Writing the Middle and Ending

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 10:04 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.

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 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...

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.

It's not just about the information presented, it's the eloquent way in which it was. Margaret has a storytellers gift even as a teacher. Whereas some of the other instructors were harder to follow when they speak. Thank you.

I've learned with Aaron Sorkin, now with Margaret Atwood. Next, will be story telling. I'm trying to get a wide overview then will go back and dig in

Yes, it was very interesting and it gave a good insight into real writing. thank you.

It gave me inspiration and ideas related to my writing. Thanks!


laura J.

From the first day until now, I have learned to listen and love this author! Not love at first never thought I could sit still and now I am repeating.

Fleur B.

This lesson is reassuring. Fascinating hearing about why the Handmaid's Tale ended as it did!

Karey B.

Wow! How many times have I read the old adage—the first five pages—yet, Ms. Margaret talks about it in a way that makes me hurry on over to my manuscript, skip forward about a dozen pages...and read from there, as if THIS is where it begins...

Carla W.

This class is amazing! Mrs. Atwood, your sense of humor is delicate and fabulous... you are an absolute treasure!


I like how tangible this lesson makes writing the different parts of a book feel. It makes it a lot more possible than it can appear to be. The phrase that writing is one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration was also something I've begun, as a new writer, to learn, so hearing it from an expert makes writing feel, again, possible. Also, the explanation in the final section kind of blew my mind. I thought that was a really cool connection to make for the ending of that book.

Gareth S.

This was another great lesson! Margaret makes writing seems like a person could actually do it.

Damien M.

This is so great and helpful -all of them are, although I can't help but suggest Paul Auster, who I think is another one of the truly brilliant ones out there still writing. Hey Masterclass... if you're listening? Paul Auster!


Very useful, because i am dealing with several issues in my novel and at least one of them is going to be open ended.

Caetlin W.

I especially enjoyed hearing Ms. Atwood's thoughts on open versus closed endings. The endings of my stories tend to write themselves, and I usually view that as the only possible choice, but Ms. Atwood has shown us that it doesn't have to be. I will definitely be applying this lesson to my current work in progress and future works.

Craig H.

I'm halfway through a final (I hope) edit of novel and I'm on my third ending. :) I know this ending is better, just don't know if it is the best. If it survives this edit then I'll consider it finished. As Ms. Atwood said, "The ending that you think is going to be the ending is often not the ending." I didn't get stuck on the middle, what I did was add WAY too much back story, sub plot, etc., just meandering around in my characters' lives. The subsequent edits have been about cutting out the extraneous.