From Neil Gaiman's MasterClass

Descriptions

Neil shares his techniques to liven up descriptive prose, including cold opens, withholding information, finding emotional weight, and choosing memorable details.

Topics include: Tell Readers as Much as You Like · One Memorable Detail · Appeal to the Senses

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Neil shares his techniques to liven up descriptive prose, including cold opens, withholding information, finding emotional weight, and choosing memorable details.

Topics include: Tell Readers as Much as You Like · One Memorable Detail · Appeal to the Senses

Neil Gaiman

Teaches the Art of Storytelling

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I remember Stephen King once said to me that Amy Tan grumbled to him that when writers get interviewed, the one thing they don't ask us about is the words. And the words are the most important things that we have. The words are what we're doing everything with. If you're writing a novel, you're going to have to use 70,000 of them, 100,000, 200,000 of them. So in the next class, we're going to talk about words. We're going to talk about language and all of the things you can do with it. We're going to talk about humor. We're going to talk about world building, all as things that you can do with words. [MUSIC PLAYING] I do not hold with anybody who says no exposition, no description. You describe what needs to be described. You explain what needs to be explained. You are god when you are writing. You are absolutely in charge. You can do whatever you like. There are no rules other than tell a great story, tell it as best you can. But there is an enormous pleasure to just telling. And sometimes you can describe places. Let's see. In "Neverwhere," what I was doing was describing a world. And the world of London below was as much of a character as any of the characters in the book. So one of the things that I loved doing was describing places and describing people and trying to make them vivid, trying to make the imagery vivid in your head. I might not actually describe what somebody would look like. But I would paint a picture that would get you as a reader to imagine what they looked like. For example, fashion in bodyguards seemed to be everything. They all had a knack of one kind or another. And each of them was desperate to demonstrate it to the world. "At this moment, Ruislip was facing off against the Fop With No Name. The Fop With No Name looked somewhat like an early 18th century rake, one who hadn't been able to find real rake clothes and had to make do with what you can find at the Oxfam shop. His face was powdered to white, his lips painted red. "Ruislip, the Fop's opponent, looked like the kind of dream one might have if one fell asleep watching sumo wrestling on the television with a Bob Marley record playing in the background. He was a huge Rastafarian who looked like nothing so much as an obese and enormous baby. "They were standing face to face in the middle of a cleared circle of spectators and other bodyguards and sightseers. Neither man moved a muscle. The Fop was a good head taller than Ruislip. On the other hand, Ruislip weighed as much as four Fops, each of them carrying a large leather suitcase entirely filled with lard. They stared at each other without breaking eye contact." It's a way of describing people. On the other hand, this is a description of a city, and it's a description of a familiar city. "Three years in London had not changed Richard. Although it had changed the way he perceived the city. Richard had originally imagined London as a gray city, even a black city, from the pictu...

Unleash your imagination

Award-winning author Neil Gaiman has spent more than a quarter of a century crafting vivid, absorbing fiction. Now, the author of Stardust, Coraline, and The Sandman teaches his approach to imaginative storytelling in his online writing class. Learn how to find your unique voice, develop original ideas, and breathe life into your characters. Discover Neil’s philosophy on what drives a story—and open new windows to the stories inside you.

Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Out of all the MasterClasses, this is by far my favourite. Neil Gaiman exudes wisdom and warmth, and what he has to teach is invaluable. I feel fortunate to have seen and heard what he has to say; it might in fact be life-changing for myself, and many others. Thank you!

Neil has an amazing teaching style. You become incredibly focused on listening to what he's trying to convey to you through his many years of writing and authorship. Thank you Neil, this was truly a pleasure and an incredibly valuable experience for me. Ye shall touch the hearts and minds of many through this course, no small amount of whom will have need that little extra 'nudge'.

This was perhaps the most helpful of the Master Classes I've taken. I continue to make steady progress toward not just telling my story in a captivating way, but toward completing it.

I have done may of the Masterclasses, all worthwhile, but this one is absolutely outstanding. This will make a difference. Brilliant.

Comments

Junaid M.

Writing prose is much more difficult than writing comics. Never thought of that.

Lu E.

In my writings, I often feel pressurized to 'show more' and 'tell as minimally as possible' because that seems to be the general approach advocated by many creative writing instructors these days. These days, I suffer from writing slumps due to agonizing over 'showing' and not 'telling.' So I felt especially encouraged by this lesson, when Gaiman said if you need to tell something, just "tell it", why show when telling makes more sense?

Post P.

I really enjoyed this lesson. "Show, don't tell" is an important part of script writing, because the script is the blueprint for the visual medium of cinema; however, in book writing prose enables "telling" to be profound and interesting. Not only that, but it is necessary. When you watch a movie, a new location is introduced with an establishing shot. I like to think of my writing in that way as well. My character visit's a friend's house. Let's pause for a moment to set the scene and describe that house. We would all see the house if we were sitting in a theater watching the story unfold on the big screen, so why shouldn't readers be invited to visualize the house?

Valery B.

I never describe things. Or nearly never. Put people in situation and then move forward. I like to read a great description, but I don't like to write it. But I'll give it a try for a short story soon.

Dina H.

OMG!! I agree... I love this method, even though I began learning how to show because EVERYONE told me to do that, but now with this information. I'm over the moon!! :)

Alice J.

The Stephen King/Amy Tan quote appears in King's book On Writing. I wonder if Neil just made a mistake?

Jenna G.

I've always aired on the side of sparse descriptions, dreading the possibility of "telling" instead of "showing", but this lesson has put it in a new perspective for me. You can show by telling if you find the right details to highlight.

Sara D.

I clicked on the download pdf but...: This XML file does not appear to have any style information associated with it. The document tree is shown below.

Lauren R.

I loved Neil's smile at the end when he spoke about the sensory details in Coraline being the things of nightmare. . .

Luke K.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say I liked Neil's lesson much more than the workbook text for #12. I found the labels Scene and Dramatic Narration confusing. Dramatic Narration makes me think of narrating a dramatic sequence, like a chase. For me, Scene as much conjures the idea of a description of a pastoral scene as much as it does an action scene. Characterising Scenes as action or conversation, and asserting Scenes speed the pace, obviously isn't true if the Scene is a dull conversation. And while I agree you need a balance between action and exposition, I didn't find the advice to balance them very helpful, because it doesn't go into HOW to decide what the right balance is. It can't be as simple as half and half, since the pacing obviously depends on the type of story, and must rise and fall across the chapters (and I feel to a lesser extent, within a chapter). So if I highlight a chapter with lots of action I'll have mostly yellow; if I highlight one where I describe the character's surroundings to set the scene, and maybe introduce some tension through some details that show she's done some strange things, and some things that are disquieting, then it will show as a non-highlighted section. But I'm unconvinced it will reveal the pacing. There's also a small typo: "provocative" used where "evocative" was meant ("If your character is in a gutter, smell may be more provocative than sight.") Another problem I have is the exercise to list things I find ugly or disgusting, rather than what one of my characters would. I want my characters to react as they would, not as I would. I also have reservations about the value of coming up with 50 ways to convey "green". I would really like to understand the purpose for that exercise. Exploring my vocabulary for green synonyms and colour shades, and doing some creative exercises to dream up some similes involving various green things doesn't seem to me all that valuable. Maybe I'm just feeling grumpy today.