Short Fiction Case Study: “March Tale”

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 14:54 min

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.

Neil Gaiman
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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...

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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.


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I've been writing for a few years now, but I learned so many valuable things in this class that I can't wait to use going forward!

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I've come across this class after finishing writing a novel. It has reinforced that I'm on the right path and just to keep doing what I am doing. Brilliant!

I loved this! There was so much good stuff in here that I think i'll need to watch it two more times to absorb it all. Thanks Neil :)


Dan U.

Adam Freeman: You have written nothing about the topic at hand regarding my comments. Insofar as Spring Time for Hitler...I just can’t see it. I thought of a comedy skit where in Martha Stewart approaches a Ku Klux Klan rally...all of them in their hoods and sheets, a top their horses .... a cross burning and the grandmaster reciting get his twisted speech. Martha Stewart approaches and orders them off their horses in an angry tone. She further orders them to surrender their wardrobes to her and in an escalating tone she said their wardrobes appeared terrible and that they should have shopped at K Mart to purchase her “on sale” lavender collection. It would be funny but keep in mind that the KKK hung black men in the south in the thirties...1930’s. They did other hideous things. I’m not that desperate for a laugh. Kapisce?


This example was very helpful! When you started brainstorming near the end, I started coming up with my own ideas. I'm currently in the beginnings of writing a short story to enter into a competition and this has helped me find a way to dive into writing it :)

Lou M.

Had a lotta fun with this one and wrote a story of Sleeping Beauty seeing a therapist. Can't post it here, thanks to format problems!

Dan U.

I might add .... as much as I adore Mel Brooks, the comedian, for example, his SPRING TIME FOR HITLER AND GERMANY was as he said an attempt to mock Hitler. This was funny? This was musically entertains? Again skewed. There was nothing funny aboutHitler. Brooks should really have known better.

Dan U.

This isn’t a beautiful story....this motjerfucker is a sick deviant figuratively telling the reader I’ll share my superb poetic prose if you allow for errors in logic, a skewed mother,(Ann) who worries her father will be victimized by Pirates yet rejoices like a deviant at the thought of being a pirate and pilfering a merchant ship. A pregnant Ann boards a ship from Ireland heading to America, likely mid nineteenth century and she avoids persecution if people know this?! Can an eleven year old ovulate?! She wanders off in America and gets pregnant by way of a man or was it her daughter and returns three years later. What other sick communici does this author wish to sell to sick pedophiles seeking to normalize their feelings and destroying lives in the process?

Dan U.

There appears to be errors in logic here and hypocrisy. A pregnant eleven year old? How apalling and not even likely!! A daughter in fear her father will be victimized...murdered by pilfering pirates and yet the mother rejoices in this? How did Ann end up in England set sail for the Carolinas? She made it seem like she left Ireland...cork? I’m impressed with the prose but hardly the logic.

Arjun I.

I think the best take-away for me from this lesson is the concept of conflict and as a consequence an expansion of narrative through that conflict. And also, I found myself relieved that if one has the gift of imagination and vocabulary, then even the most beautiful story can be created if one is armed with a few facts. I had never heard of Anne Bonny, but the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page brought me up to speed with almost everything that the short-story was built around. Her life as a pirate, her place of origin, her pleading her belly and the subsequent mystery around her ultimate fate. So, the next time I paralyze myself with too much analysis and research I shall remind myself of this lesson and tell myself that I'm not looking to simply write a story, I'm looking to be a good storyteller.

C L.

I have to admit this lesson was a little confusing for me. Not having read this story to be familiar with it, I've added it to my planned reading list so I can understand the points that Neil discusses. What really threw me off was Neil talking about a marketing effort with Blackberry and that he planned to ask a different question every month. He lost me there as I couldn't figure out what was going to be done with the questions and what they had to do with Blackberry phones. I had to google it and learned what it was all about. Now that I know that and I think once I read this story or become familiar with it, perhaps it will all make better sense so I can get as much out of this lesson as all of the previous lessons.

Becky D.

That's interesting, because usually if I hear of "fewer and fewer choices" it's presented in a dark light - but this presentation makes it sound more like you've found your story and are simply walking it home.

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.