Revealing the World Through Sensory Imagery

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 09:09 min

The more specific your details, the more engaged your readers. Learn how Margaret uses The Handmaid’s Tale to illustrate her approach to imagery.

Margaret Atwood
Teaches Creative Writing
Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.
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I think a lot of people see things in quite general terms. That is, they see a tree and they say, it's a tree. So you might just try a few meditations. Take a tree, what kind of tree is it, just for starters. How is it growing? Where is it growing? What state is it in-- because everything is particular. We had a lecture once from a couple of people who were high-functioning autistics. And one of them said-- in fact, it was Temple Grandin. She said, it's no point saying to me, I'm at the airport. I'll meet you at the luggage rack. Which luggage rack? Well, it has to be that luggage rack. So some exercises in observing the particular, the particular tree, the particular sidewalk, the particular piece of lawn that you're looking at, the particular individual that you're looking at. I think we do tend to generalize and abstract. So instead of a middle-aged lady, which middle-aged lady? The stupid young jerk-- which, and in what way? Well, what do we mean by that? We're very fond of labeling and abstracting. But that doesn't work very well in fiction. [MUSIC PLAYING] Moving up to the next level, texture of meanings. So the different senses, sight, sound. Smell, something that the movies can't do. They can't do smelling yet and we ought to be grateful for that. So sight, smell, taste, sound-- touch, something else the movies can't do. Textures of fabrics-- when you look at different languages, you will find that some of them are very specific. There are very specific vocabularies for certain types of texture and look, that they do just with one word. So Japanese, for instance, is very interested in textures of cloth. And they have one word that means the texture of a piece of white silk, bleached, on the snow. These are the things that fill our world-- smooth table, slightly rougher book, shiny piece of glass. Everything is quite shiny around here. This is leather. There's some ornate things on top of it. So how much of that do you want to put in? Hot, cold, warm, humid, dry, all of those things, that's the world we live in. So you're situating your characters in this world. You probably want your texture surrounding them to be meaningful in some way. One way of honing your sensory perception is to block off some of the senses. And then see what the remaining ones pick up. And you can enhance your sensory perception in one area by closing off the other ones. So if you're doing a night journey, filled with possible trolls, presumably you're going to have your character be very alert. They're going to be very alert to sounds. In particular, they're going to be very alert to light. There won't be much of it. But what can they see? Is there a looming shadow? Is there a smell that indicates a foreign presence is nearby? Do they hear the howling of a supernatural wolf, just for instance? Has somebody made a creaking noise on the stair? You get very alert at such times. So all of these sensations are feeding...

The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.


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

Amazing! So many useful jewels of information and wisdom.

Atwood has had a long and fascinating writing career, and sharing her journey and hearing her tips were very inspiring.

So inspired and encourage after the wealth of knowledge. Thank you to Margaret Atwood for sharing her expertise, enthusiasm, and humor.

I enjoyed this class so much I have signed up for a full year and hope to take some classes that I wouldn't normally consider doing.


Nancy N.

I've listened to parts of this class a couple of times - I've learned so much about character development and the most important thing is that timeline chart! Great tool.!

A fellow student

A writing exercise I do is describing one thing as much as I can and then sometimes I use the exercise later in my writing

John D.

A good lesson particularly the suggestion of blocking off some of the senses to imagine what the others or just one of the others picks up - I like that idea.


I find myself struggling with detail in my writing, but this lesson has given me a new way to look at detail

Suzanne B.

The description of a tree must be as particular as that of the people you are writing about. Maybe not as much, but as unique. I listened to an interview with a biologist who studies trees. She was observing the behavior of a tree through its ability to reproduce, protect itself, flourish through inclement conditions - all without ever moving. I thought wow, what a wonderful contrast/compare with how we live as humans. And what if a human were to behave in such a way? I love the particularness of detail highlighted in this chapter. "Readers will assume everything you put on a page is there for a purpose." That was shocking to think. As well, I've had those in my group remark on certain repetitive images and I'm happy to say that image is/was a hopeful strand from my memory (it is/was lilacs actually) and one I was happy they noticed the way they did. It wasn't intentional but their remark made me realize the importance of my writing.

Marina F.

Alias Grace has a powerful imagery that allows us to really live at the nineteenth century. Margaret is amazing, I loved this topic. A book that enchanted me because of a brilliant sensory imagery was Madame Bovary, by Flaubert. Everything is voluptuous in order to represent eroticism, every detail of dresses, flowers, food, landscape.

Giorgia D.

I love details. So probably, you will find examples of sensory imagery's descriptions in my novels. I've always been interested in reading stories from people that miss one of the five senses because I think can really open your mind to the "world of descriptions of details" and also, help you catch details that you weren't able to notice by yourself. Exercise your skills is extremely necessary in this case so, I really appreciate the assignments suggested by Margaret.

maurizio F.

Interesting lesson. It's never enough to repeat how important is to describe the world. It's high mastery to know were to stop. Love the assignment. I have just a childhood memory that could suit to it...

Caetlin W.

I enjoyed Atwood's story about the bathtubs and glass jars. She didn't even notice their frequency, but her readers did, and they went on to determine their meaning. Her repetition of flowers and flower imagery was intentional and already came with its own meaning, but her readers could still arrive at a different one that is far from what she intended. The separation between authorial intent and reader understanding is a very fascinating topic. I'm glad Atwood has chosen to discuss it here. Sometimes it seems that such a wide chasm only exists between these two when a writer isn't as experienced and therefore doesn't wield her pen as well, but Atwood has shown us that we should not believe that.

Cameron C.

Thinking about the symbolic meanings of some images, colors, etc. Readers will create meaning from them, even if we don't intentionally put it in there... so should we be mindful of that while writing, or during editing? Should we examine our word choices for something the unconscious is trying to say through us? Should we be vigilant to guard against inadvertent meaning, or just let it go because we can't control what the reader does?