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Arts & Entertainment

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.

Ms Atwood is so inspiring. She left me with so many new ideas and perspectives.

I love Margaret's work. Her class was more than I could have wished for. She is funny, pragmatic and a joy to watch and listen to.

The classes were too short and I'm still not satisfied with the quality of the video, I had problems once every two classes. M. Atwood is inspiring

It is a luxury to learn from someone who has nothing to hide and so much to share. Thank-you Margaret Atwood


Tehmina H.

I have so many ideas and so many variations - but I'm till at the getting past my fear! Need to look that in the face and then crack on with all these layers! great lesson! Thanks

Marielle S.

I have many ideas for stories and I would like to write my memoir, but I come up with the same thought every time, "who would care to read my story?"

robert T.

Drawing from preexisting stories is an interesting approach, but what about new ways of thinking and innovation in plot and structure? Have we ended our quest for continuous improvement in plot and storytelling?

Theo D.

Another great resource for learning about different story structures is the graphic novel 99 Ways to Tell a Story by Matt Madden. The whole thing is just the same short story drawn 99 different ways. As for the lesson itself, I really appreciate Margaret's perspective that taking a long time to get something right doesn't have to be a crisis. I have been working on the same story for so many years now that I think I've layered all this emotional baggage onto it. Rethinking my paralyzing need for perfection through this entire course has already been so helpful.

Jean-Francois D.

A lot of counsels about how to write a story in a creative way in this chapter !

A fellow student

I have picked up and put down my writing multiple times since I was a child. I wish I'd found Margaret Atwood's lessons when i was 16 -- when she committed herself fully to writing -- i might never have veered off into other careers. Most of it is common sense, writer-style.

Francisco R.

After watching this lesson, I am convinced I can write a book, just I have to avoid the afraid take over me.


This was just what I needed to hear. I am at the beginning of a YA novel - a retelling of an ancient Irish tale that is a perfect love story full of magic - but I have been struggling with how to structure it. I had a light bulb moment in the middle of the lesson with a structure I hadn't even considered. Thank you Margaret!

Geraldine O.

I found it an interesting lesson. I think that the notion of pattern and interruption struck a chord with me

A fellow student

I enjoyed listening to the idea of structure and how it takes time to develop it. It is ok to unravel it as well