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Arts & Entertainment

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.

This class was intricately designed to help the viewer enjoy writing, and let them explore who they are as a writer. 100% recommended.

I learned that even Margaret Atwood has struggled in the ways I've struggled. Most of the course information has been previously said or printed a thousand different ways, but Mrs. Atwood's presence, her secrets, her impish smile, her anecdotes... those are the real lessons here, and they are invaluable.

I just loved listening to Margaret Attwood - she is a lady to the core and just phenomenal as a person and writer.

I really enjoyed this course. Margaret has a humorous style and speaks slowly enough to catch what she is saying. I have taken away some excellent tips, and having attended plenty of courses, it was refreshing to enjoy new material.


Shawn B.

I learned a saying while studying Zen. "Before I started my practice a tree was just a tree. When I began it I discovered that a tree is NOT just a tree! Now that I've been on my path for a great number of years I realize that a tree is just a tree." I probably messed that one up, but I hope the point was made.

A fellow student

Atwood is as fabulous while speaking to me as she is in her writing! I love her sense of humor. Agree wholeheartedly that we need the building blocks of mythology, folk tale and the Bible to understand what follows.

Rita D.

Ms. Atwood, I love your use of imagery, the pace and sound of the words flow lyrically. When I sit down to write, I try to emulate your style. The poetic prose. The rhythm.

A fellow student

Great! I could listen to Margaret Atwood all day long and I pretty much have!

Dale U.

I am currently reading a novel by the late Robert B. Parker. In it his private eye Spenser goes into great detail in describing the clothing other characters wear and the architecture of buildings. I feel like I should become at least a semi-pro at fashion and construction among other things. Wonderful lesson.

A fellow student

Wow! Margaret, I've read your books for years and now I feel as if you are talking to me directly. Thank you for your candor! Can't wait to read Paperback Negotiating with the Dead : A Writer on Writing Book: Negotiating with the Dead : A Writer on Writing.

Gabriela L.

It was a super great idea to record the great contemporary master's lessons, like Margaret's. Imagine if Kafka or Virgina Woolf had done the same for us! We are privileged thanks to technology.


I love the lecture just like l do all the others, I have a question though. Did anyone do the assignment at the end of the chapter : conjure a memory from childhood, de-people the scene/ remove visual details. I am curious to know if it turned out like it did for me or not.

Irma L.

I love how slowly she explains things but with clarity, confidence and experience.

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.!