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.

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.


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

Food for the soul. So good to hear these kinds of thoughts and advice on the process of writing. I especially appreciated the consistency of his advice: experience the world, write, finish things, keep writing.

I've learned to look with a fresh perspective and I'm hugely grateful. Thank you.

Neil Gaiman is really inspiring. Sometimes that's all you need.

Wow. So many gems about story and storytelling. Nothing Neil Gaiman said was particularly new to me, but he so clearly describes the creative process that it felt revelatory. Inspirational. Thanks Neil.



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.


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.

Ekin Ö.

Apart from realizing that "show, don't tell," is not the only thing in our toolbox to describe, the most substantial part of this lesson for me was: Use the most active sense. It could be a touch, a taste, or a smell. Just make it the most effective, so it becomes memorable.

Rohit Somanathan

Extremely grateful for this chapter. I got a lot of mixed critique from test readers who were on either side of the 'Show vs Tell' question, but several of them were asking me to break down any segment of prose that went longer than three lines of text. "Word Walls", they called it. When I looked back at those segments I felt I just had to make it descriptive, otherwise how else would I tell the reader how the scene looked and felt? How else would I 'set the scene' as Neil here aptly puts it. Hearing Neil's take on the matter was so reassuring. It feels like a ton of bricks have been lifted off my shoulders to know that what I was doing wasn't necessarily wrong, so long as what I was doing was done in a way that is interesting to the reader.

Vicky B.

Thank you for this. I was having trouble with a scene and what it needed was description of the area through my character’s eyes.