Writing

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.”

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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.



Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I just appreciated Ms. Oates down-to-earth approach to writing. I get tired of the woo-woo talk about artistry and prefer to hear about the mechanics of writing. The woo-woo stuff has to be figured out by the individual writer and not imposed. She is a fantastic writer and wonderful to listen to.

I improved from the first lesson already. Since the classes begun, I have written the draft of several short stories.

I’ve learned to enjoy the unpredictability of writing and not be so focused on perfection. One of Joyce’s best tips was to change your perspective when struggling. I started looking at a story through the back door instead of the front.. Thanks so much!

If you love words, this is for you. This class is really about the craft of writing and not about producing a bestselling script, novel, etc.


Comments

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.

Jeanned'Arc L.

Calls a Raven (Word Count 535, a disjointed telling) All of a sudden, Jordan decided that he would not awaken from surgery. He kept his eyes shut tight. Instead, he reached out, interlocked fingers with Isabel’s and together they walked into the brightness, of the glittering white light that knew his name. “No. Get up old man. Follow the path.” The voice had insisted. Once again Jordan opened his eyes, rolled over to his side pulling his knees to his chest, rolled to all fours and pushed, pulling upright. He saw himself step forward. The shimmering mist blurred most of the surroundings, confusing him, and delaying his progress to meet with someone. Who this someone was, he could not recall.” That’s good, Jordan,” the voice encouraged. In steady momentum, the bright yellow ball exposed itself over the feathering of cloud being diffused by its brightness, into the blue of the sky. Jordan noticed the air thinning. In a slow spiral, through the branches and leaves, moisture was visibly being sucked upwards, within the warm of the rising sun. “Jordan. Wake up,” a congested voice said. “ A new dawn had awakened within a thick haze. In its blanketed distance, a raven called with repeated, gravel–toned- shouts, that echoed beyond a trail, over and across a lagoon, where rotting marsh- grasses stooped against one another Jordan stood still for having forgotten, where he was headed. There was no telling how long he had sat with his back pressed against the rugged oak trunk, when that familiar voice startled him to ask,“ Jordan? You coming?” Jordan continued, his eyes fixed on the brightening light, his feet followed with eager pace. He watched the clouds feather across the sky, over the cooling sun, its fading light now toning in purple pinks, at the horizon. He smiled and called with all his strength, “I’m here, Isabelle, I’m here.” Later, when the light had changed again, Jordan felt his fatigue, but this time, he picked up his pace, walking even faster. He saw that the forest was thinning, as the skies became obvious and clear of view. He felt that he might have arrived . . . yet he could not tell where, that would be. “Hurry dear, you’re almost there.” That voice, he knew he should know it. It was right there, at the edge . . . that edge of recognition All at once he faced his lovely wife. Her body lost in a transparent glow of gold against the hazy sun. She smiled at him, offering him, her hand. At that moment, Jordan decided that he would not awaken from his surgery. He kept his eyes closed. He had found a better way to be. When he reopened his eyes, it was with confidence that he took his. And, together again, they walked into the brightness of the glittering, white light that knew his name. A new dawn had awakened within a thick haze. In it’s blanketed distance, a raven called with repeated gravel-shouts that echoed beyond a trail, over and across the lagoon, where rotting marsh grasses stooped against one another. “Jordan. Wake up,” the familiar voice called out.

Jeanned'Arc L.

Lesson 05 Mystery story By The Light Of Day ( WC 536) A new dawn had awakened within a thick haze. In its blanketed distance, a raven called with repeated gravel- toned- shouts that echoed beyond a trail, over and across a lagoon, where rotting marsh grasses stooped against one another. “Jordan. Wake up,” a congested voice said. Jordan’s bones pined his eighty- year-old body into the moist, cold ground. Flat on his back, his brain commanded him, to look. His reluctant eyelids pulled away from themselves, far enough to acknowledge the grey obtuseness of the light. “Now roll to one side, pull your knees back, and get up,” That, oh h h so familiar nasal voice commanded. Jordan’s eyelids clamped shut. “No. Get up old man. Follow the path.” The voice insisted. Once again Jordan opened his eyes, rolled over to his side pulling his knees to his chest, rolled to all fours and pushed, pulling upright. The shimmering mist blurred the surroundings, confusing him, and delaying his progress, to meet with someone. This someone, who this someone was, he could not recall. “That’s good, Jordan.” The voice encouraged. Jordan noticed the air thinning. In a slow spiraling through the branches and leaves, moisture was visibly being sucked upwards from the warmth, of the rising sun. In steady momentum, the bright yellow ball exposed itself over the feathering of clouds disappearing from the blue sky. Mesmerized by the beauty, Jordan stood still for a while having forgotten, where he was headed. He sat beneath the nearest oak tree, his back pressed against its rugged trunk. There was no telling how long he has sat there, when that familiar voice startled him, to ask, “ Jordan? You coming?” Jordan rose. Dazzled by the brightness of yellow rays filtering in, and through the undergrowth in pockets of shimmering lights. Focusing, one step carefully placed in front of the other, on the uneven and now, half shadowed, half lit pathway, he moved on. Later, when the light had changed again, Jordan felt he was tired, but this time, he continued and walked a little faster. He could saw that the trees were thinning, that the skies were clear in view. He felt, he might have arrived, but, he could not tell yet, where, that would be. “Hurry dear, you’re almost there.” That voice, he knew that he should know it. It was at the edge . . . that edge of recognition. Jordan continued, his eyes fixed on the brightening light, his feet followed with eager pace. He watched the clouds feather across the sky, over the cooling sun. Fading light toned in purple pinks from the horizon now. Filled with joy, he smiled and called with all his strength, “I’m here, Isabelle, I’m here.” All at once he faced his lovely wife. Her body lost in a transparent glow of gold, against the hazy sun. She smiled, offered him, her hand. At that moment, Jordan realized that he would not awaken from his surgery. He had found another way to be. He reopened his eyes, interlocked his fingers with Isabel’s with confidence as he walked into the brightness of the glittering, white light that knew his name.

Jeanned'Arc L.

This lesson on Structure and Form encouraged me to continue writing each paragraph from different starting points, as though the lies were swayed by a breeze. I also like the idea of disjointing the story along the paragraphs all the while moving the story full circle.

Barbara F.

It's my first, with Masterclass. I was inspired and excited. I so value JCO's expertise! Once in, my manic scanner persona put in an appearance. I want to experience ALL the writing teachers and other creative people in the program. I realize I am more drawn to nonfiction than fiction, partly due to a reticence to delve into a lifetime of taboos. I will probably revert to going crazy with sampling during these first weeks of all access. But I know I will be coming back to this course once I settle down.

Sharon F.

Fascinating. I like the way she encourages writers to push the boundaries and experiment with structure and form. She's asking the writer and the reader to form a neurological bond. She asks us to contemplate deep ideas and to communicate them in courageous ways.

Melinda Jane H.

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