Writing

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.

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Margaret Atwood
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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.



Reviews

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Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

This sounds simple but Margaret taught me to sit down at the table. I'd been dreaming about writing for years and now I'm doing it.

I learned about keeping the readers attention, the power of tense and how to flip my bloomers/drawstring underwear into my purse Margaret Atwood style... with a cute smile. Fabulous class! Rhonda Ricardo

This class gave me some ideas on how to add new life to some scenes in a novel I'm editing. Margaret Atwood is always a joy to watch!

This Master Class gave me tools to help me develop my characters and great inspiration.


Comments

Gilbert N.

The lesson is awesome. I hope it will help me reach my dreams of being a paid writer.

Joyce Kidd

Good advice. I especially appreciate her comments about overcoming fear. I first have to identify my fear though.

Sue P.

This was very useful, looking at story as an 'event', a break in the pattern that propels the narrative forwards. Also, I appreciate MA's suggestion about reading widely to draw on the cultural and historical depth that past stories give.

A fellow student

I absolutely loved doing this assignment. I was a bit apprehensive at first, but I dove in and ended up with a beautiful story that I love. In choosing an event, character and plot I had before me Unconditional love, A Witch and Fault in our stars. Within 53 minutes I had completed my story. I have a feeling it will be in my "tool box" for future writing. This is a writing exercise that I will challenge myself to do daily. You should see the "Legos"!

Ananth P.

Excellent point on making the threats from outside reflect on the threats from within. However, I do not agree on the point about how an understanding of the past stories -- folk, biblical or otherwise -- is what will let a reader enjoy a present story. Maybe I am understanding this wrong. Well, I enjoyed Nelson Demille's Charm School and Mayday. I didn't need a past story to enjoy it as much as I did. Or Wilbur Smith's River God. What am I missing?

Gemma

Interesting lesson. I grew up in Wales where there are a lot of folk tales - many of them grouped into a collection called the mabinogion. I think it will be interesting to see the similarities / differences between those folk tales and other collections, like the Grimms tales

A fellow student

Prior to this class, I had just finished a first draft of a story based on the myth of Phaeton, son of Helios, who drove his father's chariot with disastrous consequences. My twist on it was that one of his sisters also had designs on riding the chariot herself. It's a mess and needs a lot of work but this chapter helped me figure out what needed to be fixed. I especially enjoyed the assignment and will definitely be putting that in my toolkit for future stories.

Melinda

I loved fairytales has a kid, but they were the sanitized version. I've just bought a book of the original versions.

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.