Developing the Story

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 18:10 min

Every story has a big idea. Learn how to find a big idea that’s meaningful to you, as well as how to create conflict and compelling stakes for your characters.

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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Beginning writers often don't know and can't tell if they have a story. They know that they've got an idea. But even once you've got an idea, what do you do with it? How do you build it up? How do you know if your idea has legs? If it's going to go anywhere? We're going to talk about that. We're going to talk about how you build a short story, how you build a novel, how you build a plot, how you find out if you have an idea or a notion or a concept or something that actually might be able to stand up there on its own two legs as a novel. I, especially during the "Sandman" years, would worry and think and obsessively ask myself questions about what is the story? What is the story? I'm making these things. They're how I feed myself. They're how I feed my family. They're how I pay the rent. What is the story? And eventually what I decided was the story is anything fictional that keeps you turning the pages and doesn't leave you feeling cheated at the end. That was my definition. My son, Ash, is three years old, just turned 3. And his favorite game is to stand next to me on a bed or on a large sofa and go "what's going to happen?" And then I have to go "I don't know. What's going to happen?" And then he jumps in the air and falls down on the sofa. This can go on for weeks if you let him. He just thinks the what's going to happen game is the best game in the world. The what's going to happen game is the game that you play as a writer with your readers. What's going to happen? And that is what keeps them turning the pages, things they don't know, things they need to find out, things they care about. And coming into a story, it can just be things like who are these people? What are they doing? Why should I care? That's a bit odd. After a while, it can get a lot deeper. It can be is she going to kiss her? Is she going to poison her? Does she know about the missing will? Did they know the grandmother's body is still in the room upstairs? What's going to happen? I wrote an essay once, a very small essay, in a book called "Stories." And it was called, "Just Four Words." "It began when somebody wrote in to my blog. 'Dear Neil, if you could choose a quote either by you or another author to be inscribed on the wall the public library children's area, what would it be? Thanks, Lynn.' "I pondered for a bit and I'd said a lot about books and kids reading over the years and other people had said things pithier and wiser than I ever could. And then it hit me, and this is what I wrote. 'I'm not sure I'd put a quote up if it was me and I had a library wall to deface. I think I'd just remind people of the power of stories, of why they exist in the first place. I'd put up the four words that anyone telling a story wants to hear, the ones that show that it's working and that pages will be turned-- and then what happened. "The four words that children ask when you pause telling them a story. The four words you hear at the end of a chap...

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.

Thank you, Neil, for sharing your experience. I need to go back through the class now and do the workbooks :) I highly recommend this course - it is the sole reason I subscribed for the year!

I received this as a gift. Mr. Gaiman's insight into building a story that is thoughtfully engaging is invaluable. Best gift ever.

Very honest and valuable class. Mr. Gaiman provided us with great hours because he fully understands their value. Thank you both the MasterClass team and Mr. Gaiman.

I found this very inspiring....as well as some excllent thoughts on the writing process. Thank you. Christian Seaborn


Lou M.

For part 4, I did several graphs in the style of Ray Bradbury. It was pleasurable and I might continue with the story. Whoop!

Nancie E.

Best lesson so far. The practical method of beginning to develop a story by writing down what you know is brilliant. It bypasses the internal critic, and gives me a way in. Attending to characters' desires is direction I have encountered before, but it's done more soulfully here than most places, as we as the direction on how to create conflict. Very solid.

A fellow student

I have always struggled with characters. I’m the person who creates the situation or world first. I always feel like I’m shoehorning characters in. The “what do they want” question is indeed a lifesaver. A character I created as a vehicle for exploring my world suddenly has a real reason to be there. Real things to do. This question saved my writing.

David B.

Such a simple concept as 'what does your character want' is so easily over looked but such a mahassive part in the purpose of their actions. Gaiman keeps opening my mind to these concepts... Money well spent.


As he talked about conflict, I realized that, while I don't exactly avoid conflict, I just make it nonlethal. I'm too afraid to lose characters--or to lose anything that can't be replaced. I'm not so worried about my characters failing, as long as everyone can be accounted for. I need to let go of the things I make, even if it hurts. This lesson made me aware of that. Thanks :)

A fellow student

I'm so glad I enrolled in this class, it's given me the kick up the arse I needed.

Araminta M.

I loved this lesson. It is validating and affirming that you use much of the same language I've been using for years with my own University students. Your notion about how young/new writers are conflict-averse is brilliantly accurate. I find I spend most of my intro class convincing my writers to focus on the transformative power of a problem. I often start them with the "notion of opposites" and the concept of starting with an emotional tone that shifts to its polar opposite on an emotional spectrum by the end. The problem with that, I realize, is the inadvertent confirmation of, say, the idea that romance comes from hatred (and how limiting is THAT belief for young womyn in the world that love is found from those who treat you poorly at first and then "come 'round" to being decent folks at the end?). I love Neil's (your) plots because they are never polarized but instead a branching trajectory of intrigue.

Madeline F.

I absolutely adored this lesson! "And then what happened?' is some of the most valuable advice I've heard and this inspired me to apply it to my novel in progress. I went through every chapter and compiled a list of questions that readers would have, and then, I read it over and checked off any questions that are answered later in the novel. My next step is getting friends to read so I can see what questions they would have. I want to know if I was successful in hooking an audience. I would highly recommend this exercise, it has been a huge help! Thanks, Neil!

Archita G.

so much to learn from Neil, loved the idea about four letter word "Care", and "then what happened".

A fellow student

I have been working on a novel for about a year, off and on, but I've been a bit stuck and wondering where I was going with this document with all of these words. I'd lost sight of what I was trying to do. With this lesson, it was helpful to look back at the beginning and dump onto the page what I think this beast is about. I remembered my inspirations for the story, and it also helped me solidify what some of my stumbling blocks have been and where I might be contradicting myself.