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.

Wonderful! I don't think it's going to make me the next Atwood, but I think it will serve to make me satisfied with my own first effort. I got confirmation that I have done many things correctly, and the course gave me ideas on how to improve. Ms Atwood is an excellent presenter. Her relaxed demeanor made me relax and enjoy the ride.

Well, I started this course because I wanted to improve my writing and learn more about being a writer. I feel that Margaret has really helped me and all her advices have been great!

Enjoyed her perspectives and thoughts on the craft. She is a unique individual with great ideas!

Margaret Atwood was a treat to learn from. She is witty and smart and a matter-of-fact teacher and I really enjoyed her MasterClass.


Maria G.

I love the mastery with which she explains this lesson in the different ways you can tell the story of Little red riding hood..."It was dark inside the wolf" that was amazing. As other students have commented, she feels really close and explains everything in an understandable and funny way. Also, I find very helpful the pdf of this class.

Spike P.

Margaret is a great teacher! Lots of good points that I can use to continue toward better writing. Really enjoying the lessons.

Andrew T.

I loved this lesson. It reaffirms my self doubt with my own work and that it's not something to be frustrated by, just part of the process.

Wayne C.

i just finished reading The Writer's Journey - Mythic Structure for Writers (Christopher Vogler), which is based on work by Joseph Campbell's book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Vogler does a good job of illustrating how myths and stories have striking similarities across cultures, across time. Easy to read reference book.


Very good stuff here, I learned a lot. But no interaction with M. Atwood as the instructor of this paid class, right ? A little bit deseapointing... Tip for the commuity : good advices on writing on You Tube by Abbie Emmons, and free of charge.

A fellow student

I have a question. Do we attach our works here to get feedback from our instructor Margaret Atwood?

A fellow student

This lesson is very important for it teaches about building blocks. I'm presently studying postmodern texts. This lesson is very important for postmodern writers. I think creativity comes by studying other authors or better if we want to subvert an already existing narrative.. I have also studied re-telling of fairy tales and I felt that Margaret is a real Master in the field of creative fiction in our modern times... She correctly and precisely mentions Arabian Nights which is mostly at the basis of many postmodern texts, for instance Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories or probably Atwood's own The Blind Assasin..I feel blessed to be in this class..


I have taken several Master Class courses but this is the first one that is so intimate. I feel like Margaret is across from a table talking directly to me in a private tutoring session. She is giving practical, do-able advice in an accessible, warm fashion.

Ailsa P.

Please can someone help. The links in the workbook are not functional for me. Any suggestions/assistance?

Frances L.

So I'm sitting here KNITTING while Margaret Atwood tells me writing is like knitting in that you can unravel your work and start over. :D It's a similar adage to the one we use in non-fiction writing. "Kill your darlings": fascinating facts you discover in your research that you cannot include in your book or essay because they are off-topic. Like Atwood's work where she had too many characters or timelines, it comes down to who do you cut off from the final piece. That is when it's essential to know which story you are telling and to whom it belongs. I write non-fiction pieces every day for work, this Masterclass is pulling me back to short story writing. Love it!