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Arts & Entertainment

Story Case Study: The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 08:05 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
In his first-ever online class, Neil Gaiman teaches you how he conjures up new ideas, convincing characters, and vivid fictional worlds.


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.

Neil has delivered on his promise to inspire and give the little push. I love the way he explains how to put a little tweak here and there to make a story just slightly weird, and unique.

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.

This class was by far my favorite. The time took to explain his process, break down some of his work was illuminating.

Neil Gaigman is just wonderful, inspiring soul, thank you!


Karen G.

A compelling example of story development/character conflict. Basic drive of character wants and needs. Really appreciated this~

Kess G.

Great lesson on how building the backstory and really understanding characters needs and wants helps to build conflict. Conflict is what you need to create plot.

Violet J.

Love the graveyard story. Driving the story by what each character wants. It is awesome how you weave a story.

Nathan F.

His focus on conflict was eye-opening for me in terms of storytelling. It really is essential for developing a character. Conflict certainly provides an opportunity to reveal a character's motivations, even some deep and surprising ones.

Jack W.

Neil artfully places just enough pieces to give us the pleasure of filling in the gaps. We're not spoon-fed words like 'killer', 'murder', or 'ghost', yet we know precisely what's happening. Masterful.

Aaron C.

Could someone please explain "Mutually Exclusive" in Lamens terms please 😬🙏

Vochaa R.

I love The Graveyard Book. I reread it a hundred times, as I carried it around with me.

Kelly S.

Neil Gaiman, you are ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT! Loved how one question can propel a story! Your class has made me see the art of writing in a whole new light! Thank You So Much for the wealth of information that is packed in this class! I'll be forever grateful!

Bashar A.

So following this course, I feel Neil Gaiman was holding Mowgli's story Jungle Book in his hand, and thinking how can he turn it into something different. Swap the jungle with the graveyard, and the animals with the ghosts. I haven't read the book, but it's on my Audible now. Can't wait.

Jeanned'Arc L.

So simple. "What is the character's desire?" I have been applying that question to every idea. I won't forget it now. I used it for the writing exercise (a child raking a sandbox next to his nanny). I was also surprised by pushing through with what happens when my character does not get what he wants.