

interesting but not practical for new writers who want to earn as advertised.

Mary-Anne P.

i paid £170 for complete writing master class and have just started today. Although I'm finding Joyce Carol Oates interesting, do the lessons ever move forward to writing exercises etc as advertised!


Joyce's course was interesting, informative and delivered perfectly. I would take another course from her.


Joyce is a wonderful teacher. Its interesting to note that some of the artists on Masterclass don't seem to have a clue how to teach their art, others are masterful at it. I couldn't listen to J. Foster, or R. Howard, A. Sorkin, or a few others and was captivated by Joyce, Paul Kraugman, David Mamet, Steve Martin, and others. The art of teaching seems to be a different skill set that some artists don't possess while others are great at it.


Now at last with Joyce’s course I’m beginning to see advice on writing that is unique. All the other writing courses, as good and useful as they may be, mostly just repeat stuff that is pretty standard, such as plotting, outlining, building suspense, building scenes, etc. I’ve been somewhat of a fan of Oates’ writing, and I’ve been aware of a certain je ne sais quoi aspect about her work. Now with this concept of writing elliptically and what she discussed in the previous lesson about the power of exploring darkness through our fiction, she reveals to me some keys for the creative process of producing literature and to a full appreciation of her own fiction. I have to go back and re-read much of her work.

Andrea P.

I found this session very exciting. I want to start experimenting with form and structure immediately!! So many great starting points for ideas.....

John N.

Just love how giving she is in terms of her thoughts and suggestions. Her ideas of writing typographically are really interesting, and very much, I feel, outside the normal advice we new writers are given. I love how open she is to new ideas and how generous she is to share these new ideas with us! Wonderful lesson and very unexpected.