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.

Content-wise it was less packed than Dan Brown´s Masterclass, but it was very motivating and inspiring.

I was afraid to buy it, that the price wouldn't match the content and advice would be hollow, but this was actually very good and on point. Neil Gaiman is an excellent teacher. Thank you very much for sharing some of your secrets with us.

I have literally no words... Just let the 5 stars speak for them self

I like Neil's style. I learned a lot from this class.


Allen A.

I have found all of the lessons to be fantastic but this one really connected so many critical dots for me. Thank you so much for getting down to such essential issues as, "do I care?" I also love the simplicity of, "and then what happened?" that is the essence of a story isn't it? Whether recounting something that happened at work or the retelling of a sporting event among friends - "then what happened?"

Margaret H.

I am enjoying this so much! Neil is excellent -- so articulate and thoughtful. This is the voice of experience, and it is invaluable.


This was really helpful and I now know the difference between the story and the idea.

Theron S.

This lesson is so crucial and I wish I could go back and time and view it 15 years ago. Thank you, professor Gaiman, for sharing your wealth of experience.

K.E. B.

This is the hardest bit for me. I may have a character, a setting, and the opening scene, and then... and then... and then... what? What happens next? I may write a lot and dump most of what I've written, start again and dump all that, just not finding where the story needs to go. Characters get bogged down in long-winded dialogue because I can easily listen in and transcribe their conversations, but then what? The hardest bits have always been: What does the main character want? What do they do to get it? What gets in their way? What do they do about it? And hardest of all: how does it all end? I guess it's how I know if I have an actual story -- or just a setting.

A fellow student

This lesson so far has been one of my favorites. It really hit home for me when you said "Remember that characters always, for good or evil, get what they need. They do not get what they want". For me, I think this will help me write stories because when I write, I tend to not think about this. This is a way to structure my story. This lesson makes me realize how characters are like people; we always want something, but rarely do we get what we want, compared to what we need.

Monica D.

This is such a great lesson, there are so many things I want to do now that Neil suggested. It makes me that much more excited to edit my 2nd draft.

Shawn P.

I loved the last quote "characters get what they need, not what they want".

Devon F.

"Characters always get what they need, not what they want." What a wonderful line to end the lesson with. The idea of plotting around characters wants is something that I never outright pondered, but rather just let happen naturally. If I ever find myself in a rut I'll be sure to bounce that question around and see what I discover.

Elizabeth C.

Brilliant lesson. Thank you Neil for helping me talk about my story!! This lesson sparked so many notes, they'll go into my logline and query letter. Awesome class!