Working With Time in Fiction

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 09:10 min

Margaret explains the significance of time in fiction, and offers advice on keeping readers oriented without compromising your story structure.

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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The novel is about time. You cannot write a novel that does not involve time in some way. So Leon Edel, the biographer of Henry James, said, if it's a novel, there's going to be a clock in it. Time passes. In a lyric poem, maybe not. That could be about a timeless moment. But in a novel, time happens. People change. The clock hands move, or least the digital ticks happen. But there are two ways of viewing time. One is circular, and one is linear. So the circular kind of time revolves, and that's where we get analog clocks. That's where we get sundials. That's where we get the idea that there are seasons. They keep moving around. Lunar cycles-- they're circular. The other way of viewing time is that it's linear. It begins at the beginning, garden of Eden. It ends at the end, Book of Revelations. And you go from here to there. And that's where we get people talking about the wrong side of history, et cetera, et cetera. Actually, there is no wrong side of history or right side of history because history is always changing. It's the wheel of fortune. And in the wheel of fortune, characters rise up on one side of it. They may achieve a moment of having a crown at the top. Then they're thrown off the other side, and some of them are crushed underneath. There's nothing about human history that is inevitable. What kind of time, however, are you going to have in your novel? Are you going to have a kind of time in which things come round at the end to something like what they were at the beginning? Is it going to be "The Mayor of Casterbridge"? Is it going to be from rags to riches to rags? That would be a circular motion. Or are you going to take as your model a kind of inevitable progress in which everything is going to get better and better until you reach the city of God, the classless society, whatever that goal may be? You probably have some kind of idea in your head about time, whether time, as Robertson Davies said, wounds all heels, whether time brings a just resolution, whether hidden things come to light, whether a balance is achieved, or whether you're going to have an ironic end in which bad people triumph and good people are crushed. Your choice. [MUSIC PLAYING] How do you indicate to the reader when you're moving from the present to the past and vice versa? Well, there's a number of pretty obvious devices. You can certainly put the time. A lot of people do that. So May, 1940, April, 1977-- you can do that. You can put in some indicators. Clothing is always a pretty good clue. Lulabelle adjusted her bustle. The simplest way if it's a time-sensitive structure is simply to put the date. That's not hard. Just as if you're changing person, put their name. And don't make everybody a redhead. That's very confusing. And don't have them all have names that begin with M or any other letter. Make the names different so we can actually remember who these people are. Thank you very much. And I'm keen on...

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.

I thought this class was very good! Margaret Atwood's experience and expertise will be very valuable to me moving forward on my journey as a writer.

This was my first masterclass. Margaret Atwood had some VERY straight to the heart things to say that I needed to hear. I couldn't stop watching. There was so much information I'm going to have to watch it again. Whoever thought this program up is a genius. Thank you.

Margaret Atwood is a talented treasurer. Her MasterClass on Creative Writing is a must-see for both writers and readers. I am in awe and -- at the same time -- I want to be her best friend. Well done!

This class is very conversational and warm. It's more like having a mentor than having a teacher.


A fellow student

I love this class. "Different names" reminded me of "Hundred years of solitude". All names were almost the same.

Maty W.

This lesson was very valuable to me as I'm in the process of rewriting the first draft of my first novel.


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Liz S.

Weird that she says, "Don't give everyone a name that starts with M." I do that repeatedly. It's always M. My theory is that it has something to do with the word "Mother", but that's just my notion.

John D.

A very useful lesson for me as I seem to struggle with time in fiction - how to deal with flashbacks etc.


In the novel I'm writing, my character has various flashbacks to lessons a relative had taught her that later pertain to her current situations. Now I'm beginning to give them more thought and wonder if some of them help the story along or just come off as utterly confusing. This lesson has given me the tools I need to determine the difference

Suzanne B.

As I return to my novel (after a break in which I wrote short stories - yeah, loved that) I realize I need to start the story with a scene I had originally put in the second chapter. I think this was suggested to me earlier on, but I wasn't able to hear it or understand the value of it at the time. I do now thanks to Ms. Atwood. Another realization I came to thanks to this lesson, I will do some outright planning on paper, timelines, family tree and a chart of chapters with synopses AGAIN. The timeframe of the novel is fairly contained, most of it happens over one summer. But there are events in the narrative that involve family members who have passed and return in another form, or who have died or left but are present and important in my protagonist's mind. She struggles with a complicated family situation not the least of which is a deceased grandfather who secretly visits her and instigates (for his own reasons) a journey in which she discovers her sense of self. I have to weave crucial backstory (the grist for my protagonist's mill) seamlessly into my narrative, and mapping will help me weave more confidently.

Hannah L.

That last sentence was what I needed. "Trees don't grow out of air, they grow out of dirt." I need to remember that.

Selin S.

Amazing lecture, thank you for sharing with us your really helpful advice and ideas about writing. I think they work in many fields.

Brian W.

Listening to these lessons I realized how my early work could have been much better. I am grateful for the classes. I've published three books thus far. 'Galactic Startup Series. '