From Margaret Atwood's MasterClass

Structuring Your Novel: Layered Narratives and Other Variations

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.

Topics include: "Finding the Structure Takes Time • Frame Storytelling in One Thousand and One Nights • Layers of Narrative in The Blind Assassin • Start Simple"

Play

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.

Topics include: "Finding the Structure Takes Time • Frame Storytelling in One Thousand and One Nights • Layers of Narrative in The Blind Assassin • Start Simple"

Margaret Atwood

Teaches Creative Writing

Learn More

Preview

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.

Reviews

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

Margaret Atwood's class was full of wisdom, humor, valuable instruction and encouragment. I enjoyed each segment and feel very empowered by her words. I am grateful for her generosity.

Wonderful teacher! Excellent at presenting ideas, solutions and inspiration. Her smirks and smiles are the perfect punctuation for her words.

Margaret Atwood was a phenomenally charming teacher! Equal parts practical and inspiring, I LOVED this class.

Thank you! It was such a heartwarming journey, this class, and it inspired me a lot! I will never forget it! For writing and life!

Comments

Marik B.

I loved this lesson and so far have loved the class. I guess I didn't realize that there are other components besides Margaret's lectures. That alone would be well worth the charge of the course. She is witty, mischievous and able to convey complex concepts skillfully. I've already encountered some of the issues I've been struggling with in my current manuscript. I never knew I wanted to create a framework story, until she explained it.

Robert M.

And Rimsky Korsakov tells the entire story in four movements. Amazing story.

Sam

The examples used are incredibly helpful and you captivate me with every word that's said. I'm definitely enjoying this class!

A fellow student

She is just brilliant. Love her style of teaching, her anecdotes are spot on, and I just enjoy listening to her. Gifted teacher and writer.

G. S.

I bought MasterClass because of Margaret Atwood’s trailer starting with being inside the wolf! I’m so glad I did! She’s amazing! 🤩

Amadeus M.

"If nothing is happening by page ten, you're in trouble!" This is so sound and so, so engaging. I'll be revisiting this one for sure.

Gareth S.

I enjoyed this class immensely. Fascinated by complex structures within a story.

Donald Robert G.

I enjoyed this class immensely. Ms. Atwood's delivery reminded me of my very best teacher and mentor. Our post-graduate seminars were sharing events much like the lessons I've experienced, so far. Even without personal dialogue, Ms. Atwood's conspiratorial conveyance engenders internalized thoughts and responses I find not only generative, and compelling, but encouraging and supportive. Ah, perhaps my little projection might have some folks reaching for the DSM-5, I'm more than comfortable with my pseudo-schizophrenia. Valentin Voloshinov wrote of language as a living entity. We are constantly negotiating our temporal context with the voices of authority and the traces of voices from our past. Isn't that what we are doing when we create or entreat a layered narrative? Furthermore, there are the sublimated voices of the 'other.' There are always subtexts when marginalized peoples appropriate dominant codes. It can be a matter of gender, ethnicity, gender orientation, or any combination you might be able to identify. From a Feminist perspective, consider the male professor telling Ms. Atwood she should find a good man and get married. What literary treasures would we have lost if women listened to the "old white guys"? Whether it be Ms. Atwood's work, Willa Cather's, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's, Amy Tan's, Gloria Naylor's, Nadine Gordimer's, Alice Walker's, and blessedly on and on--there exists a subtext beyond merely the word on a page, and within that subtext there is a dynamic subterfuge turning the tables on the 'Owners" of the codes that have been appropriated. One of things I value most with Ms. Atwood's classes is she prompts me to think, and in the process shed the bland mediocre complacency that can overwhelm my daily life. It's also a kick in the butt to get serious about the stories I have to tell--even if I've become an old white guy.

Suzanne F.

Margarets way of speaking enthrals me, her wry smile, sotto voce, humble yet direct advice and from a previous lesson, how she showed us her love of pen and paper for initial draft, then connecting even more with story when she transcribes from the cursive into print. I write poetry and NONE of it has come through the computer; it just doesn't feel fun or flowing unless I have a pen in my hand. One time I was in the bath and an entire poem downloaded from who knows where and I had to rush naked and dripping for pen and paper. Of course the moral is ... keep a pen and notebook handy by the bath.

Shayne O.

Yes, always keep them wanting more or wanting them to know what happens next seems to be quite a constant in the advice department from writers of note. For my first novel, I initially do a bit of backtracking in the first few chapters as a lead up to begin the novel proper in Chapter 3 but fair to say I shan't be attempting anything like the cake within a cake within a cake thing. Sounds complicated but I guess as Margaret said you either get it or you don't.