Structuring Your Novel: Layered Narratives and Other Variations

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 12:44 min

Margaret illustrates the myriad ways you can structure your story and create a multi-layered narrative, using the classic tales Little Red Riding Hood, Arabian Nights, and her own novel The Blind Assassin as examples.

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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Well, let's talk about the difference between story and how you tell the story. So the story is what happens. So the plot. And the structure is how you tell the story. So let us take a simple illustration. Little Red Riding Hood. Simple version. You begin at the beginning. You go on with the events in sequence, and you end at the end. Little Red Riding Hood was a little girl whose mother had made her a red cloak and a hood, so everybody called her Little Red Riding Hood. And one day, her mother said to her, your grandmother is very ill, and I've made this wonderful basket with bread and a bottle of wine in it, and you must carry it to her through the forest. But don't stray off the path because there are wolves in the forest. So Little Red Riding Hood sets out along the path, but then she sees some beautiful flowers off to the side and thinks what a good idea it would be if I were to pick a bouquet for my grandmother. And she steps off the path and begins gathering the flowers. And out from behind a tree stepped a rather hairy looking gentleman who said, "What are you doing little girl?" And she said, "I am gathering some flowers for my grandmother who lives on the other side of the forest." You know the rest. Let's start the story a different way. It was dark inside the wolf. The grandmother, who had been gobbled whole, couldn't say a word because it was quite stifling and full of old chicken parts and plastic bags that the wolf had eaten by mistake. And she had to listen in silence as the wolf put on her nightgown and nightcap and climbed into her bed and started doing a terrible imitation of her. What a bad imitation the grandmother said. But, luckily, along came you know the rest. We can start it another way. We can tell the story from the point of view of the wolf, or we might tell the story as a flashback. Every time the grandmother remembered what an awful time she had had inside the wolf, et cetera. Or we might begin as a detective story might begin. There, on the floor, lay either one corpse, that of the wolf, or two, because, in some versions, the grandmother doesn't come out of it so well. What had caused this double murder? Those are some ways of telling the story. Sometimes, people use time jumps. Little was Little Red Riding Hood to know that in two weeks time, she would be looking back on one of the most definitive events of her life. So where you start, what order you tell the events in, that's variable. The plot underneath it, however, it's the same story. Or you can also have the "Rashomon" approach which is there is a story there somewhere, but we hear three different versions of it. "Rashomon" is the film by Kurosawa in which the same story is told involving a murdered man, a robber, and the murdered man's wife. And each one has a different version of how that murder came about. The murdered man appears through a medium that goes into a trance. And each of the stories is different, so the viewer is left...

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.

Designed for beginner through experienced, some material was obvious, some not so much. There are gems for those paying attention.

Margaret Atwood's Master Class is outstanding.

Margaret Atwood is absolutely lovely, made me laugh with her great humor sense and overall I enjoyed spending time with her class.

This was wonderful. But the sound seemed to disappear in the last 4-5 minutes of classes #13 & 14. Maybe it was just me? But I loved, LOVED this class and Margaret's understanding of writing and literature.



My biggest take aways from this segment are the word re-vision and the need to be familiar with the building block literature.

Glenda R.

With the Master, Margaret Atwood at the helm, class content is both intriguing, instructive and humorous!

Michael C.

This chapter was really helpful. MA's delivery is assured and yet still very human and engaging. She is an absolute pleasure to listen to and so informative. I enjoyed this lesson very much -- thanks!

Alane F.

I LOVED it! She is the master of all masters - her comments about seeing the story as 'knitting' were priceless!

Katherine R.

It was great hearing explanations for structures I recognize in the books I have read. I think trying these will be interesting and challenging in the future. For now, I will follow the advice of writing simply structured stories. I am also combining this with the idea that most writers do not know what the story will turn out be when they start writing it. I think one of my writing blocks has been that I thought I had to already have a pretty detailed outline in my head of how the story was going to go before I started writing it. But it occurs to me that, at least in my case, the physical act of writing and the thinking part of inventing the story go hand in hand. Also, I can't keep all of a story in my head anyway! I need to get it down on paper and not worry about having to change things as it develops.

Katherine R.

I know that I enjoy works with a lot of literary allusion, but I'm sure I miss a lot of it. If you are familiar with the work being alluded to, it adds an extra something to the story. To me, it is sort of a shorthand used to add extra meaning, or some other form of contribution to the story. I have read some Shakespeare. I will be reading his complete works soon. I loved fairytales when I was little!

Karey B.

And how many of us were oh-so-proud to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the piano?? lol


I like that Margaret is suggesting ways to move forward without getting stuck in complexity.

Kathy S.

A rich mine of ideas for mixing and matching archetypal characters with current events, fairy tale motifs etc.

Raewyn F.

So far very enlightening, has peaked my curiosity enough to look in my husbands' old book collection for his Grimms fairytales.