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"


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

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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.

The lessons and tips Ms. Atwood shared was priceless. Her knowledge was outstanding, unmatched. She was so personable, I felt she was speaking directly to me. I will put her tips and advice to work immediately. Wish I had 100 hours to spend with her. Thank you, MC!

Absolutely loved the class taught by Margaret Atwood. Loved the way she talked and gave us so much valuable information and tips. Highly recommend!

Margaret Atwood is a fantastic speaker and writer and her knowledge and experience has been extremely valuable from the point of view of a writer re-visiting a couple of old novels with the aim of perhaps publishing these. I loved the class and it's been the most wonderful refresher. Thanks very much.

... great to learn from the minds of great writers ...


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.

Suzanne B.

MA's warning about "nothing happening" was helpful. I started my story (based on this assignment) again after three pages of nothing happening. But I did know what it needed. Started again with much greater energy. Will be here a while.

Suzanne B.

I followed the assignment in this chapter. I made a list 10 each of event/story/character. I stumbled upon a fantastic premise that I've enjoyed working on. And I will share the story when I can. But I have to say, a premise is one thing (the assignment provided) but character building requires I proceed in a much different way. I know what the story is about but I don't have a clue of how it effects the interior lives of the protags. I am big on interior lives and how they can change. Hmmm. I will have to restart the engine. :-)

Suzanne B.

I've sharpened my skills by writing short stories. I will add the short story I started inspired through Chap. 3's assignment. I will think about structure. What you taught me about structure will help me with my first draft novel. It's been in the drawer for a while. I'm still very interested in it, but I thought the writing of short stories would break up the log jam (how to proceed with revision?) and give me new ways to approach it. Thank you.

Fleur B.

Such a great progression from Chapter 3 to Chapter 4. I found especially useful in this class the suggestions for different ways of telling the Little Red Riding Hood story. Also the focus on story within story and the frame story - feel like the possibilities are opened up a lot by thinking of this as a distinct approach.

Raederle P.

Funny she used the comparison to the piano. I just started learning the piano two months ago, and I decided to skip all the boring stuff and begin with a song I musically love: Numb, by Linkin Park. After two weeks of practice I was playing the song so well that people were surprised I was not an expert at the piano. But I'd only learned the chords and notes for that specific song. So really, you can jump right into a fancy structure if you want to; do what inspires you. My first novel was written when I was eleven. I typed 200+ pages and my structure involved a lot of embedded stories via characters thinking time had continued when actually they had a vision of the future. Not enough happened, as Margaret describes being an issue. There were events, but not nearly enough of them. In any case, complex structures is no where near as hard to pull off as complex characters. You have to really understand how people work to pull off a good story; that's probably the hardest part.

Alan M.

very much, makes me aware of keeping the plot moving are letting the story expand. Hopefully things keep happening so the reader stays interested.


I found it useful for Atwood to explain the power of structure: that where and how you start the story has a great impact on the readers. I also found it reassuring to hear her say that writing is not something someone else can show you because it is "hands in the mud" - she also sets beginners expectations by reminding us that you can't master it until you've practiced it. Overall, a great introduction and lesson on story and plot.

Kathryn W.

A lot of material in this lesson. Frankly I wish I had come across this before I started writing. I have completed other creative writing courses, but I think perhaps what is different here is that it is being given by someone who understands the theory and the creative process, and how you get to the point of a completed manuscript, rather than one or the other. I did complete an online course by a London literary agency, which very much centred on what was marketable. Hopefully I can produce something that has both creative integrity and is marketable. Wouldn't that be wonderful...