From Neil Gaiman's MasterClass

Short Fiction Case Study: “March Tale”

Using “March Tale” as an example, Neil shows you how to expand your narrative by creating conflict for your protagonist and how to bring your story to a satisfying climax.

Topics include: “March Tale” · Expanding the Narrative


Using “March Tale” as an example, Neil shows you how to expand your narrative by creating conflict for your protagonist and how to bring your story to a satisfying climax.

Topics include: “March Tale” · Expanding the Narrative

Neil Gaiman

Teaches the Art of Storytelling

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Some years ago, I got a call from BlackBerry. Actually the call came from an advertising agency, and they said would I come in and talk to them. I said sure. And they said BlackBerry are launching their first smartphone, and they want to do something to do with art. And they want you to do something to do with art. I said, well, do I have to do it with the BlackBerry? And they said, no, you just have to do a thing. What would you like to do? And I said, well, I have an idea that's a bit mad. I said so what I'd love to do is something that basically is the 21st century equivalent of when Harlan Ellison used to write short stories in the windows of bookshops, and he would set up his typewriter and a chair in the window and he would work. And he loved the idea that people were seeing him working and seeing what was actually happening and that seeing him staring and writing and not writing. So I put together a bunch of questions, 12 questions. And they were things like why is January dangerous? What's the strangest thing you've seen in July? What did you lose in November? Just questions that went out. What I didn't want was people suggesting titles for stories, suggesting ideas for stories. What I wanted was just to take a beautiful little idea and go OK, that's the starting point and for people to realize that anything could be a starting point. So my question that I asked for March was what historical figure does march remind you of? And I thought, well, that'll be a fun question because I'll get something that's got a person in it. And the reply was beautiful. The one that I picked just said Anne Bonny and her rapscallion heart dreaming for a ship of her very own. I found a notebook. I really liked this particular notebook because it's just a blank book. It's bound. I think it may even have been a misprinted book with no text in. And then I wrote calendar of tales in the front. I wrote down all of the months in order. And then I began to write. "So it was too warm in the great house. And so the two of them went out onto the porch. A spring storm was brewing far to the West. Already the flicker of lightning and the unpredictable chilly gusts blew about them and cooled them. They sat decorously on the porch swing, the mother and the daughter, and they talked of when the woman's husband would be home, for he had taken ship the tobacco crop to faraway England. "Mary, who was 13, so pretty, so easily startled said, 'I do declare, I'm glad that all the pirates have gone to the gallows, and father will come back to us safely.' Her mother's smile was gentle, and it did not fade as she said, 'I do not care to talk about pirates, Mary.' "She was dressed as a boy when she was a girl to cover up her father's scandal. She did not wear a woman's dress until she was on the ship with her father and with her mother his serving girl mistress whom he would call wife in the New World, and they were on their way from Cork to the Carolin...

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.

Excellent. Covered broad strokes as well as some of the finer points. Inspirational.

It was extremely helpful, helped to learn some methods of taking care of things, helped to inspire and find what's inside me as a writer, taught me to keep on --should really be a little longer!!--

I absolutely loved this class experience. I was so excited to see Mr. Gaiman as the teacher and he did not disappoint. I will be going back through the lessons again, as I'm sure I missed some things. I've been inspired to pick back up morning pages again after 3 years. Thank you for the wonderful lessons!

I pay strict attention to the way I end each scene - thanks to Mr. Gaiman. I will especially remember his advice: Keep writing and FINISH what you start. Excellent class; excellent instructor!


Alexandria S.

The March Tale example was a beautiful example on how to start a story. On one of my stories, there’s a shapeshifter, who transformed into a macaw, carrying his young daughter far away from his home, escaping from an unknown danger. The danger isn’t fully found out until somewhere in the story, but I feel like this seems like a good starter for one of my stories, because years later, his daughter will find out what danger her father hid her from, and how her life is still in jeopardy.


This is my 4th writing masterclass through this provider (all really well made) and none have actually shown nearly the same level of creation of material on the spot. To put in other words it's great to see a writer create stories in front of me. Niel has done it many times in his lessons. It makes the clogs in my brain click and turn on my own stories.

Aaron B.

This is a problem that I've seen in my writing. Fact of the matter is I don't really start thinking about the villain, or the antagonist, until I'm well into the story. It's strange for me to start thinking about the villain early on in the story. I'll show him, mention him, maybe even have him interact with the main character. But I don't really want him known until towards the middle or the end. Like for instance in the story that I am writing now, Goodnight, Little Slayer, I have two main villains. Marco and Mr. Oslo, while Mr. Oslo is the overarching villain, the Emperor Palpatine as it were. Marco is the villain that has the most emotional connection with the main hero, Tristan. See Marco is the father-figure and best friend of Tristan and so he has the closest place in the character's life and then he betrays the main character. Puts the main character's family in danger, indirectly, and so Tristan has to come to the decision whether he should end him or, well there's really no other way. He has to kill him. While that happens in the story, it serves as the reason why he descends into this state of pure melancholy where he is forced to do something that he knows will get him killed but to save his son and to save himself he must do it. However, this kind of has the problem of eclipsing the main villain in that it makes him a bit of an anticlimatic villain. With that, it's just a matter of a good old fashion showdown that ends badly. But, it's also what the story has been building up too over seventy-six pages. Yet, I'm afraid that Mr. Oslo won't be so well received because he doesn't have an emotional bond with Tristan and Marco is written to be more of an emotional villain that has a more dynamic effect on Tristan. I just don't know.

