From Neil Gaiman's MasterClass


Readers’ expectations are intrinsically tied to genre. Neil explains how an understanding of your story’s genre can help you provide delightful surprises to your audience.

Topics include: Understand Reader Expectations · Learn the Rules in Order to Break Them · Sail Against Expectations · Get Out of Your Comfort Zone


Readers’ expectations are intrinsically tied to genre. Neil explains how an understanding of your story’s genre can help you provide delightful surprises to your audience.

Topics include: Understand Reader Expectations · Learn the Rules in Order to Break Them · Sail Against Expectations · Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Neil Gaiman

Teaches the Art of Storytelling

Learn More


I used to puzzle a lot over what genre was. I knew that I was writing sometimes genre fiction, sometimes not. I knew that I had a huge advantage in that the majority of what I was writing as a young writer was comics, was graphic novels, which is a medium, comics, that looks to the uninitiated like a genre. But because it wasn't a genre, it was just a medium, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. I could write historical fiction. I could write fantasy fiction. I could write high fantasy and low fantasy. I could do science fiction. I could do pure horror. I could do political fiction. I could do it all. And because it was all coming out as comics, people didn't mind. But what genre was baffled me. [MUSIC PLAYING] It wasn't until I read a book by a film professor in California called Linda Williams, who wrote a book called "Hard Core." And it was a film professor's analysis of hardcore pornography. And 3/4 of the way through the book, she compared hardcore pornography films of the 1970s to the musical. And suddenly, the penny dropped for me, because musicals, like 1970s porn films, had certain things that have to happen. You need the opening song by a large chorus of people. You need the heroine singing on her own about what she thinks is going to happen. You need the song that's the first meeting of our heroine and our hero. You need the comic relief song with the three robust people behind him. You need all of those things, ending up with the final song, which the hero and the heroine sing together that indicates they've been brought together. You need the final chorus, and then we're out. And the truth is in a classic musical, the plot exists purely to stop all of the songs from happening at the same time. Just as in a '70s porn film, according to Linda Williams, the plot existed to stop all of the sex happening at the same time. Though actually, that tells me what the difference is between a cowboy novel and a novel set in cowboy times, because you can just look at it from a perspective of reader expectations. What are they coming to this for? What will they feel cheated if they do not get? They're going to expect the cattle stampede. They're going to expect the showdown at high noon. They're going to expect the fight in the saloon. They're going to expect-- you start listing the things. And you go, OK. So the plot actually needs to exist to keep all of these things from happening at the same time. Or you can do a novel set in the Old West, and none of those things need to happen. You can go after completely different things. But you need to understand, at that point, you're writing something that might look like genre, but isn't. And that people may point to it as genre, and it's not. And that if somebody picks up your novel expecting genre, they will be disappointed, just as they would be if they went to see a musical and there were no songs at all. So a lot of what you wind up doing then with genre is...

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.

Neil Gaiman is a national treasure and this course was incredible. My favorite MasterClass BY FAR. I've read a lot of books on writing and attended conferences and taken a lot of classes. This was top notch, and now that it's over I just want to watch it again.

As a perfectionist, and someone who tends to hold onto things as apposed to finish them, this class has been extraordinarily helpful and inspring. Thank you Neil.

Neil Gaiman not only looks outside the box, he makes the box spherical. By this I have been greatly inspired. I've learned to be kinder to myself. I've discovered that I'm not alone in my struggles and that I'm not crazy.

Out of all the MasterClasses, this is by far my favourite. Neil Gaiman exudes wisdom and warmth, and what he has to teach is invaluable. I feel fortunate to have seen and heard what he has to say; it might in fact be life-changing for myself, and many others. Thank you!


A fellow student

Genre categorization has always bothered me. I don’t want to be in a box when I write but I understand the thing with readers’ expectations. I loved Calvin and Hobbes, where Calvin made up his own rules. I know I want to share what it means to be human, without ever coming up with a definite answer, but how I do that, I’m not sure. I like fairytales for their simplicity. Love your GO PLAY.


"Know what the rules are and then break them with joy." Great advice for writing and life.

Christa A.

I really like the idea of not putting ourselves in a box, to just write what's true to us. That's something I love about Philip Pullman. He says he never set out to write in any kind of genre. He just wrote a story true to his characters. He lets people call it what they want. He feels it's not his job to do that.

Wendy W.

I like the idea of understanding genre before you can color outside the lines. I always thought that understanding genre was something that is only from reading. I see how genre is a much bigger idea.

Sukhdev S.

Humor and genre are both about understanding reader expectations (or cliches), and then abusing them to use to your own advantage.

Myriam B.

