From Margaret Atwood's MasterClass

Story and Plot

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.

Topics include: Stories Are Patterns Interrupted • What Makes a Strong Plot • Draw From the Stories That Have Come Before • Know the Essential Stories in Order to Subvert Them


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.

Topics include: Stories Are Patterns Interrupted • What Makes a Strong Plot • Draw From the Stories That Have Come Before • Know the Essential Stories in Order to Subvert Them

Margaret Atwood

Teaches Creative Writing

Learn More


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 greatly enjoyed listening to Ms. Atwood. I am an aspiring writer and have a lot to learn, but her most relevant lesson (for me at this time) is if you're not writing, you're not really a writer. Thank you for your lessons and thank you especially for The Handmaid's Tale, which I love.

Great insight to how a writer writes, what things to look for, what questions to be asking at each stage, and much more. I feel I've learned a lot! Margaret Atwood is amazing in sharing her knowledge and experience. Highly recommended.

I loved this MasterClass! I have read Margaret Atwood for years; she's an amazing writer. Great instruction and inspiration!

As a writer working on her third novel (and being a bit stuck), Ms. Atwood's Master Class was inspiring in her calm and direct manner as she share her secrets about POV, approach to character and making the story compelling. The entire series is a treasure trove of information and I thank her for sharing.


Pamela O.

This was like coming home to a warm fire on a cold day. So memorable and soothing.

Amadeus M.

"Expand your frame of reference." I'm getting so much out of this already. This is great.

Suzanne B.

Sorry to carry on. Understanding MA's advice (Red's example) and doing it . . . I have to start with the coma. Bam! Finally. And so much more interesting. These are scraps but I will continue with it. The coma is my experience and it was profound. (this download was a hassle - tech issues - is it legible?)

Suzanne B.

I did as suggested, and started the story I previously mentioned. Wow, I'm invested in this story and will pursue it, add it to my collection. It needs a ton of work but/and I want to proceed to the next chapter of this course. So I will attach what I have thus far and hope you can see that I loved the assignment and that it's completion is forthcoming. Onto the next :-) P.S. I tried to attach a file but this system doesn't accept docx file type. What form does it accept?

Suzanne B.

I loved this chapter and the assignment. I'd been thinking about Sleeping Beauty recently, and so I decided to pursue my story idea where Beauty is an 11 y/o girl, born without the ability to feel pain and, as a result, has an accident that puts her into a coma. I've drawn on a recent news article and my own experience to come up with this story and will work on it before proceeding. So glad to formalize my version of Sleeping Beauty. This was great fun.

Suzanne B.

I would like to discuss 'the event' that breaks/challenges the pattern of a character's life. Does anyone think about how much pattern (or backstory) is necessary in order to establish a significant break in the pattern? Also, the amount of story you want to dedicate to establishing that pattern is important relative to the old saw of grabbing the reader by the collar right out of the gate (or some such advice). Any thoughts?

Virginia B.

I particularly liked the fact that an object can start a work. My life is filled with assorted objects, that possibly have no intrinsic value, beyond the fact that it is a Conversation Keeper/a memory prompt, that opens a whole history, person, or place, or emotion for me.

Virginia B.

I appreciated it. I particularly liked the reminder that there is no set way to write. I don’t write with a narrative arc, and all that structure. I write to see what I think, and write, write, write. Then I look to see if there is a thread of belongingness, or a skeletal structure of interrelated conversations underlying the work. Then I flesh out the characters as they emerge, and I can see them more clearly in the light of the trajectory of the conversation in play. My work is more a dynamic interplay between me and the world. And learning to express what is missing from the common discourses of the consensual trance of media/internet.

Raederle P.

I disagree with the notion that we should learn all the existing stories and build upon them. Instead, I feel authors should create books that standalone without any outside references required.


GOSH, She is laying it out perfectly. I am a person who needs to hear the things that others might consider trivial... But they are not trivial...