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 how to better stay motivated, and how to deal with inevitable rejection, as well as practical tips on things ranging from characterization and dialogue to editing.

Fantastic. I am working on a documentary and even tough this was helping me a lot. With the resources and links I kept falling to other books and TED talks and material, which is great basis for my "idea hump". Let's see how it works out on our new documentary. Thanks Neil.

Neil's voice is soothing. Listen to it before bed. I make no promises about your dreams but your cares of the past day will fade.

A whole new approach and way of rethinking. Wonderful



I like the thought of interviewing my characters, especially my protagonists, and diagnosing or forming a psychological profile. It is lending 3D layers to the eventual story.

A fellow student

Interesting approach. While conceptually, the idea of different perspectives in old stories isn't something new or unique, Gaiman's exemplification of the concept is wonderful. The chair in the werewolf visual helps to really paint a picture of this approach. I also like this concept of the compost heap as opposed to an idea file. There's something cool about imagining the fermenting, breaking down, and joining of the ideas that comes to mind in this different manner of keeping thoughts. The exercise of starting this compost heap, combined with an idea that has been stewing for quite some time, led me to finally outline a play concept that needed just this very visual to finally be pieced together.

Jason T.

In a lesson about finding and planting and cultivating inspiration, there's a reinforcement of the old maxim 'show don't tell'. Malcolm Gladwell said the same in his Masterclass - "make the reader feel things but don't tell them what to feel." Evoke emotion through imagery and action not through adjectives.

Rich G.

Listening to Neil is a story in itself. The timbre of his voice pulls you (me) into the lesson as he speaks. Another masterclass writer spoke of writing from a technical approach that is important. Neil (for me) provides the emotional avenue.


Great chapter, and thanks for the many reading suggestions, some of which I intend to check out of my local library. I took a few minutes to watch the 2014 national Book Award remarks of both Mr. Gaiman and Ms. Le Guin and recommend you do too. So good. I confess that Le Guin was not on my list as a youngster (I was reading L'Engle, Tolkien, and the DM's Guide instead), but I've ordered up Earthsea (Abebooks not Amazon - Gollancz recent hardcover reprint) to catch up. Also, George Guidall is reading Left Hand of Darkness to me during the commute. More than half way through it, I agree that Le Guin is a freaking genius. Her chapters exploring Gethenian ambisexuality and its cultural implications are exceptionally good and thought provoking (and timely as ever). Having said that, I find the story otherwise achingly boring, and this I'd say stems from the voice of the main character. He's a profound intellect, like Le Guin, but I have a hard time caring for him or the Ecumen, and wish Estraven had been the narrator.


My wife and I make up stories about the people in line at the groceries. So yes, sources of inspiration are all around!

Tony N.

A very good lesson. The big takeaway is juxtaposing the familiar w/ the familiar and coming up with something strange. Neil Gaiman is very good at using his disparate influences from other disciplines as lessons for his students. He enjoys using examples from the natural (and supernatural) world to inspire fellow writers. You can tell he's a great teacher because he's always thinking of the best way to get a concept across. I would love to take a live workshop with this guy someday.

Nicole R.

NaNoWriMo last year (2018) was a year when the evil Stepmother was in the right and Snow White was a hell-bent vampire hungry for all the world with her dwarves as her loyal subjects...

Tommy B.

This is nice,It's like going of on a tangent or taking a wrong turn on purpose

K.E. B.

Snow White as the evil vampire and her stepmother, the queen, as the real heroine? That got my mind moving. There's a book of Anderson's Fairy Tales right across the room. I can see a brand new idea factory starting production. Where's my notebook? I'm also intrigued by the idea of extending "who influenced you?" beyond the medium you're currently working in. After all, my media are myriad: words, watercolors, glass, textile fibers -- I'd like to say music, but three years of piano lessons were enough to tell me that was a hopeless cause. I still dink around with a keyboard once in a while. But influences -- all the way back to the first storybooks I read on my own, the television shows I spent way too much time watching all through grade school, the bands I listened to in my teens, places I've lived, people I've known, it's all fermenting away in that compost bin in the back of my brain.