Sources of Inspiration

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 16:17 min

Neil believes that even old stories can be approached from new angles. Learn how to create your own “compost heap” of inspiration and how to draw from your experiences to make a story uniquely your own.

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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You know, for all writers, you kind of have a compost heap. And if any of you are not gardeners, kitchen people, the compost heap is where you throw all of the garden and the kitchen rubbish, the food scraps-- you throw it all on the compost heap. And then it rots down. And a year or so later, you look around. And you just have this lovely brown stuff that you can put on the garden, out of which flowers and vegetables will grow. And I think it's really important for a writer to have a compost heap. Everything you read, things that you write, the things that you listen to, people you encounter-- they can all go on the compost heap. And they will rot down. And out of them grow beautiful stories. I think the thing that you don't understand, especially as a young writer, when people talk about your influences is the tendency is simply to go and look at the things like the thing that you do and point to them. So it's easier for me probably to point to Tolkien and Dunsany and James Branch Cabell, to Ursula Guin or PL Travers and say, well, I do stuff like this. And I can point to those people. And what you don't necessarily point to is the stuff that does what you do but is in a different kind of field or a different kind of area entirely. My wife writes songs. She makes music. She performs. And what's important to her is emotional honesty, is truth. And she was probably in her late 30s before she realized that in all of the lists of influences that she would give-- when people would say, well, what are your influences? And she'd talk about The Cure or Leonard Cohen. She'd talk about punk bands. She'd talk about all of these things that she loved. She'd never talk about Judy Blume because Judy Blume was an author who she read when she was 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and an author who changed her and went in really deep and talked about honesty and gave Amanda the things that she wanted. For me, I never talk about Lou Reed. And Lou was huge for me. And one of the reasons he was huge for me is he would write these songs that were like three-minute novels. There was a story in there even if you weren't quite sure what it was. And it was compressed. And it was very, very heightened because anything that happens with music is always incredibly heightened. And the choice of words in a song is so important because you don't have very many. So watching how Lou wouldn't tell you what to feel, wouldn't tell you how he felt, that the emotion would actually be almost pulled out of the song, but it will be there for you to interpret yourself was probably huge. It's something that I still love doing when I write-- is I would much rather not tell you how to feel about something. I would rather you just felt it. I will tell you what happens. And if I leave you crying because I just killed a unicorn, I'm not going to tell you how sad the death of the unicorn was. I'm going to kill that unicorn. And I'm going to break your heart. That was something I ...

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 learned that a lot of people want what I want, so I have to want it more.

This class was incredibly inspiring in so many ways. I write book for children and this class has helped me develop my new script and has given me a new approach to the story I am writing. Amazing!

Нил знает, какие глупые мысли и страхи обитают в голове начинающего писателя. И что куда более ценно - знает, как с ними бороться.

I'd never heard of Neil Gaiman, but I learned a ton from this MasterClass. Now I'm a fan!


A fellow student

I like what he's saying about influences. One of my big artistic influences is the band the Milk Carton Kids. I'm not even remotely a musician, but their interviews are always so honest I pick up a ton of useful tips from them on creating. One of the most important things I've ever heard was in one of their interviews. The interviewer asked them what music they listen to for inspiration when they're song writing, and they said that the two of them listen to very different types of music, and neither of them really listen to the kind of music they make. They just make the kind of music they do because it's what naturally sounds good for them, and allows them to create the message they want to create. Hearing that creating isn't necessarily about recreating what you already like changed how I thought about it, and made it easier for me to be more creative myself.

Vanessa M.

Wow, I can't believe he used that Snow White example. That's literally the story idea I had a couple of years ago. I wanted to write a twist on the Snow White story where the Queen is actually good and she was trying to protect the kingdom from Snow White, who ended up being the evil one. I started the story but never finished it; this is making me want to go back and finish it.

Rebecca D.

For my WIP, GREENLIGHT, it was a very bright red coat and a mirrored building on a cold walk through the streets of Ottawa, and the discomfort of sticking out from the crowds of black and grey coats around me.

Andrea P.

I love the idea that ideas are all around us, we just need to pay attention. Try to see things anew.

A fellow student

Santa's Little Helper has been self aware of all that has happened in The Simpsons for the last 31 years. You don't get to see the dog as much considering that he travelled through different universes and with each respective season ending for the year, so too the respective universe. Santa's little helper is trying to find his original family. The Simpsons concludes when Bart and Homer finds Santa's Little Helper while the rest of the family gleefully waiting for their arrival on the couch. My snow white.

Abigail S.

Loved this lesson! Can’t wait to build my compost heap and work on the writing exercises!!

Mike C.

What if a werewolf bit another type of wolf? Would it turn into a different kind of wolf on the full moon? Lovely, that's right up there with "Do penguins have knees," or "Are elves mammals," in the questions to drift around my brain at 2 am lol. This was a great session. I loved the lesson and the talk of the Writers' compost heap. Made me not only think of where my ideas come from *Spoiler alert: I have no idea, they just do, but also the idea of using a fairy/folk tale as the skeleton of an idea.

A fellow student

Very Good lesson. However his generalization if you ask an author, (I am an author by the way,) where do you get your ideas from and the author replies no idea or something hostile like when I am catching the ferry. But if you ask someone like Stephen King he would say from reading, writing and life experiences. If you asked me I would say from reading, writing, video games, etc.

A fellow student

I have written multiple books and one of them is in the process of being published using a traditional unexclusive publishing model. The truth of the compost heap is so true. Although I am a big fan of Stephen King On his Memoir of The Craft he says all a writer should do is write and read. I don't agree most of what a writer should do is read and write but I find my toolbox comes from movies, life experiences, video games, etc. Writing is the easy part getting published is the first step to opening the floodgates. As a writer never give up!

Jack W.

There's a reason why Mr. Gaiman is my favourite author, and I had no idea why. He articulates exactly how I feel about story. My problem is I have literally dozens maybe three-digit number of story ideas written down. Getting through them to the fullness of a novel is the biggest problem. Getting through that middle kills me. I've got a novel that's four-fifths done and I'm panicking about pacing. Etc... But the inspiration. It's always there. It's magically coming out of me daily.