Writing

Descriptions

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 10:20 min

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

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Neil Gaiman
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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.

Remarkable! A very intimate class letting you into the mind of a creative genius.

A wonderful experience. The perfect combination of advice, practical activities, and inspiration.

Through Neil's generosity of encouragement he instills a belief that, with diligence and perseverance, one can become a teller of stories...a writer.

The bits about rejection and failure being all part of the process were helpful. And to keep writing and finish things, also helpful.


Comments

Becky D.

I've thought of a question and it doesn't really go here but this seems as good a place as any, all the same. I'd spent a little time getting warmed up to the idea of subtext and I tried figuring out the subtext of some writing ideas I've had - I realized the stories were all pretty similar, underneath, and were coming from some need I had, mainly to express a particular emotion. It surprised me. So, my question is, do you make any attempt while you're writing to clarify for yourself what it is you're trying to say, and is it important to you to get the writing down with or without this awareness? Would you rather know your hidden purpose and use it to deepen and enrich the writing, or would you like to find it out later and let the hidden urge or need drive the work without your conscious input?

Farhad S.

"Show, don't tell, whatever that actually means." Really needed to hear that . While I understand that sometimes inexperienced authors (such as myself) can be very heavy handed with the 'telling', I also believe that 'show, don't tell' is a mantra that's overused and there will be times when telling is the best way, for both author as well as reader.

Mairy B.

I am 27 years old and I just discovered that I am a writer and that I love being a writer, it was very interesting, I discovered it. I was writing about my life, but then I realized that I was not ready for it, and then one night I had an idea In the middle of the nowhere , and Start writing about fantasy.I never thought that all these characters could come out of my mind and this story. It is strange and different and something I have not seen anywhere super stories heroes, and I do not know if people we’ll like it ! .but my question is .how did you get this courage to believe in you?! and be able to go out to inspire you without fear of being judged. Since I have so many small books with many notes of several stories that I am starting but they are so strange and different that it makes me a little nervous! It's like paintings and art! that is the same! but even more nervous in writing a book or novel. Are you start to write it in Spanish and then I will translate it in English thank you very much and I appreciated that you’re doing this classes because this is the best decision that I ever made .

Sam

I've been struggling with the description of the environment for my story. A good majority of it takes place in cold, snowy mountains. I've been doing plenty of research, but I think I realize my problem now is that I've been trying to include all of my research, rather than leaving that 90% underwater.

Timothy A.

I feel like my idea has coalesced enough that today I finally put pen to paper. Incredibly satisfying, and simultaneously oddly terrifying. Thanks Neil, I think 😉.

Debbie J.

Perfect description of London. My impression exactly when I visited it years ago. I tend to go on a bit too much about description...and yet I remember being irritated with Stephen King for the same thing when I was much younger reading Salem's Lot for the first time. "Oh, come on! I don't care about Maine. Where are the +*&^%$#@! vampires?!" But Amy Tan was right in her frustration when she said that no one asked about all the words. Words are a writer's business, after all...and those words don't always come so easy.

Ulrich G.

Interesting point regarding the "Show, don`t tell!". I think description is perfectly fine and very useful when it comes to places etc. The major problem of telling instead of showing IMHO is the unrealistic self-explanation of characters regarding their motives und relationships in dialogues and monologues. While describing something, it makes a big difference whether the narrator talks or his characters. Sure, the characters can explain something to each other. But they shouldn`t just do it as a service to the reader, but because it makes sense in the context of their own situation.

Alexandria S.

Great examples for descriptions! For me sometimes I tend to go off with descriptions and other times I forget them completely. I feel like adding description to stories really does get the reader involved.

STEVEN B.

I have never read Neverwhere before and really want to now after all of Niel's masterclass. His description of London is spot on and catches all of the cities beauty because he wrote it just as beautifulily.

A fellow student

It seems that in all of the creative writing classes I've taken in the past four years of college, my teachers always preached "Show Don't Tell" and "No Exposition, No Description." I love the way Gaiman tells us to question those ideas. Sometimes it's nice to just stop and take in the scenery or examine how strange a character is, especially in something like fantasy or science fiction when your surroundings are strange and different. I do understand that sometimes description isn't necessary and these teachers say these things and stick with these ideas for a reason, but I do appreciate that Gaiman's lecture has me step back and think outside the box that teachers have built for me. It's my story and my words, so if I want to tell my readers something, that isn't a sin or crime.