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 loved this masterclass. Now I'm going to actually listened to everything from the beginning all over again. Neil Gaiman said some things I needed to hear once, and maybe I need to hear them twice.

I'm a published author who loved & enjoyed each lesson taught by Neil Gaiman! The best part... I felt he was talking directly to me. I'm on my 5th book, and I'm applying these lessons. Thanks so much for offering this MasterClass. I am thankful, and most pleased with my purchase. :)

Mr. Gaiman gave a wonderful class. He has inspired me to keep going....keep finishing....keep putting my work out there, and he has given me a wonderful example to follow. I appreciate the heart he put into his teaching, and I look forward to revisiting certain segments later. Thank you, all who were involved in creating this class.

Neil Gaiman reenforced things I was already doing, put words to them. Reminded me that a life lived is a life worth writing about even if it's total fiction. Finishing and beginning, repeat, go on, and don't be afraid to start over. Rejection is fuel not the extinguisher of great ideas. Thank you Masterclass and Neil Gaiman.


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.

Paul F.

A letter to an erotic performer In one of my travels, I ended up in a strip-club in Houston, TX. It wasn't a special occasion, just a regular port of call. After all, there are not many places that can cater to the needs of seafarer's returning from an ocean voyage at those hours. So there, was a girl. Maybe in her mid-twenties, black haired and with a smile full of lust and whimsicality, just like yours. At some point, she went up on stage. She started dancing around the pole, splurging kisses to the frantic crowd, revealing herself slowly, and creating an impatient desire on her entourage on what's going to be next. But that moment, never came. She stopped at revealing a portion of her breasts, and her underwear stayed on their place. She certainly finished her show with a smile though, as she had most certainly received the highest number of tips. After she finished her show, I nodded her to come over. She brought her drink along, and I asked her: "If we judge by tonight's results, how can you be the most successful one here, when you are the least likely to offer yourself to the generous hands of those gentlemen sitting a the front row?" She smirked, and whispered "Have you ever jerked off?" I laughed, and said yes. "The women that were on your mind were they prettier, funnier and more lovable than the ones you've had real sex with?" I nodded positively. "Then you know, that fantasy is always better than reality. That is unless you know that she's the one. But I am not, and everyone here knows it." In a sense, the less you reveal, the more desirable you become. For me, that is erotism. And that is what you have accomplished, with some of your pictures. P.S. And if you ever wonder whether your life leads to a life of solitude from what you seek, I should remind you (because I'm sure you already know) that there is nothing sexier than a woman struggling, fighting and giving her best self every day for somebody else other than her. Até mais, Carioca.

Art D.

Re-watching this class for the 2nd time. I write fiction but I am primarily a music composer. I'm finding so much of these lessons apply to writing music as well as fiction. Excellent material.


That morning we had woken earlier than usual as it was Avery’s 10th Birthday. I knew grandmother had prepared muffins and pancakes with the wild berries we picked yesterday. I helped papà with the milk and we scooped out the thick parts that rose to the top, mother took out a jar of wild wood honey and we brought flowers to the table and had an early morning feast. I knew I was to go to the woods alone as Avery needed to help mend the fence that Dagmar kicked. The mules can be mean at times. It was the time of year of the hunters and brisk and cool—mother draped the bright red cloak around me and cinched it with her leather belt. We needed to wear the brightest colors to be sure we would be recognized as human and not prey. In particular, the ones coming from the city far away were inexperienced with the forest and her ways and might aim indiscriminately. My basket was empty but would soon be full with dry kindling for the day. On the way I would check for mushrooms— the thick porcini being our favorite delicacy. The bluebirds and woodpeckers made song and rhythm. I would practice walking through the newly few fallen leaves, just as Oscar had taught us—slipping a toe gently beneath the leaves and not above, so as to make less noise and perhaps be fortunate enough to view a beautiful deer or fox cub. In my left pocket I had two of grandmother’s muffins wrapped in brown paper to deliver to Mother Nuala who lived in the forest. We called her Mother as she always had a sick or injured wild animal she found —-or they would come to her, and she would cure and care for them. She preferred to live on her own in the woods and had a simple small cabin full of all she needed. In turn, Mother Nuala would always give us something to bring home—a jar of blackberry jam or 6 goose eggs. We always left her with a bit of the kindling we had gathered. As I started out Jericho fell into step with me. He being the pack head, the oldest and wisest of our dogs. Shaggy and covered with the earth he burrowed into at night as he lay by the gate to stop wild intruders and keep our sheep and goats safe. As we entered the forest I saw bits of frozen dew drops still on the fallen leaves—and warmer melted droplets about to drop but filled with a rainbow of glistening light from the sun. The smelled as sweet as apple and pungent as smoky wood—-there were mists deeper into the woods and I made out the form of a passing wolf pack—they seemed part of the mists and trees and only with a stray slant of sunlight could I make out the form and tufts of fur. Their loose trot with noses to the ground—zigzagging amongst the trees—blending in with the colors of brown leaves and grey bark. They seemed oddly close and hesitant. Jericho stood stiff by my side and slowly walked two steps ahead with his nose pointed and ears alert, he gave a soft growl. As the mists dissipated and then formed again, one lone wolf broke through and sat facing us—but cautiously waiting. . Slowly Jericho moved forward—ever attentive that the others remained at a distance. Jericho and the sitting wolf touched noses and for an instant stood face to face. I was mesmerized and curious as to why the lone wolf had come forward—-I felt breathless but at the same time isolated by the cloud of my own breath as it met the chill air. In an instant Jericho was back at my side and the wolves, all of them, had vanished from sight. Jericho was worried and sat before me pawing at my leg and whimpering——something was not right. The wolves knew something and had in their way had warned us......

