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Arts & Entertainment

Story and Plot

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 09:44 min

Learn what makes a strong plot. Margaret advises you to study myths, fairy tales, and other historical works of literature so that you can use them as building blocks for your stories.

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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Once upon a time when my child and her friends were five, they said we're going to put on a play. And we're selling tickets. They're $0.25 each. Of course, we had to buy some. We sat down to watch the play. The play was about breakfast. And it consisted of would you like some orange juice. Yes, thank you. Good. Here is your orange juice. I am having cereal. Would you like some cereal? Yes. Would you like some milk for your cereal. Yes, I will have milk on my cereal. This went on for a while. And finally, we said is anything else going to happen. And they said no. And we said, in that case, we're leaving, and we'll come back when something else is going to happen. The story needs to have events, and it needs to have characters. And any story, even the most elementary stories, which are things like "Aesop's Fables" or jokes. They have characters, and they have events. A story needs a break in a pattern to get it going. And breaking the pattern can be, one day, Mabis, who was an avid gardener, went out to her rose patch and found a severed hand. If everything is perfect all the time, there isn't a story. Life is just wonderful everyday. And so it doesn't become a story until somebody kidnaps Rover the dog. So an event of some kind interrupts the pattern. And with that interruption, the story is kicked off. [MUSIC PLAYING] A good plot has to have something happening in it that is of interest to the reader, and we hope to the characters. Or maybe I'll put that the other way around. That is of interest to the characters, and we hope to the reader. Something has to happen. And that something can be any number of somethings. So John and Mary are living happily in their split-level with two cars. And then, one day, a strange green light is seen in the sky, and a canister descends to earth right behind their house. And out of it comes a tentacled monster. So that's one kind of story. Threat from without. John and Mary are living in their split-level bungalow, but then Mary discovers that John is cheating on her. That's another kind of story-- threat from within. Combine those. John and Mary are living in their split-level bungalow. Then, John discovers that Mary is mysteriously absent during parts of the night and has developed an alarming tendency to sleep in the bath tub with all the curtains drawn. What has happened? What are those strange white fangs that have appeared? Could it be that Mary is a vampire. Yes! What is John going to do? And what about the children? Have they inherited this tendency or not? That's another kind of story. So, yes, all of these are events. They're all blood pressure increasing, suspense building, plot devices to make us want to know what is going to happen next. [MUSIC PLAYING] The building blocks of story in Western civilization is going to be somewhat different in other cultures, but they all have their own set of building blocks. That's the toolkit, if you like, the toolkit of stories. Think o...

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.

I've been scared to write again for sometime after a bad experience last year. This class was so helpful because not only did it help me break down my fears but also get into the writing process again step-by-step. Margaret Atwood is an incredibly insightful and enjoyable teacher!

Great information. I look forward to truly begin my 1st novel.

Interesting recollections of her struggles in the writing world and encouragement to stay the course.

I have a better understanding of the tremendous effort and details that goes into writing. I have to immerse myself into it and one day, I will get to that level.


Theo D.

I really enjoyed going through the Folktexts website linked in the workbook...I wrote down 4+ pages worth in my notebook of the ones that interest me the most. It's also fun to look back through my pages of notes and see the themes jumping out: for instance, I am clearly drawn to magic animals, humans turning into animals, animals turning into humans, animal brides/bridegrooms. And like many have already written here, the building block concept is incredibly helpful for me. It's giving me some ideas about what needs to happen in some projects I've been stuck on for a long time.

Lesley C.

Love the idea of Mary being a vampire. This is such an inspirational module. And the idea of the supplementary workbook is brilliant.

Mady M.

The exercise for this lesson is phenomenal! I have so many fresh ideas, I can't wait to begin them all, or filter them throughout current stories. Who knew building blocks would be so helpful? I also really adored the way she described Mary being a vampire. I wanted to know more!

Dana R.

I love her! She's so down to earth, and makes me feel better about doing it the way I've always done it: old-fashioned pen and paper first! I've listened to two other male authors and she's my absolute favorite of the three!

A fellow student

Very intense lesson, with many hints. I took me quite a lot to fill the 3 lists of the assignment, now I can't wait to start writing the story.


She's has such a playful spirit! I feel like we're sitting together and she's teaching me how to stop writing garbage.

A fellow student

I’m noticing that there are several suggestions for reading material. May I add my two cents? The Golden Age Of Folk and Fairy Tales from the Brothers’ Grimm to Andrew Lang has been an invaluable resource in my search for stories. It takes many of the archetypal stories and connects similar stories from all over the world. Ex. There is a whole chapter about Cinderella stories from Europe, Russia, Africa, China, etc. Another about wolves and strangers, etc. I would highly recommend it!

Scott E.

This gave me a great starting point to get my creative juices flowing. Looking forward to the next lessons, while also incorporating them into some of the stories I have rattling around inside my head.

Farah A.

Regarding the part about the essential stories in order to subvert them. I've studied this in my senior year of university, a subject about Children's Literature. There was the example of Cinderella and also the Little Red Riding Hood. The story was changed various times, to the point that one of them depicted Little Red as a strong little girl, who was sharp and had a gun to kill the wolf before having the feast of his life upon taking the life of her grandmother and trick Little Red. She was here depicted as a tough cookie. Unlike the original where she's alone, scared, and powerless.

A fellow student

My husband told me about the gun theory and I told him that no you do not need to show the gun, or no, the gun does not have to go off. I was right.