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 learned that to give time to writing, you need to take time for writing. I learned that the creative process requires introspection and patience. I learned that telling stories is a communal act, even if conceiving them is deeply private.

She is hard when sharing her opinions about the students work... Thanks!

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

It is always fascinating how writers differ one for the other, and, in a way, they share similar ways of doing things. This class, again, was very helpful, and a great follow up to the Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman ones. Cheers.



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.

Deborah H.

I loved the way it started me thinking about language, like paint, layering, becoming elliptical, creating an image.


A ghost to my own past. Such a profound statement for ruminators everywhere. I get this, 100% get this. Probably the reason that I am learning to write short stories, stories about the ghosts in my Past. Thank you Ms Oates

Tauna S.

It is interesting to have her read her own story. She reads the story adding in something she had edited out, but shouldn't have. Perhaps she listened to an editor she shouldn't have. It is far more valuable to listen to read read it, with her observations, than to actually read the finished story. Wonderful!

Sukhdev S.

John Truby called this originality that you bring to your story the designing principle.

Rixanne (Rikki) H.

This is so far out of my confort zone. Exciting to see what comes out of me now! Love this lady!