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Arts & Entertainment

Sources of Inspiration

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 16:14 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.


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 ...

About the Instructor

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.

Like Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman is both a gifted writer and a gifted teacher. He gently goads you with anecdotes and analogies to realize larger points. I would often smile with each discovery of an unexpected little pearl that fell during a lesson. A delightful and informative class of great value to writers of multiple genres.

It has guided me onto a path to be a more confident and driven writer

Brilliant - I am in awe of Neil Gaiman even more than I was already! Thank you, Great One! Now, I’m on to finish my third novel and get it out there - thank you!

hey, I completed only the first audio-reading! I'll come back to it, many many times! this dense stuff needs to time to be digested!



Close your eyes while Neil Gaiman talks and you will see Professor Severus Snape.

Robin J.

Love the metaphor of the compost heap and the idea that our influences can come from many places, not just the literary world. One of my published pieces, "The Wild", is actually an examination of the ending of the Rapunzel fairy tale from a new perspective, one that I think some might appreciate! I'll link to it here:

Matthew D.

So I'm not sure if anyone else has been doing the exercises in the work book, but I took mine in a bit of a different direction. I did Alice in Wonderland from the perspective of Wonderlands inhabitants, however they are all pre existing cosmic entities that only have one chance per cycle-of-the-universe to be willed into existence through this 9 year old girls dream. If they fail they have to wait until time ends, begins again, and then makes it back to the same point in time where Alice is taking that same (or a brand new, depending on how you want to look at it) nap. If anyone is interested in swapping stories with each other and giving each other notes, Please let me know! I tried to post it here, but it wouldn't take my attachment for some reason. Any way, Awesome lesson!

Liz C.

If all of a sudden, we had two moons, if a warewolf bit someone, would it turn into two warewolves?

Michelle W.

Good things to chew on here regarding being honest and specific, even in the world of fiction.

Sarthak J.

Nice, share your truths with others in order for others to relate to those common truths that bind us all.

A fellow student

The chair wolf snippet reminded me of a practice story prompt that asks you to describe the chair that you are currently sitting on. Imagine describing the chair beneath you as it transforms.

Dale U.

Loved the chairwolf story. In future when anybody asks where I get ideas I think I will tell them, "From the depths of a twisted but harmless mind." Can't wait to see how that goes over.

Leigh Watson H.

Wonderful! This helped me understand that writing my memoirs is not an act of self-indulgence, but rather, capturing all the truths, the incredible body of life experience, to use as condiment for the "lies" that make a great story. Thank you!

Samantha C.

I love the simple and tangible exercises and tactics he employs to stimulate creativity. The were-chair story is hilarious and really highlights that you can make a great tale from anything. Lots of fun!