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.

As an older writer with no publications (no submissions) I feel the jolt of passion again. Thank you Margaret Atwood for sharing your knowledge and experiences.

It was wonderful to soak in all that wisdom. So charming! I am overflowing and likely to watch it again! Thank you:)

I loved hearing Margaret Atwood and the wisdom she imparted. I worked through the chapters slowly so that I could review and reflect on the things she had to share. There's a lot that I can use in my own writing; and, in doing so, I will embrace my wastepaper basket and think of her fondly.

I will have to watch these videos many times over just to hammer some of those great tips into my head. Plus she is pure delight.


Inga D.

Loved this class - i have been getting inspiration for my novel from fairy tales and myths and it is good to hear MA expand on this approach. The texts of Andrew Lang's fairytales may be read free online at https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/lfb/index.htm

Jane B.

Completely appreciate the logic of studying what has come before you- also, using the building blocks... subverting a genre... but as Atwood has said throughout this course you also need to constantly take your reader into account. Will they appreciate the 'inside joke'? Will they understand the reference? There's this place that exists between your creativity and language and then what your audience will understand and perceive. And that goes back to her point about what the ultimate goal of writing is.

Rich C.

The three sources MA references by image are: 1) Greek and Roman Myths: A Guide to the Classical Stories, by Philip Matyszak -- 2) Grimm's Fairy Tales, illustrated by George Cruikshank -- 3) The Fairy Books (12 volumes) by Andrew and Leonora Lang, illustrations by Henry Ford -- All are in print and are excellent choices. (Matyszak's little book is a gem.) -- NOTE: Dover is currently publishing all 12 of the Fairy Books as they were originally printed with illustrations. Important to know because there are many knock offs (from outlets like Amazon), created from public domain, shared electronic versions of these books, that are cheaply assembled and do not include the illustrations. None of these are releases by known publishers.

D.W. B.

The D.L. Ashliman list of folk and fairy tales linked from the PDF is an incredibly rich resource. I had not seen this before, so thank you!


Her facial expression when she adds that perhaps using the word "fundamental" in discussing the importance of knowing Bible stories is not the best idea!!

Michael S.

I wonder whether the old folk stories and fairy stories have been replaced in North American culture by the Marvel and DC Comics and the Disney stories and the popular cartoons on TV. Maybe those are the stories that modern readers will relate to--those common references that one might subvert.

Debbie J.

I love her suggestion for "building blocks" literature. World mythology is so rich with inspiration for stories and, of course, the Bible has an incredible amount of dramatic stories and symbolisms.


This lesson was such a great piece of guidance for someone who goes back and forth with certain aspects of the writing process. It was freeing to my creative methods that I felt looked so different than what others flow in. I got a lot out of her prompting us to face our fears by identifying them and then putting a plan in place to overcome it. It gave me a fresh wind to go back in to the lab and write daily.

Wendy R.

Really helpful to identify your fear. With me, though, most of the time the problem is that it doesn't rise to MY standards.

Jenny H.

I was struck by the discussion of not understanding the references. I tell my students this all the time! If you want to get the "joke" or the twist, you have to know the original.