Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Writing the Middle and Ending

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 10:03 min

Margaret teaches her approach to keeping readers engaged through the middle of your book and discusses the merits of closed and open endings to your story.

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Topics include: Keeping Your Reader Engaged Through the Middle • Changes Can Happen Along the Way • Approaching the Ending • Open vs. Closed Endings • An Open Ending in The Handmaid’s Tale


The middle of the book-- always the most difficult part. You've got the beginning. You have an inkling of what the end is going to be. But how are you going to get through the middle? More to the point, how are you going to get the reader through the middle? I was talking last night to a script writer who happens to be the showrunner for "The Handmaid's Tale." And I said, well, there's going to have to be a season three because you left us with at least five cliffhangers. And he said, that's my thing. I can really do cliffhangers. So in the days when novelists were writing in serial form inside of three chapters or so had to end on a-- and what next? And that, too, is the secret of Sheherazad, telling the 1,001 nights in one night. She always ended when dawn appeared, things were not resolved, and the central character was in peril or about to open a forbidden door. So you needed to know what is going to become of these people. Even if it's somebody who's saying, my life was just a mess, and I sat in my room all day staring at the wall, that, too, is a cliffhanger. How is he going to get out of that room? Or is he just going to be in there forever staring at the wall? Something has gone off the rails and needs to be resolved. How are you going to get your characters out of the difficult situations we hope you have put them into? [MUSIC PLAYING] What they say about writing longer books-- not poetry, but longer books, fiction, nonfiction, memoir-- it's one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration. So writing is work. It's something you work away at. And that includes scratching things out, moving parts of it around, making it better. Let's speak of it in terms of furniture arranging in your house. You put the sofa there. Then no, it might look better over here. Maybe it's the wrong sofa. Maybe we can put this sofa upstairs and then put this other different one here. Sometimes you take a turn down a corridor, and it's a dead end. It leads nowhere. And at that point, it's not a question of resolving the difficulties in the middle. It's a question of realizing you ought to be writing a different book. However, things where you needed to resolve the difficulties in the middle-- I would say just about every book I've ever written is that sort of thing-- or the moment when you realize that something you thought about your character isn't true. Something else, on the other hand, is true. And then you have to backtrack and work it through in a different way. There's no shame in backtracking. There's no shame in revision. There's no shame in realizing that you got it wrong or that there's a better thing that you can do that's better than what you have done. And those pages can just go away. [MUSIC PLAYING] The ending that you think is going to be the ending is often not the ending. And of course, it's quite usual for you to write the ending some time before you actually write the part leading up to the end...

About the Instructor

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.

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Margaret Atwood

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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