Important reality check about knowing genre before playing around with it, but then turns it around at the end and makes sure we go against the urge to copy what we love, and instead do something different. I know we shouldn't need 'permission' to do this but it's good to have it nevertheless.

V L R.

"...if you write the fiction that you know, the best you'll ever be is a good copy..." Hello, lightbulb. Where've you been all my life?

T. C. W.

Great tips! About the PDF, I disagree that thrillers seldom include comedy, though. I've written a cyberpunk trilogy (Sleep State Interrupt, The Wrath of Leviathan, and Zero-Day Rising (last one not out yet)) that is full of humor. I've seen it in other books too. People just think funny thoughts sometimes, even in times of stress.

Eric C.

The comments about knowing the rules before you break them are relatable to me. In college I had a composition professor who pulled me aside after I turned in an essay, I assumed to give me some criticism about the assignment. In a way, it was. He said, "I don't normally tell students in this class to do this, but you need to start thinking outside the box." Working for a corporation I knew what that meant, but I couldn't see how it applied to my essay. "You clearly know the rules. Start breaking them. Throw the thesis in the last paragraph, or better yet... don't reveal in direct words what your thesis is. Let the reader figure it out on his or her own." You might think I'm bragging a little when I tell you this, but I am so not. This is actually something I've struggled with from a time even before that class. But our very next assignment was to take a educational system we encountered in our life and find some negativity about it. (We had just read a more famous essay - and I can't think of the name right now - in which author had taken his whole elementary education to task.) To be honest, I really didn't have a horrible experience in my early education days - I was in my 40s while attending college so it had been some time ago. But there was one thing that frustrated me. I've been writing stories since third grade. Nothing spectacular, but there was quite an array of little ditties that helped me develop my abilities. By the time I got to high school I had begun working on a "book." Probably between 25,000 and 30,000 words it was more of a novella than a book. But when I presented one of the chapters for a writing assignment in English I told the teacher it was part of a 120 page book. I thought she would faint. "You've written a book? That's fantastic!" What I wanted from her was some criticism. All I got was how fabulous it was that I wrote a book. She didn't even correct my grammar. In my senior year I turned in two writing assignments, one in English class and the other in a creative writing class. My English teacher made one comment about a cliché character I had created, so I took it and rewrote it. When I presented it to the teacher she said, "You didn't have to revise it. You got an A." The same thing happened with a different story in creative writing, only this time the teacher's comment was that I might have picked a subject too deep for a high school student - a character seemed to be possessed. Again, I rewrote that character's plight and tried to put a twist on being haunted by a former dead boyfriend. Same response. "You got a hundred on the assignment. So you're good." Didn't even read it or correct the grammar. When I wrote about this in my essay in college I threw out the formula introduction and opened it with a quote from a teacher, "You are a fabulous writer!" There was also no formula conclusion, but instead a thought from me about needing a true critique, guidance, someone to teach me discipline. Last sentence (paraphrased because I can't find the actual essay right now) I needed so much more than "You are a fabulous writer!" My professor said, "Maybe you were a little too hard on them. You have some skill they just weren't used to." I have read those stories from high school. They are awful - short, choppy sentences, dialog almost straight from a B movie Ed Wood might have rejected, and my female characters were almost cardboard cutouts. I truly needed someone to say, "You have a gift... but here's what you need to do to make it a craft." I didn't get that from anyone until I returned to school at the age of 42. By that time I had read other authors' books and studied more about grammar so as not to sound like a southern sheriff taunting a Yankee driver - my cliché character from high school. After receiving a BA with a major in English and a minor in communication (with emphasis on creative writing and journalism) I am still working to hone my skills. And fourteen lessons into this class I am seeing I need to twist my characters a little - or at least their situations - and break a few rules. When I look at the handful of stories of mine published at a regional level, I see they are the stories where I drew outside the lines... or at least experimented with ideas and allusions setting them apart from the other stories that come back, "...not what we are looking for at this time." Again, I am not even attempting to brag here. I'm 61 years old and still working for my big break... But if anything will push me over the top, I know this class will be a part of it.

Patricia B.

I find the notion of understanding genre to be very helpful advice . "Knowing where the circle is." Understanding the genre you're writing in also helps with author credibility for the reader. This got me to thinking...If the writer is to stay in their lane (genre), really, they need to know what defines the lane and then use their own style (voice, word choice, and sentence fluency) to write in that lane. If readers are expecting fantasy, and it's not quite there, then the writer's credibility as a fantasy writer would be impacted and the reader disappointed. So this lesson, for me, digs a little deeper into the essential essence and importance of understanding the genre that you're writing in and to know more than the reader.