Rick R.

Neil mentions how he would turn this into a novel, and that is usually where I get "blocked," because I would come up with a story idea, just brainstorming such as this, and then when I reach a plausible "about" I then realize it's been done before. Like in this story, he describes someone who has a new life, has escaped an old one that is full of danger, only to have that danger come back and threaten their new way of life. I'm sure Neil could write and excellent and compelling novel with that, but for me, I unleash a ruthless attack on myself, as if I must be suffering delusions of grandeur to think for one moment that I could rewrite a plot that has been done many, many times over in a way that would be worth reading. Ugh... so frustrating. And I know the answer: write it anyway, and then write the next thing. It's just hard to do when the attacks upon myself are so ruthless and defeating to the point I don't want to write it in the first place.

john H.

my story from the assignment Pretend you’re on your deathbed, looking back at your life—who did you love the most? Be brutally honest. The old man lay on the last bed he would ever rest head while his final thoughts played out on a screen in front of him, a screen no body else was watching. It played moments from his life he would never have been able to remember when he was awake. It played his very first moment when he exited his mother and was welcomed into the cold latex gloved hands of the doctor, it was the last human contact he would feel for three months as he rehabilitated from an early birth. It played when he got out of the hospital and took baths in the sink and heard the voice of his grandmother singing lullabies to him. He saw the first day of school and being happy during naptime and skinning his knee during recess. He saw the first time he ever felt what was the beginning of falling in love. It was a girl in first grade and the sat across each other in class and his stomach got that nervous clench that he would get again and again. The next time he felt it was at a dance in middle school. He was surprised by how slutty the kids were allowed to dance and looked down on them for it but some part of him knew that judgment was coming from a place of being too scared to dance. Then he saw her, the face of a girl he’d seen before but not in the same light. A beautiful red headed girl that gave off a kind presence that looking back by have been fake but for a split second when he saw her dancing he felt that thing in his stomach and this time he knew what it was, it was a feeling he hated even though body told him he should feel the opposite way because he hated what he wasn’t and that was the kind of person he wanted to be with on the dance floor. The next moment was in his early twenties on the porch of a girl he’d been friends with for a long time and that night they made out, a girl who had red hair too but a different kind of red hair, hair that was curly and bouncy that felt good running through his fingers. He felt the sensation of their bodies rubbing together and the friction creating the feeling that he thought was love, a feeling that lingered for too long after that night only for him to find out the love wasn’t returned but that was for the best. She wasn’t bad or undeserving of love, they just weren’t meant to love each other. A much earlier time passed on the screen in front of the dying man. It was when he was a child, one of his earliest memories. He had made his grandma late for work and she had yelled at him that morning. When she got home he said he was sorry and he said he loved her and she said she loved him too and hugged there in the driveway with the sun setting in the sky. He remembered his father comforting him when he was crying as a small boy listening to a song about a dead man that made him sad. Slowly the screen that showed the old last memories began to be overtaken by bright light and a smile grew on his face as he journeyed into the great beyond.

Virginia K.

I still am unable to access any of the PDF lesson plans and continue to receive the error message below: This XML file does not appear to have any style information associated with it. The document tree is shown below. <Error> <Code>AccessDenied</Code> <Message>Request has expired</Message> <X-Amz-Expires>3600</X-Amz-Expires> <Expires>2019-06-08T01:32:21Z</Expires> <ServerTime>2019-06-08T15:26:48Z</ServerTime> <RequestId>B43637D5D95BEBAB</RequestId> <HostId> G6yltXSW6Rkbgg1uOPyNEcHDp6RLYIKT7s0BGQhjHY1dOP98H5OnmzerlJhLxpN+uBCB/slizWc= </HostId> </Error> Anyone else have this problem? Thanks! Virginia

Gareth S.

I love Neil's narrative. This is so good. Interesting breakdown of story writing. This was a fascinating exercise.

A fellow student

Thanks you for giving us insights into building up the momentum of the story. What are the challenges the characters will have to overcome?

Patricia F.

I absolutely love that he shares how he writes. I find it fascinating to have this kind of knowledge into his process. I construct a story very differently. So much to learn perhaps about slowing down the process in my early stages and rely less on "plotting."

Eileen N.

This story had me weeping within the first two minutes. Anyone else feel it deeply?