Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 13:16 min

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.

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 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.

I have learned to start trusting my stories.

It was (and it is) amazing. Neil is without a doubt a great writer and a great person. It was a pleasure listening to him go into details about his craft. What a blast!

This was a wonderful learning experience to spend this time with Neil Gaiman. He gave so much of himself. Very enlightening.

I learned to believe. I learned to trust in myself and the process. I learned that with those things, and with a point of view based in your truth, anything is possible. We are all storytellers.


Rich G.

The project I'm working would fall into the "thriller" category because most chapters end on a "cliffhanger" but the story is humor and not Jason Bourne.

Arjun I.

Only while describing a Neil Gaiman tutorial can the words "70s Pornography" and "Wisdom" be used at the same time. For me the best and perhaps the most difficult thing to do would be to go out of my comfort zone. Because I came to books and stories seeking their comfort. And now, after having nestled myself in a comfortable niche, I must force myself venture out and explore different styles and genre. Ti's said that 'Fortune favors the bold', but I've always lived by the motto 'Why be bold? When you can be content.'

Nadia A.

This is one of the most important lessons. I have a question that has been confusing me: Can I write something that's both fantasy (with characters that are half humans and half animals) and (dystopian, science fiction) at the same time ? A story that takes place in the future where there's technology and poverty. Something similar to the Twilight Saga (It has shapeshifters, vampires and humans and happens in the modern time), and in this case, what genre would this story be? Thank you!

Andrea P.

How do you know which genre your writing falls into? I'm not really sure where my stories belong. I liked this lesson, but I wish it had been a bit more "technical".


I now understand why lovers of mystery genre dislike Dorothy L. Sayers so much, and why I personally love her writing.

Brennen L.

I'm slightly confused by the last bit there, the "Getting out of your comfort zone" bit. Is Neil saying to try out different genres we're unfamiliar with to get a better grasp on those we know? That when you're starting out, dip your toes in stuff that interests you but not as well versed in to find your voice? I know he's not saying "You're a big fan of horror or fantasy? Good! Never write those stories, focus on what you don't like & don't know a thing about, such as Young Adult stuff", I'm just a bit unclear is all.


Genre has always been a tricky thing for me and even now I'm still confused about it, but I think I have to really sit down and do my own research into it. However, this lesson has helped make it a more tangible topic to look into.

A fellow student

Please aspire to be more than a good copy. Know the rules and learn how to dance with them.

A fellow student

Now I understand the link between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett...this particular technique was common to both

Aaron B.

I haven't watched these in a while and that's because I've been busy finishing my first book and getting ready to publish it. Now, after about 2 and a half months I'm finally finished Goodnight, Little Slayer. It's going to be self-published on Amazon and B&N tomorrow. Now, this isn't a promotion for my book. If you want to check it out feel free that's the name, Goodnight, Little Slayer. Here's my thoughts on this lesson. I actually didn't know what to call Goodnight, Little Slayer and I actually drifted so far away from all of the genres that I can't really call it anything. I can call it crime but it has crime elements without truly delving into the criminal element of the crime genre. I can call it family, because it does have a family at the center of the story but that's the majority of novels, movies, and television shows out there these days. So, I don't really know what to call it. It's about eighty-six pages and it all take place over the course of about four hours in terms of the actual storyline, excluding the memories which takes place over the course of several years. But, it was an interesting story because I managed to get into the headspace of another and tell his story. I guess the genre would be general short fiction and that's all right. It's a story that focuses more on bringing this person to life than actually fitting into the mold of some other field that may or may not be right for me. And that's ok, to me.