From Neil Gaiman's MasterClass

Story Case Study: The Graveyard Book

Neil uses his young adult fantasy novel, The Graveyard Book, to illustrate how character motivations serve as the essential building blocks of a compelling plot.

Topics include: Story Case Study: The Graveyard Book


Neil uses his young adult fantasy novel, The Graveyard Book, to illustrate how character motivations serve as the essential building blocks of a compelling plot.

Topics include: Story Case Study: The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman

Teaches the Art of Storytelling

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So what characters want and what characters need always drive every story and they always drive how the character behaves, what's going to happen, how they interact with other characters. Here's "The Graveyard Book." I haven't talked about it before, so I just grabbed it. And we begin with, "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you'd been cut, not immediately. The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet." And we know very, very quickly we are dealing with a man called man Jack who is walking around this house with a knife. "The hunt was almost over. He'd left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom surrounded by toys and half finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more, and his task would be done." Now, we know exactly what the man Jack has done. He's killed a family. And what he wants, which is to kill the baby. The problem is the baby isn't going to be there. Because when we meet the baby, what the baby wants us to get out of his crib. "Ever since the child had learned to walk, he'd been his mother and father's despair and delight, for there never was such a boy for wandering, for climbing up things, for getting into and out of things. That night, he'd been woken by the sound of something on the floor beneath him falling with a crash. Awake, he soon became bored and had begun looking for a way out of his crib. It had high sides like the walls of his playpen downstairs, but he was convinced that he could scale it. All he needed was a step." And the baby gets out of the crib. The baby wants to get out. The baby is not trying to escape. The baby just heads off bumping down the stairs on his bottom, heads out of the open door that the man Jack had left open when he crept into the house, and the baby heads up the hill. And then we meet some other characters. In the graveyard, "'Owens,' called the pale woman in a voice that might have been the rustle of the wind through the long grass. 'Owens, come and look at this.' She crouched down and appeared something on the ground as a patch of shadow moved into the moonlight, revealing itself to be a grizzled man in his mid-40s. He looked down at his wife, and then looked at what she was looking at, and he scratched his head." "'Mistress Owens,' he said, for he came from a more formal age than our own, 'is that what I think it is?' And at that moment, the thing he was inspecting seemed to catch sight of Mrs. Owens, for it opened its mouth, letting the rubber nipple it was sucking fall to the ground, and it reached out a small chubby fist, as if it were trying for all the world to hold on to Mrs. Owens' pale finger." "'Strike me silly,' said Mr. ...

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've done quite a few Masterclasses on writing. Neil was great. I think sometimes as a writer we need to be told over and over again that it's okay to just let yourself write as much or as little as you want. Describe as much or as little in a scene. And to keep exploring and asking questions. And most of all, to keep writing and keeping finishing what you write.

Anybody seeking actionable advice on idea-generative processes - in writing or another domain - will not be let down. Very well done. Thanks Neil!

This is one of the best master classes I've taken. Neil Gaiman is truly a master of his craft.

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.


Arjun I.

With this lesson, Neil has done what he usually does; Providing a profound idea in the most basic of ways. "What does a character want?" That simple question is going to help me mold the story that I've been tinkering with for some time. After much deliberation (and procrastination) I finally managed to draw an outline of the story, but had no idea how to proceed with writing it. However, by answering the basic question of what my character/s want, may help me finally move that cursor on the blank-page on my screen.

Deborah G.

Brilliant! I got so much out of this lesson. I love the idea of letting the characters' wants and needs drive the plot. The Graveyard Book is one of my all-time favorites - so glad it was the focus of this lesson.

Martha M.

This was an illuminating session. To see characters as bundles of desires and needs, and how their individual ones clash and blend with each other to drive the plot was a revelation to me. This lesson is taking me longer to work through than the previous ones, mainly due to creating that throughline for my novel in progress. I keep haring off down the rabbit hole of rewrites rather than sticking to the directive. Not that it's a bad thing, mind you. It's just not advancing me through the lesson.


I like how simple and easy to understand this lesson was. I had never thought of "wants" and "needs" in writing before outside of the desire of protagonist forces to combat the antagonist forces and the needs of the characters being very general and plot focused. I have never read "The Graveyard", but this case study made it a glaring example of wants and needs in a story. Definitely made a mental note of this example and I already have several scenarios for my own book just based off of it.

Myriam B.

I liked the simplicity of message of this lesson - instead of tonnes of things to remember when you're writing, it just boils it down to the essentials.

Ekin Ö.

This lesson was a beautiful answer to the question "What makes a story?" The example put everything in the right place on my mind. What a character wants and what a character needs are what the author collects to make a story. Neil's enchanting voice also helped a lot. :-)

Lou Nell G.

OK Not only can he write, he reads beautifully. I didn't want this lesson to end! I also found myself reflecting as I listened about wants and needs and was recognizing the wants of one of my characters in the novel I'm working on and realized that her wants and needs are a bit of a contradiction, which I gather, is OK.

Paul R.

The music was blasting and the wind was blowing Caitlin's wedding dress train onto the back seat and trunk of the convertible. She was singing along to the song remarkably well with her golden blonde hair dancing frantically with the wind and her head gyrations in sync with the melody. Perfect, she was perfect in everything thought Jason. How long had it been since they met, two years, seven years? Time didn't matter anymore, she was here and that is all that mattered. They would be young forever anyway. Tall, statuesque really, red lips, green eyes, everything about her exuded feminine energy that felt so mature and innocent at the same time. In the past, in his former life, he had questioned how such a beautiful woman would even look his way but that was another of her qualities that set her apart...her modesty. She randomly paused her revelry and looked over at Jason. Such a beautiful man she thought. How kind he had been to whoever he met and always a kind or encouraging word, even to those who didn't deserve it. How did she get so lucky? Fate had brought them together, there was no question of that. The crash landing on Mars with them being the only survivors and afterwards, the virus that had killed everyone in the colonies on the newly terraformed planet except them.

Meghan O.

This is a great course. I had never really thought about wants & needs driving the plot, but had tried to construct plots as a kind of outline - almost separate from the characters - and then insert my characters into it. I'm learning a lot. But I wonder how the idea came to focus on the KNIFE as the starting point?

A fellow student

Great storytelling, so engaging, so pulling me in! And so simple. All about what characters WANT and NEED and how they collide with their wants and needs.