Online Course

Shapes of Stories

September 12 - November 20, 2022

Level Intermediate

Expand your writer’s toolkit by experimenting with a variety of essay structures.

Additional Information

Even good first drafts are often shapeless, with fragmentary scenes and images, anecdotes and episodes; it’s in the revision process that we more fully understand how to develop and connect all of these elements as we carve out the shapes of our stories.

This course will help you expand your writer’s tool kit by experimenting with a variety of structures—everything from straightforward, traditional presentations to offshoots of the lyric essay, such as braids, collages, or the many varieties of borrowed forms that we find in “hermit crab” essays. You will read great examples and then try out each shape, if only briefly. Over the course of 10 weeks, you can choose to write about one subject using these different shapes, or let the shapes inspire an essay you hadn’t planned to write.

Students are encouraged to write at least 800 words each week for the first six weeks to become familiar with each shape, and to choose two essays to complete. Throughout the course, writers will submit work for peer and instructor critique and engage in online discussion—please see below for more details.

Course Schedule

Week 1: Narrative Arc

Storytelling expectations that date all the way back to Aristotle can inform our creative nonfiction, helping us to dig deep into the significance of our experience and shape our work to foster connections with our audience. This week, we’ll look at the elements of a typical story arc as defined by Aristotle and reinterpreted by a variety of writers, and experiment with how it might apply to a story you want to tell.

Week 2: Models, Diagrams, Patterns, and Metaphors

Writers including Janet Burroway, Kurt Vonnegut, and Jerome Stern have proposed methods of looking at story structure. We’ll explore a number of models, diagrams, patterns, and metaphors, many of which draw from fiction and all of which offer us varied and flexible approaches to thinking about our stories.

Week 3: Frame

A frame story begins with an introduction that may disappear altogether or reappear only at the end, providing an entry into a story that might otherwise seem foreign to the reader. A really complex frame story might contain several nested stories, like a Russian doll. You will explore this technique by writing a frame story.

Week 4: Lyric

John D’Agata and Deborah Tall describe the lyric essay as a form that “takes from the prose poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language.” This week, we will look at how our essays can take structural cues from poetry.

Week 5: Braid

The braid weaves together complementary or contrasting threads. It can be an artful way to switch between past and present, to offer two perspectives, or to introduce a metaphor that takes the story deeper. Explore what happens when you interweave complementary or contrasting topics or time periods or perspectives through reading examples and trying it yourself.

Week 6: Collage

The fragmented essay relies on contrast and resonance to achieve a sense of continuity, and often incorporates external material: photos, quoted material, lists, etc. This week, you may choose to turn in for feedback an essay that employs any techniques we have discussed so far.

Week 7: Hermit Crab: Intro to Borrowed Forms

The term hermit crab was coined by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola to describe an essay that “appropriates existing forms as an outer covering, to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly. It is an essay that deals with material that seems born without its own carapace—material that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.” Also called found, borrowed, or appropriated, these essay forms take their shapes from other written texts, such quizzes, recipes, liner notes, questionnaires, field guides, bibliographies, reviews, footnotes, indexes, or letters.

Week 8: Hermit Crab: Instruction Manual

A particularly popular form of the hermit crab essay takes its form from the instruction manual. We will look at offshoots of this form and play with them in our own work.

Week 9: How to Find the Right Form

Read the essay by John McPhee about how he finds the structures for his essays and write about what shape you find most attuned to your style of writing. This week you will choose another essay to complete and turn it in for feedback.

Week 10: Returning to the Narrative Arc and the Flexibility of Form

We’ve isolated these shapes for the purpose of learning how to use them, but they inform and merge with each other when used skillfully. This week, we’ll revisit the traditional story arc and consider how it is enhanced, transformed, or even challenged by the other forms and shapes we’ve explored.

View Complete Syllabus

Course Instructor

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Please Note

It is not uncommon for classes to fill up before the end of early registration, particularly in the last few days before the deadline. If you know for certain that you wish to take a particular class, we recommend registering early. If you'd like to be added to a waitlist for a sold-out class, please email our director of education, Sharla Yates, at [email protected].

Hear from our Students

Creative Nonfiction’s online writing classes have helped more than 3,000 writers tell their stories better.

Read Success Stories


I enjoyed reading other peoples work and getting feedback about my own work– the handouts/video links and class lessons were also very informative and relevantly paced to the give structural guidelines.

Catherine O’Neill