Jesper B.

Peter Pan, but he kidnapped Wendy and the children against their wills and keeps them trapped in a strange land where they don't seem to age. Perhaps Peter is trapped as child rather than refusing to grow up, perhaps Wendy stays trapped in Neverland for years. Captain Hook is the hero of the story as he tries to kill this deranged man, decades old and trapped in a child's body. maybe Peter has the desires and wants of an adult so the relationship between him and wendy is uncomfortable as she tries to keep her dignity while being careful of not making her kidnapper angry and protecting her siblings. Kind of like in Coraline, where she tries to escape the other mother without making her aware.

Karen H.

Anastasia (Stace) talks to her therapist about her new life, Mom and older sister in a contemporary version of Cinderella, Marin County style. “After Mom married Frank, we moved from San Rafael to one of the nicest areas of the Marin. It’s great to have a big house and all, but I really miss my friends. Tildy was the saddest to see me leave. She gave me a picture of us at Blink. It’s one of the best ones we’ve taken there. My room is gray, pink and white, and the bed is much bigger and fancier than my old one. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t think PB. I’m so happy that Mom let me keep Tiger. He has his own bed in my room that looks like a small castle (pretty cool). I don’t see Mom much or Driz. Mom is always going out with Frank, and they come home late so I don’t see her until morning. Driz is super annoying. She thinks she’s so hot now that she has a big house, an iPhone Xs Max and Lululemon pants. There’s Ella too. Her Dad is Frank, and my Mom says we’re sisters now. Seems kind of lame, cause I already have a sister. Any way, she’s nice. She reads books, and doesn’t have an Instagram account. She’s really into animals, but I don’t think she likes Tiger cause she has a lot of mice. It’s okay living in Tiburon. I’m nervous to start school tomorrow. There are a lot of popular kids, and I don’t know who my friends will be."

Marla T.

Once a month early in the morning, just after sunrise, a car with a very young female driver would slowly creep down the county roads to Peoria. She barely looked fourteen, and her knuckles always looked tightly gripped to the steering wheel of the silver corolla. In the middle of the back window a metallic crown could be seen. Most people passing would just think a new young driver being overly cautious. But the locals new this was a driver transporting meth made by the pigs in Lewiston, for the past 2 years. Lewiston is a town known for groups of people living isolated in the vast woodsy and grassy areas. And some were rumored to be white supremacy gangs. The pigs supposedly ran this particular gang. Two of the three pigs lived in the backwoods of Lewiston and the other livid in town. One of the backwoods pig lived in the dense forested area down by the river, in a cabin crudely made, and looked more like large sticks than logs. The other pig lived in a yurt looking house made of thatched straw, out in the grassy area about a mile up from the river. One day a black dodge charger pulled up to the local gas station, and a very slick dressed wolf, like someone from MIB, stepped out. He strolled into the gas station inquiring how to get to Lewiston and left. Betty the attendant who has worked there ever since she graduated from high school 50 years go, was on the phone instantly to her friend Teri, who ran the local newspaper. Within 24 hours Teri had her story. Lewiston had firetrucks coming from 2 other local cities to try to put the fire out at the pig’s brick house in town, to no avail. Neighbors said they had heard a loud explosion and then bricks rained down, smashing into their houses’. No body of the pig was ever found or seen after. The pig down by the river was found, or a hind limb was. Nothing was left of the house but some stick rubble, and ash, because of the remoteness no firetrucks could get there, and no one saw anything. That was the same for the yurt, only a ring of ash remained. The theories of what happened to the pigs kept the local paper busy for a year. No silver corolla with the very young female driver crept through town anymore.

Pierre G.

Well, as a plebeian writer of role playing game stories for the limited audience of the few who honor me with their friendship, I found this introductory lesson is key to writing better adventures, away from the linear tropes of Fantasy or Sci Fi and toward a meaningful message I would like my players to collaboratively unearth in their sessions. I have the feeling this will make the time spent together both more meaningful and impactful. This is probably keeps me fro most games in a mix of boredom and impersonal platitude, which I was misleadingly placing upon the universe rather than upon my unwillingness to put more of myself in my plots. Also, Mr Gaiman may have convinced me to share in shadowy lies themes that birthed the adult I became, or parade as, rooted deep within my childhood.