Story Case Study: The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 08:08 min

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.

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.

Wow, what a great class. I feel all charged to begin a new journey. I send my love to Neil Gaiman for his honesty. I'll see you in fiction.

Very excellent delivery and so interesting! Love this writer and his wisdom!! THanks so very much!

I can now tell a story that will capture the whole audience! Never thought I had it in me!

It's given me permission to fail, to write badly, but to keep writing and finishing and experiencing life, to have more fodder for writing until I get good at it.


Greg R.

These lessons are amazing. When you hear it explained, you realise how obvious it is and how everything you have read uses wants and needs to drive conflict on story.


She lay flat on her back trying to prepare, she thought about taking deep breaths or even maybe, she should align her chakras—but no, that might alarm Dr. Mott. Her eyes opened and rose to the ceiling above. It was a dirty white ceiling with a grey overtone from shadows cast through the long windows. But, she remembered the sky on that particular day for it was as pale a baby blue as one could imagine. There were translucent sprays of white cloud here and there and the dark birds be they sparrows or swallows or her nana’s ravens. The grass dipped down the hill to a forest of pine and beyond that was the ocean. The feeling of her knees dug into the sand while she worked on establishing jumps and turns for her horses—the little plastic ones that Nana told her one day would be real. She loved gathering stones and sticks to make the corrals and walls, or to fashion jumps and hedges for a long course. She would begin she thought. ‘Mom had her knitting club and Dad was at work. My grandfather was in his woodworking shed’. A pause a sigh a sense of anxiety. ‘ Nana was alone a lot and only I knew—-I was 8 and we came as usual to the park.. oh my gosh, she suffered—she sat on the bench that day—I only saw parts of her, she may have put her face up towards the sky—her head thrown back and out of her came these agonized words——oh my, they were half desperation and half hope...she said that she wanted to be free—-she announced it she said she wanted to be present to serve her purpose, she would rise like the Phoenix—bloom like the lotus—‘why can’t I’ she moaned—-then whispered through her clenched mouth ‘why can’t I be like the rose that reaches for the sun? She, the patient Vanessa, hesitated. So many emotions were surfacing and they frightened her—what if she should lose control or run screaming from Dr. Mott’s office...what if he would call the police? She shook her head gently and turned to see Dr. Mott sitting bent over a notebook—legs crossed easily—his grey curls ruffled, his glasses half on the bridge of his nose. The brown of the desk and soft warm light of a small lamp—the green of the leather, just like that green of the pine forest that rolled down from the playground that dayand buffeted the vast ocean from roaring in and over her, keeping her safe from the cold unknown. Vanessa continued, ‘really Dr. Mott, I am frightened—I have never discussed this with anyone—-I don’t want to be to blame, I don’t want to go to jail’. She turned towards him again—his soft grey eyes like the ceiling—tired and kind—-the chewing on the pipe—she could imagine smoke wafting around his temples, so she offered at least that. ‘Dr’ Mott, I wouldn’t at all mind if you would like to smoke your pipe’. A slight pause and he responded that thank you Vanessa—that is kind of you—-she let out a sigh again-perhaps this would create a deeper pact between them—her psychiatrist smoking in his office during a session with a patient—small trespasses and acceptances. ‘Well’, she continued with a sense of resignation to the possible inevitable, ‘so Nana got up and went to the picnic table near to the bench and she leaned over and just rested her head in her arms along the table. Little Colette, that was her toy poodle, jumped onto the table and lay near her head—-like they communicated—-well, then the raven came and landed on the table.......(The grandmother decides with the help of her animal spirit guides to run away to Greece and fulfill her dream of being. a painter. She disappears and only her granddaughter Vanessa knows the truth and all along witnessed her move towards that final decision/which came about with the help of owls, ravens and her poodle. Vanessa can no longer contain this deep secret after so many years and the great success of her grandmother who lives with a different name in a far off country).

A fellow student

Like most young women I had dreamed of this day. The square jawed handsome man in a tux, me in a gorgeous white off the shoulder satin gown with tiny pearls sprinkled over the bodice, driving down the road in a red sports car towards happily ever after and a white picket fence. But the part that had never been included in my adolescent fantasies was the bite mark on my neck, red and still bleeding. For instead of a kiss to seal our vows my new husband had given me, with that bite, eternal life. So we could truly be together forever. Our wedding feast would not be your choice of chicken stuffed with pecans, salmon in dill sauce or vegetarian lasagna followed by a three tiered cake but blood-human blood. Forever. And ever. And ever.

Mitchell M.

I think I wrote a short story without realizing it as a warm-up for writing my novel the other day. XD

Dan U.

Wants and needs. Good but no substitute for creativity which now...now the author has revealed his talents.

Iddo G.

