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.

Loved every moment. Excited to be here. Feel my heart coming back to life!

It was a great journey through the eyes and experiences of an accomplished writer, one that was easily understood yet tough enough to make this journey a personal one whether or not you ever publish a novel or just write down your thoughts.

Help re validate points and inspiration i allready knew again to get my mojo back to rewrite more story lines in my book and add more corrections to the existing story line

This master class has inspired me to greater heights than even I imagined ! As a result of this amazing teacher I have just finished the synopsis of 4 books!! I am on fire with inspiration and armed with great messages that will make my writing the very best I can be! I will watch this again and again! Neil is MAGIC!!! and so am I now!!!!!



Neil, this is great, I love the part about caring. It is Zen. I also like the idea of connections. Still, I say you have to set your ass down in a chair and just write. All writing is rewriting. Best William Taliesin St Clair

Marjohn L.

What's going to happen?! Why should I care? The main thing you have to do is to care. Connections are what fiction is made out of. I will write a story to find out what happens. Wiley! What do your characters want?

Andrea P.

I find the lesson and the exercises helpful. I avoid conflict in my daily life, as much as I can, but it is true that conflict is often what drives us. Conflict does not have to be winning a war or fighting for love. It can be something as mundane as getting out of bed each day to go to a job you don't like.

M A H.

All of these lessons are brilliant. Thank you, Mr. Gaiman. I am on Lesson 18 now. I thought I'd take a moment to share that, after Lessons 3-5, I i) re-wrote an old trunk short and ii) did the fairy tale exercise and both were accepted as submissions (one online, one for print). So much of mastery (in any field) consists of asking the correct questions and being disciplined enough to find and execute the answers. You are teaching us to ask the right questions. ...Your talent for writing is matched with your talent for education. You are a Master of both, sir. And I thank you. And to my fellow classmates, I hope you all are enjoying this as much as I am. Godspeed to you all. Best, _Mark

A fellow student

What does he mean by "Characters, always, for good or for evil get what they need. They do not get what they want."

Joshua S.

~8:00 - "I've been writing long enough to have a certain amount of faith in myself."

Mike C.

I learned a lot in this episode. Lots of great notes. Two parts that will stick with me are; And then what happened? And "Characters, always, for good or for evil get what they need. They do not get what they want. Both of those are important pieces of information which I'm sure will help me to flesh out future ideas.


That line at the end was incredible powerful to me. "Characters get what they need. They do not get what the want." It's a shame it isn't elaborated on a little more but that line alone has certainly given me a lot of food for thought.

George C.

First 4 lessons finished and found them clearly and brilliantly presented ! I’m hooked!


Dear Teacher and Fellows, For this - "Characters get what they need. They do not get what they want." - can we have an elaboration of this, please? I have gone through the next lesson about "The Graveyard Book", but it seems that most of the characters get what they want, but not what they need. Only the baby gets what he needs... May anyone guide me to get the answer, please? Appreciate that!