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.

Thank you so much for the classes, Neil. And now it is time to write! Totally inspirational. I love your faith in young writers.

I knew this already, but he’s a great speaker. Just listening to him gets me motivated to write.

I've written two books, both published, and write all the time, primarily historical fiction. I know I am a good writer and have great stories to tell but at times I feel like I am lost and need guidance or advice from someone who has made it big. Neil's comments, thoughts and advice have already made me a better writer. I will recommend this course to everyone I know who writes.

Mr. Neil is a good inspiration to keep on going. I've got quite a bit of ideas that I have left dormant for a long time and push off for various reasons but with his class I am looking back at them and beginning them again. Write and finish, write and finish, write and finish.


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.

Federico A.

I have been struggling with bouts of depression for months now. I had not come back to Neil's classes in weeks. This morning I dragged myself to the desk and went for this lesson. I wrote, I hadn't written in weeks too, and this is very long for me. I did the exercise. I would very much like if Neil could see this short text (at 650 words, it is not a great effort). All of my classmate's feedback will be helpful. Good day. CLICK The Leupold & Stevens Mark 6 had been a real bit, but it was worth it. He had been meaning to change his fridge for something a little roomier –now that he had the recipe for Vichyssoise down, he was putting away larger and larger recipients full of vegetable goodness-, but that was going to have to wait a couple of months. The L&S Mark 6 had gone on sale at midnight and a couple of tumblers of whiskey buzzing in his head had raved about the bargain, so he couldn’t but click and purchase. Mind you, the definition was mind-blowing. He could see which of the drivers had shampooed that morning and which had simply plastered their do with oil or gel or mousse. He also a wind gauge but he was hardly paying attention to it; the Mark 6 told him everything he needed to know by faithfully showing him the plastic bags caught in whirlwinds and the oblique trajectory of the feral pigeons outside the church. As long as he kept his breathing at 15 per second, he’d be fine. The insulation pad was working nicely; none of his limbs had gone numb and the underbrush camo cloak roasted the parts of his body that the pad didn’t reach. All he was missing now was the couple in the church. Bit of a cliché this, the sniper at the wedding, but there was no other way: the man in question was practically a ghost and never would he show more flesh than now. The bride was stunning. He’d been observing them for weeks at restaurants and tailors’ and notaries. She had this hypnotic way of playing with her hair when she was on the verge of boredom that momentarily made him lose sight of his objective. Her thighs were things of strength and sinew and beauty; he had grown to love seeing her walk in groups, her lovely gait was then heightened like a rainbow that becomes more special and hopeful because the preceding rain has destroyed a thousand homes on the riverbank. Yes, it would be a shame to do this to her. The bells chimed and his last sigh was heaved. From now on air would come into his lungs in thimbles, so very different from the buckets he would intake in his early years. The photographer came out the first, of course. He had a photographer friend with whom he compared notes regarding shooting speeds and angle correction. In his scarce and drunk moments of professional depravity, he fantasized about fitting a shutter on his trigger and take two good shots at the same bird. He would call them “double-takes” and would be hailed as a pioneer. A parabolic downpour of rice began on the atrium and the muscles in his forearms calmly tensed like coiled panthers in an awful simile. The rain of grain would be a snag last week, but not since the Leupold & Stevens Mark 6. The couple stepped out with smiles as big as upturned rainbows. The groom made his heartbeat quicken; a man who never had time for anything had that morning made a complicated knot on a gray silk tie he’d only wear today. He was a klutz, the sniper at the wedding thought, what could she possibly see in him. The best man and the single solitary bridesmaid locked arms for their picture, he took aim and waited until his top hat was on. The brother of the bride. The ghost that summoned him. His sister’s rapist. Let him put on his hat and screw it on his forehead. Let the photographer ask them to keep still. Let the best man congratulate himself on his good looks before the click of the shutter sets him free. Let the Germans at Heckler and Koch and their fabled PSG-1 rifle where Leupold & Stevens had nested work their accurate magic. Click. FEDERICO AC. – 29.06.2KX9

Dale J.

you have open so much in me with these videos, wonderful amazing teaching. Thank you Mr. Gaiman

Becky D.

I love how this is set up. I kept thinking that so much is happening in the space of a short time, and I guess I worry that if I do that in my own writing, it'll lead me right up to where I do not know what's going to happen next and maybe I'll run out of story. I'm like Michener, chapter 1, or one of Tolstoy's long descriptions of farming. I need to make friends with this fast action thing.

Aaron B.

This case study has me thinking of my first story that, I'll cop to it, I'm going to self-publish, not ashamed of it. But it's a story by the name of Goodnight, Little Slayer. It's a story about a father who is hitman for the mob and for two years he's been lying to his young son that his mother moved away. However, she didn't leave him, instead she overdosed and died. The father told his son this lie because he wanted to protect himself from the ugly reality that will come if his son finds out the truth of him. So, I think it's interesting because the main character wants something. He wants to protect his son from the ugly truth, and he wants to give his son a good life. But, what he gets, what he needs is to finally put the lie to bed and be honest with himself and his son. So, throughout the short story, 76 pages, we get constantly what he needs. For his son to find out the truth, deal with the reality and ultimately either hate or forgive his father. People don't know what they want because it's never what they want but always what they need that they get. And the need is never intentional, it's never conscious, because if you need food because you're hungry. Is that a conscious action? The act of eating is, but is the visceral need to get sustenance really something that you can control? Maybe, maybe not, and so the need of my character is to find some sort of penance for himself and to be redeemed in the eyes of his son. The baby in the story that Mr. Gaiman read, his need was to be a baby, it wasn't to be safe or to be protected, he didn't even know he was in danger. So, what Mr. Gaiman did, I think beautifully was give the other characters needs and have those needs imprint themselves on to the baby so the baby can get what it needs. It's kind of like how Freud said that when we're young, we're in the phase of our life where we are in symbiosis with the world. If we're hungry then we get food, if we're sleepy then we go to sleep and we have somewhere to sleep, everything is there for us. When we're older we have to go in search for those things and so our need becomes more urgent and important, because it's not guaranteed.

Tauna S.

Some of my best memories are of playing in a graveyard. My family provided the land for a church, so long as they kept and tended the graveyard that also occupied the land starting in 1799. The chief occupants of the graveyard were to be our ancestors. And so they are. My family would make sure that the trust was being honored. Every holiday either planting flowers or leaving fresh ones and telling the stories they had heard about each person who had come before. As a child, I knew my grand parents, great grand parents and so on back in time, even if I had never known them in life. We had tea parties and picnics and told the dear dead ones what we were doing, so the stories would go both ways. To me The Graveyard Book just seemed another family's way of staying connected and very comforting.

Gareth S.

I like how simple and easy to understand this lesson was. Not only can he write, he reads beautifully. Great storytelling, so engaging, so pulling me in!

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.