Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Revealing the World Through Sensory Imagery

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 09:08 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.

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Topics include: Observe the Particular • Use All the Senses • Description in The Handmaid’s Tale • Repeating Imagery


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...

About the Instructor

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.

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Margaret Atwood

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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