From Neil Gaiman's MasterClass

Truth in Fiction

One of the central tools of literature is using the “lie” of a made-up story to tell a human truth. Neil shows you how to make your story’s world—no matter how outlandish—feel real to readers.

Topics include: The Truth of Coraline · Be Honest · Honesty in The Ocean at the End of the Lane


One of the central tools of literature is using the “lie” of a made-up story to tell a human truth. Neil shows you how to make your story’s world—no matter how outlandish—feel real to readers.

Topics include: The Truth of Coraline · Be Honest · Honesty in The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Neil Gaiman

Teaches the Art of Storytelling

Learn More


Fiction stories are one of the most interesting phenomena that human beings have. Human beings are storytelling creatures. We tell stories. Stories are vital. Stories are important. We can go back later to why they're vital. We can go back later to how they're important. We can go back later to how long they have been around. But the important thing to understand is that stories are part of us. And we convey truth with stories, which is fundamentally the most gloriously giant contradiction that you can ever imagine. What we're saying is we are using lies. We're using memorable lies. We are taking people who do not exist and things that did not happen to those people in places that aren't, and we are using those things to communicate true things to kids. Now whether you're looking at-- And to each other. I mean, we're-- not just kids, but it begins with kids. You tell a child the story of "Little Red Riding Hood," and there are lots of takeaways from that story. But one of the takeaways that is always taken is, you know, there are people out there who may not mean you well. There are people out there, who when they say, where are you going, what are you doing, you may not want to tell them. That might get your grandmother eaten. Might get you eaten. There are people it is best to avoid. Some-- some people-- some wolves are hairy on the inside, and some wolves are hairy on the outside, and perhaps, you're best keeping yourself safe. And it's a true thing. It's a good thing to learn. It may be not something that we are automatically told, so a story like that gives us that as information. You're telling a reader something that you hope will stay with them, something honest, something important, something vital. But you're using lies. "Little Red Riding Hood" never existed. Wolves don't eat grandmothers and then climb into beds disguised as grandmothers. And if they did, Little Red Riding Hood would walk in and go, that is a wolf. She would not be sitting there going, grandmother, what big eyes you have. All the better to see you with, my-- And wolves can't talk. But we understand that. We, as human beings, are really good at taking that information. That is the magic of stories. That's the magic of fiction. Because it's giving you something big and true and important that you might not otherwise get. And you can carry it in your heart, and you can tell it to your children and your children's children. [MUSIC PLAYING] I began "Coraline" with a quote that wasn't from GK Chesterton, although I said it was. I said, "Fairy tales aren't true. Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated." That, for me, was the important thing about "Coraline," the idea that dragons can be defeated. I wanted to tell my kids something that had taken me 30 years of living to figure out. So when I was writing "Coraline," I wrote the first third of the book, and th...

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.

Of the many things I learnt during the Masterclass, one stays with me always: "write with honesty". I would like to be write, finish and share my honest stories about immortal souls and confused delivery boys with the ability to heal the sick.

So far Neil has been providing me with information I never got in school. Highly recommend this to any inspiring storyteller.

told me what I needed to hear....will repeat and repeat.

Neil has inspired me to push my creative talents and keep writing. He has such a good approach to plotting and working around obstacles.


Alfred M.

A truly profound lesson. I hadn't realized the amount of truth that I was avoiding putting into my writing. With the essay prompt in the lesson, in short, I found myself in tears over a huge realization of regret. Learning to channel this pain, and perhaps some other demons, into art will be an important lesson in life, not only in fiction.

Maya R.

A lot of things have made me sad. A lot of things still do. Sometimes, I feel sad for no reason, which is actually quite beautiful too, because of the uncertainty that lingers inside the sadness. I have no particular saddest memory or embarrassing moment. I’m living and with that life I have moments of joy and anger and sadness, choosing one moment from among them is close to impossible. I am sad right now, too. Sad because the world is so damn beautiful and I don’t understand it. There is so much glorious space around me, waiting to be filled, to be spoken about and I cannot reach it, because I’m running away from all that noise. It’s actually funny to think I can escape it. We are all stuck with our individual grief, an I’m stuck with mine and all its glorious uncertainty, thrown into a void. I think, and this is just a thought, that I am sad because the only friend I’ve ever had is a thousand lives away, dead to the world. It’s her birthday today, and I deserve to hug her, to wake her up and see her smile. It is a selfish thought, but humans are selfish creatures. Perhaps it is a blessing to her, that she no longer survives in a state of personhood, but not to me. Never to me. I miss her so much right now, with the kind of sorrow that’s deep and rich and blooms inside you, spreading from your heart to your world. I always thought she was made of stars. With all the laughter and light exploding inside her. And stars are not supposed to die and stop shining. Stars are supposed to shine for billions of years and outlive us all. It hurts so much to know that this star has gone, and disappeared into some void of an infinite galaxy. Yet, I’m still living my life, drowning and waking again. It isn’t fair and it never will be. I think this is why I am sad. Because the stars have stopped shining and there is nothing I can do about it.


I have not found a single book that was this up front about writing. I now feel that, having decided to take this course was my first step in the direction most appropriate for me as an author. I have been trying to write a book for almost 5 years now and, while I have met with success and setbacks while writing it, the biggest problem I have faced, is a minimal amount of confidence in "how" I have been writing over "what" I have been writing. Mr. Gaiman, I had no idea who you were until this evening. But I certainly do now. Thank you for this lesson and this course. I have a renewed sense of drive and I will be paying close attention to what you are saying here. Cheers, Mr. Gaiman. I hope to shake your hand and thank you someday for these lessons.