Exercise: He drew out a handkerchief and wiped the rifle’s scope, looking again and making sure he has a clean shot on the doorway. Focusing on the golden door knob, then looking at the leather door, even recognizing the orange stiches bordering the frame. He had the 3 marble steps going down in site and the rails. He looked at his clock, about 5 more minutes. He let go of the rifle. And took the half eaten snickers bar into his mouth. Looking at the grass and hill, checking again his runaway path to his motorcycle. Flowers were beginning to blossom. After this he hoped to go on that vacation in Lisbon, he earned it. Looking down on the town, he could see the busy streets, the tensions, the system working at its best. Finishing the bar he licked the wrapper and then leant back to the rifle’s scope. He remembered the phone call “I need you to do a job” a woman’s voice, quite assertive yet seductive “I heard you’re the best in what you do”. He loved that compliment, he was the best. He earned it. “Depends who says so” he answered. “The one that goes by were the cats left their milk” she answered with the password. “And who left the milk?”. “My father” she said with a vibration in her voice “Ive had enough of him. Frank DeSavoie”. Frank, he thought to himself, you bastard, it has come, this is your day. And its your own daughter calling for the kill. He knew Frank from the days in the mob, when… He suddenly saw a car park by the door, far enough to allow him a clear shot. The driver was talking, probably calling Frank to get out. He focused the rifle, finger on the trigger. Cold as steel, there were times when he would sweat, but the years have made him blunt to the adrenaline. The golden knob, a few centimeters up and this would be exactly in his forehead. Frank was small, with a big mustache and a large set of balls. The doorknob turned, the finger rubbed the trigger. The door opened and a young ginger woman was at the door. The finger continued to rub the trigger, wit a bit more rubbing. She was beautiful, dressed in a cyan silk dress. She looked back, probably calling Frank to come. Then she turned and grinned, as if she smiled just to the camera. She stepped down and gave a middle finger, it was a bit funny. Then an image came forward and he heard “Neil, you ego maniac shit”, he turned but heard the shot already hitting his spine. His arms left the gun, and he twisted half in pain, half in horror. In front of him was Frank, with his ever big moustache and a gun. “You dick, you really thought you're going to kill me after all these years? After all we’ve been through?” Frank came closer aiming to his crotch “And you fantasized about my daughter doing it with you? Tsk tsk tsk, that’s not nice Neil” Neil’s heart pounded so hard, he could just count the seconds to his own death. That’s it… what a way to end. Frank took out his trousers and underwear and started to piss on Neil’s jerky legs. “Tsk tsk tsk… Oh Neil” Frank smiled “by the way, how much do I owe you?”. Neil tried to get whatever power he can to grab his rifle but he could barely move his hands. Frank started to zip his trousers then stopped “On second thought, I want you to die with a nice image…” he raised the gun aimed it to Neil’s head. Neil looked away to his motorcycle and the flower, he took a breath of fresh air. He earned it. Boom


I'm just loving this! His perspective makes me really think about what and why I write. His ability to tell a story and read one is mesmerizing. Never did I ever think I would have any interest in fiction. I love how my mind has changed.

Christian S.

Went out and bought The Graveyard Book. Nice, even if it was 20 years in the making. Very nice. Three years ago I started (and finished) writing a novel titled BELIEVE. I was never happy with it. I liked the premise. I liked my characters. I liked portions of it. Rather than trying to get it really published, I did publish it as an ebook but never forgot how I felt about it (i.e., good premise, good characters, pieces thst were good.) Coming off of a three month gig as a writer for the United States Bowling Congress, influenced by Neil's comments here (maybe, like with his The Graveyard Book, he just was not ready as a writer to do it justice when he first thought of it, I just wasn't ready), I decided to go back to this story. Thus far - again influenced by Neil - I have done the Prologue, Chapters 1, 2, 3 (partially), 5 (I know what is going to happen in chspter 4...just needs to be written) and Chapter 8 (same thing, know what is going to happen in chapter 6 and 7). I found it interesting (and inspiring) that Neil started the writing of The Graveyard Story with Chapter 4. I always had it in my head that I had to sit down and write the book in order. From start to finish. Truth was, Chapters 5 and 8 was about the only parts that I liked from my initial effort. I have put what I have up on a website (www.ChristianSeabornBELIEVE.com) as well as audio versions (so far just the Prologue and Chapter 1). (The ending of Chapter 2 as it currently stands I am reworking - again thanks to Neil's words. I am paraphrasing him when I say "Make sure to write so that the reader keeps turning the pages." Well, my ending of Chapter 2 (as it currentloy exists on the website) I have realized is just boring. (The plot involves this 14-year-old boy (Kyle Caldwell) whom has been in this horrific car accident with his dad who was driving. In the process of saving his son's life, the dad is killed. Leaving the youth with major surivior's guilt (i.e., he survived but dad did not). The story is his working through that guilt. Chapter 2's ending (as it currently badly exists) is the boy being rushed off by ambulance to the hospital from the scene of the accident...except I do not have him being rushed off...rather slowly being driven off. Rushed off (I know) would add more drama to the telling and thus (hopefully) have the reader wanting to see what happens next (at the hospital) in Chapter 3.) Anyway, my thanks to you Neil Gaiman. You are quite inspiring. Christian Seaborn

Debbie J.

I have got to read more of Gaiman's work. The example he gives here is an excellent way to start a story....which has always been my biggest roadblock to writing...Starting...and ending.

Alexandria S.

The takeaway from this lesson I will have is to make sure that every character I mention has to want something in order for a story to go. An example I have is about a girl around my age. She is a part human part celestial being that is struggling to fit in, which is her goal, wanting to fit in. People do appreciate her, but it is only for her beauty and not her personality. That’s only one example, I am still trying to develop that story at the moment.