Speculative Fiction

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 12:33 min

Learn Margaret's approach to writing speculative fiction and her advice on how to generate ideas and build your world in this genre.

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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So there's speculative fiction and there's science fiction. And there's science fiction fantasy and there's fantasy. And you might put them all under a big umbrella called wonder tales. So wonder tales are not naturalist. They're not the world that we find ourselves in here and now today. Speculative fiction is a way of dealing with possibilities that are inherent in our society now, but which have not yet been fully enacted. You can look at books like "Brave New World," Zamyatin's "We," and "1984," things for which we've got the technology more or less, and arranged in a space on the planet we happen to be living on. Science fiction, usually we think of other galaxies, other planets, other sorts of things entirely. And I write speculative fiction not because I don't like the other kind, but because I can't write it. It's not within my skill set. [MUSIC PLAYING] If you're interested in writing speculative fiction or even science fiction, look around you at what's happening in the world. Read some newspapers. Often the back pages of the newspapers, or even a magazine like "New Scientist" or "Scientific American" will open the doors to some of the things that people are working on right now, but may not have succeeded in doing yet. But it does show what they're interested in achieving. And you can take that idea, and just move it a little further down the road. My mother, I found, when going through her effects after she had died, had saved two whole newspapers. She saved the whole newspaper about the moon landing, and she saved a newspaper about a report made by the Club of Rome in 1972. And what the Club of Rome was saying in 1972 was if we don't mend our ways in relationship to the environment, by the year 2010, things are going to be like this. And we didn't, and they are. Unfortunately, human beings are quite short-term thinkers, and especially politicians are short-term thinkers. So had I been writing a spec fic about social media, it would have been quite easy to predict that somebody was going to steal all the data and use it to manipulate elections. [MUSIC PLAYING] Speculative fiction is fiction, and therefore, all the rules that apply to writing fiction, including making it interesting, making it plausible, making it accurate to itself, all of those things apply to it. Just because it's speculative fiction does not mean it's going to be automatically interesting. There is a whole category of readers who won't read it. They just say, I don't read that, which is kind of silly of them, because there's nothing about genre that means that a genre book is a bad book or that it's a good book. It's a book, and it has to be good on its own terms, period. So by saying, I don't read that, they're just excluding a lot of pretty good books from their reading experience. If you're writing speculative fiction or science fiction, you can't violate the rules that you yourself have set up, or just to take it back to "Gullive...

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.

Learn from archetypal stories such as: the Bible, Grim Fairy Tales, Arabian Nights etc. Overcome your completion-fear and focus on finishing. Then pretend you’re a reader. There’s always revision. “The waste-bin is your friend …(snickers to herself)” She definitely has a good sense of humour. Great course! Very helpful.

I love the way she teaches, very inspiring, easy to follow. Thank you, mam.

Amazing from start to finish. This is the greatest platform on the planet, hands down. Thanks to Masterclass and the help I have found here, I have drafted my first book....

She is masterful, insightful, and, like a true storyteller, created lesson after lesson in an engaging way. I look forward to coming back again.


Andrea P.

I haven't read too many science-fiction books, and I used to assume they weren't for me. But, as Margaret says, it matters more whether the reader is surprised or hooked on the story.


This was a really interesting lesson. I also really liked your point on readers who turn away from certain genres. I was definitely one of those readers, preferring fantasy and science and anything that I thought was mindblowing. But then I came upon a book someone had given me that was placed in the real world. I wouldn't have read it, if it hadn't been given to me, so I'm glad it was. Even though there were no amazing creatures or worlds, this book had come to be one of my favorites. It was just as mindblowing as previous things I had read, but in a completely different, real way.

Lyneta S.

This was a great lesson! Unfortunately, there is an error when I try to download the PDF. Can you help?

Lydia N.

You are amazing. Why can't I find friends around me like you? I have given up so many times on certain novels because every "writer" I know would emphasize "genre." I live in FEAR of being lost in the fog of multi-genre and that because of that publishers will turn their nose up to my work because it may seem to them "mixed." Thank you for your calm nature.


Very much, because i think this is what I am writing. Like Margaret I haven't got on very well with science Fiction, but like to speculate - what if?

J'nee H.

My mother kept National Geographic magazines just like her mother. lol The Club of Rome article reminds me of a quote from Jane Goodall that goes something like ...How can the most intelligent creature on Earth kill the planet it lives on. Short sighted indeed! The Jurassic Park syndrome.

Caetlin W.

Ms. Atwood gave a very nice explanation of speculative fiction. I found her suggestion about reading scientific magazines to be very helpful. That is probably the best way to keep your fantasy/science fiction as close to reality as possible. I also found it fascinating that she addressed a group of geneticists, and they weren't entirely sure which "advancements" she had invented and which were already in progress/completed.

Phillip P.

I came back after putting my story down for a couple of months and finished it. Though I write sic-fi I make sure that it's not absolute fantasy. As an astrologer I say I share a few traits with Margaret and have always enjoyed her writing with for instance, strong women who triumph over adversity and may have had to turn a couple tricks to survive. I was pleased to interrelate another more advanced species to our planet and our existing dystopia of environmental destruction. Because I'm a highly sexualized person I have no fun writing without sex being a major aspect, this is a love story with as Margaret said before, give it to them in the end and yes universal eternal love (which I explain the holy grail of how to find it via astrology which I have succeeded with in my own life) and awesome sex is the foundation of my concise 50 page story. Thank you so much Margaret for inspiring me to finish this story that my original inspiration began last fall. It's the best I've done to date and I will try to find an agent to consider it after having a couple of people give me their thoughts.

Chris S.

Clear and concise explanation of who decides on genre. I like the idea of not-knowing, ie beginner's mind when starting a new project. And the reminder to write a good story that holds the reader's attention.

Keith C.

I am still reading Oryx and Crake. I find MA as a realistic optimist in her writing. Aspirational for humanity, but aware we are a creature of irony, flaws and living with the opportunity for random errors. I am so grateful for her expressions within these lessons that express her intelligence and understanding of the human condition.