Chapter 3 of 23 from Margaret Atwood

Story and Plot

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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

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 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.

Analyzing literary classics and her own work, Margaret demonstrates her approach to crafting complex dystopias.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps, assignments, and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Margaret will also critique select student work.

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Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing