A cool writing technique from Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Let’s talk about Margaret Atwood.

I recently read her for the first time — The Handmaid’s Tale, which is now one of my favorite books (here’s my review on Goodreads if you’re curious). So I only just discovered that she’s the bomb.

She made a style choice near the end of the book that I thought was particularly clever. (Atwood does a lot of clever things, a lot of the time.) Take a look (no spoilers):

I reach the top of the stairs, knock on the door there. He opens it himself, who else was I expecting? There’s a lamp on, only one but enough light to make me blink. I look past him, not wanting to meet his eyes. It’s a single room, with a fold-out bed, made up, and a kitchenette counter at the far end, and another door that must lead to the bathroom. This room is stripped down, military, minimal.  No pictures on the walls, no plants. He’s camping out. The blanket on the bed is gray and says U.S.

He steps back and aside to let me pass. He’s in his shirt sleeves, and is holding a cigarette, lit. I smell the smoke on him, in the warm air of the room, all over. I’d like to take off my clothes, bathe in it, rub it over my skin.

No preliminaries; he knows why I’m here. He doesn’t even say anything, why fool around, it’s an assignment. He moves away from me, turns off the lamp. Outside, like punctuation, there’s a flash of lightning; almost no pause and then the thunder. He’s undoing my dress, a man made of darkness, I can’t see his face, and I can hardly breathe, hardly stand, and I’m not standing. His mouth is on me, his hands, I can’t wait and he’s moving, already, love, it’s been so long, I’m alive in my skin, again, arms around him, falling and water softly everywhere, never-ending. I knew it might only be once.

Now look at how the narrator retells the scene:

I made that up. It didn’t happen that way. Here is what happened.

I reach the top of the stairs, knock on the door. He opens it himself. There’s a lamp on; I blink. I look past his eyes, it’s a single room, the bed’s made up, stripped down, military. No pictures but the blanket says U.S. He’s in his shirt sleeves, he’s holding a cigarette.

“Here,” he says to me, “have a drag.” No preliminaries, he knows why I’m here. To get knocked up, to get in trouble, up the pole, those were all names for it once. I take the cigarette from him, draw deeply in, hand it back. Our fingers hardly touch. Even that much smoke makes me dizzy.

The scene continues from here, but can you see the difference? Atwood begins by rewriting the scene in the same way, only with less emotion — less romance, less sexiness, less intimacy. We can assume this is the more accurate version of events. She drops a lot of details, which makes the experience seem less personal.

The next time you’re writing a scene, you can change how the reader perceives it by looking at the difference between Atwood’s two versions. A scene that’s supposed to be special and memorable has more detail, more emotion, and longer sentences. But a scene that’s almost businesslike or routine, that’s almost uncomfortable? Short sentences, few details, and impersonal qualities (“Our fingers hardly touch. Even that much smoke makes me dizzy.”).

Has an author ever introduced you to a new writing technique that you enjoyed?


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