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.

Keep going. Write. Finish things. Do it again.

Every second of this class was an incredible experience!

Very inspiring. Neil is a very honest teacher and he does a great job of sharing his experience in a way that is relatable and very humble.

One of the best classes i had here. A great blend of ideas and concepts told in an almost fictional way by a master of prose...


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.

Travis W.

So grateful for Mr. Neil Gaimans guidance and direction. Can't wait to continue these lessons.

Sharon N.

I have had to skip this lesson. The opening lines Neil read are real and raw - they have triggered a childhood memory of my own......... hearing my mother screaming when I was barely six years old ....... 'the baby is going to die. the baby is going to die.' A tribute to the skill of his writing abilities.

Eric C.

Somehow appropriate to this section Is a quote from a character in the novel I'm working to get published. Alexander, a chancellor (dictator), has captured an operative who is trying to topple him, and after a suggestion by him that she is sexually attracted to him she denies it and says he is evil. His reply, "The conflict between good and evil is so overrated. The only time good ever wins is when evil changes sides... And I have no intention of changing sides."


The child looked up from the small sandbox at the short, plump nanny. She had a worried and confused look about her as if she was trying to recall an important fact that slipped out of her mind. She smiled tentatively at the child with the small, green rake noting his fair complexion and statue-like perfection. Curly fair hair cascading to his pink , startling lipid green eyes, full deep pink lips, perfectly proportioned body. He appeared the epitome of the perfect child as if he belonged in a painting from another era. Still puzzled, she could not recall the child’s name nor those of his parents. She was not usually forgetful but she could not even remember where they lived. She smiled at him again. “Are you okay?” she asked him. “Warm enough?” “I'm hungry,” he replied. She began looking in her bag for a snack; maybe she was supposed to feed him. He was hungry. “It's okay,” he said. “Mama and Papa will be here soon, and then we'll eat.” He felt they should have been there by now. He was ravenous. Relieved, the nanny vowed to take notes of her duties so this wouldn't happen again. She looked up; others were leaving the park, it felt late. She hoped his parents would arrive soon. Ah, two equally beautiful adults approached the boy and nanny. “I'm hungry cried the child,” at the approach of his parents. “We are too,” said the parents in unison. The nanny felt relief which suddenly turned to fear as the parents and child shifted into large, raptor like birds with fist-sized talons and huge leathery wings. The next instant she found herself hundreds of feet in the air and ascending rapidly. She struggled but was snug in the talons of the male. The mother and child followed behind. Soon they would arrive at the nest.