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Descriptions

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 10:15 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
Teaches the Art of Storytelling
In his first-ever online class, Neil Gaiman teaches you how he conjures up new ideas, convincing characters, and vivid fictional worlds.
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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.

Truly inspiring! Thank You for such wonderful lessons!

At first I was unsure wether this was for me but as I went on listening my hearing sharpened and it felt as though I was having a dialogue with Neil Gaiman. Impressive integrity. I am very thankful for this class.

Very easy to follow. Makes learning how to write stories more interesting.

I love his voice, Neil's voice. His gentleness, his honesty. Thank you for Neil


Comments

Dora M.

you will tell to the real world, out there, a lie through which you will talk about everything true in human relationships. In fake faces, in your characters, you will incorporate memories from places you lived, from feelings you felt, from everything you touched, smelled, tasted, heard, saw. The curious observer inside you will give his information so that the people you imagined will be engraved in every detail. All of them will be you, in every version of love, hate, beauty, evil, nostalgia, joy and pain. To identify your reader with the fake ones, finding the real things in him. Because you told him your truth.

Chase L.

one of the things I really like about these classes is that sometimes the things your being told, are things that you know but that need to be told to make solid in your head like "don't forget the other senses" I know this but until I was told it I don't think I would actively check myself for it. I'm really enjoying this class

Peggy D.

Neil is pure joy to listen to and I have learned things in his lessons that I know are going to help me create new stories. I will be re-listening to his lessons and using his workbook.

Magali M.

I've been listening to all the lessons up until this one, quite in fascination. I'd love to be putting them into practice. I got a clue today with Neils description of his visits to the graveyards. Maybe the key ideas are going to my compost heap. One thing I loved is the comment on the books we read when we are young and how we'd immediately know if placed in the worlds created in those works. I'm curious about our experiences when re-reading those books years later.Personally, with some books I went easily back to those worlds with the same heart and eyes and ears as the first time. And with some other books, it did not work. I'm sure it has to do with my own experience and evolution. I wonder if there's some aspect of the world created by an author that gives it an "eternally revisitable" quality.

Michele B.

I could listen to Neil forever. I love his descriptions in his work and hearing him read them is even more magical. These lessons are so rich and full of details. This one gave me license to be a tiny bit verbose when I feel it is needed.

Kirstine A.

I love all of Neil's lessons and the workbook is incredibly helpful. One thing though: the part in the workbook about Scenes and Dramatic Narration could be clearer. I THINK I know what the difference is between the two, but I'm not sure I agree about the pacing. I would think if you took a step back and described the plot from a distance, it would increase the pace since you could potentially fastforward through an entire decade in a single paragraph. While in a scene, everything is slowed down because you're describing each and every second as it is happening... If anyone has input, it would be welcome :-)

Stephanie W.

I wish this lesson was longer. I would love more discussion on description.

A fellow student

Does anyone else really struggle with deciding whether to take a world or story and reveal it in the first or third person? I think I have a few pretty coherent ideas but I have like crippling decision anxiety on which way to go. This is actually a question I would love to posit to Neil. Appreciate any ideas.

Marlene S.

I have a question for everyone: are you doing your workbook activities after each lesson? I'm listening to all the lessons and taking notes and plan to go back, re-listen to them, and then utilize the workbooks. I'm wondering now though if this approach is a good idea. I'd love to hear feedback on this.

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?