Lea P.

Mr. Gaiman, You are my favorite contemporary author. While I am embarrassed that my attention for reading has declined in the age of the Internet, I want you to know that yours are the works I seek out to actually spend time with. The rhythm of your voice, and compassion through scary stuff, soothes my soul and I am grateful for your presence in my life. I delight in your perspective and marvel in your clever literary dance moves. There are things you do, that capture and hold attention, while you share Truths dressed in fiction, in such a fashion that people are more likely to face down that which is difficult to fathom. The last part is what is most important to me. I’d like to ask for your writer’s advice and guidance at this juncture. My practice in writing has been focused on creative non-fiction. ‘Finding my voice’ or exercising it, has been personally therapeutic. It is vital for determining my standpoint, my nexus of coordinates in space time and for owning responsibility for whatever maintenance is necessary for it’s part in the infinite number of systems it is part of. Holding space for, and bringing attention to perspectives which have been backgrounded, ignore, or oppressed is vital to easing suffering, to better integrity, and to freedom for all of us. Or so I’ve been told, and I like to believe it. My mother is brilliantly creative. She was a fiber artist when I was very young, and taught me to spin and weave and crochet and knit and sew and many other things. These skills are the fundamental metaphoric framework for my understanding of the nature of reality. She’s also a pioneer in the New Age practice of rewriting your story to create the reality you want. Her practice of historical revision has been very confusing for me to navigate, but it set me on a Path of Truth Seeking at the tender age of eight, when I started yoga and meditation. Mindfulness, Vipasanna, the practice of examining the nature of reality as it is occurring, has been my touch stone, The Most Important Thing I Do, for decades. It was after I completed a memoir master’s thesis, “The Guru, The Stripper,” that I was able to say to my mother, ‘You do not have a monopoly on reality,’ and I now use that phrase frequently when arguing with bully construction workers on my union’s facebook page. There are things that need to be said about the construction industry, from my perspective, from my personal familial history, and the expanded social awareness of the intersections of class, ‘race’ and gender, and of course, about all the wooey stuff that comes with more than four decades of a highly sensitive person sitting still and staring at the back of their eyelids, watching the show, and feeling their feelings. The construction industry is my compost heap. Some of what I want to say about it is funny, much of it is horrible. In speaking truth to power, calling out what everyone knows is wrong, (including the many people who support #45’s infestation in the white house), my speaking out has gotten me blacklisted in a significant number of companies here in Portland, Oregon. Plus, I do not know where to find legal guidelines for writers, to protect me from litigation in telling it like it is. I also really don’t want to shame them. They know what they are doing is shameful and that is why they react violently. I don’t think shaming them is healing. I’m not sure how to make that transition to cloaking my direct factual experiences in the pretty garb of fiction. When I was a child my imagination was very free, and it does still run wild in generating it’s own realities, so I know it’s there. I just have this deep habit of clinging to the truth, to ground myself in creating a reality that I can navigate. I believe there is a door in the Dreaming, to the Akashic record, or to it’s equivalent of a card catalogue for it’s Dewey decimal system. Would you please point me in the most useful direction? to put me on a time-line where I can create a path out of suffering for myself and others?

Francesca B.

“Writers are liars, my dear, surely you know that by now?” And yet, things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” And yet, as I attempt to write of fantastic things and events that genuinely did happen, most of which I witnessed and journaled at the time -- not as a fiction writer, but as a Witness; as a Gospel proclaiming the modern-day miracles of God as they occurred to me and others in our most devote and unusual mountain top community, here in the north of the Holyland. Tsfat (or Safed, Zefat, Cfat, Safad, Tzfat or whichever misspelling of 3000 years of outsider influence, it is always צפת in Hebrew), Sfas is, as my wife and I would agree, one of Neil Gaiman’s “Soft Places,” where the question of “What is Real?” is truly up for debate. Never mind that the city is 98% Jewish and, as is well known, you can’t get three Jews to agree on the same thing. Perhaps that is why Safed is the city with the most synagogues per square meter of any place on Earth: because every Jew needs a shul to which they belong and one of which they refuse to ever enter! We believe it’s a Soft Place for other reasons. First, that thousands of her residents firmly believe that the entire world and all it’s creatures, the sun and stars and the whole Universe were created with the words “Let there be Light” – precisely 5,779 years, 7 months and 3 days ago, at the time of this writing. It’s true. Most Haredi Orthodox and Chassidic Jews all believe this, but in few places can they back this up with a majority of the community’s beliefs. And this community believes HARD. And that makes, to my observation, reality softer. Second, another segment of the community, are the Hippy Artists who took over the Arab quarter (after they all left in ‘48, chased out by what they believed to be nuclear fall-out. “Tis True!) who made a popular Artist’s Quarter, populated by avante guard Israelis from Europe in the 60’s, followed by English-speaking Zionists in the 70’s and then Hippy Baal Teshuvas in the 80’s and Russian refusenik Artists in the 90’s, along with Ethiopians from Operation Solomon. Nearly every of the scores of American Baal Teshuva (literally means “Master of the Answer/Redemption,” which seems undeservingly arrogant to me) in Tsfat have some background with weed and psychedelics, which also lends power to the endless quantum possibilities that we see as “God,” and as such, His Creation. Absolutely anything can and does occur every day. But overall, this city is the city of the Holy HaAri’ HaKodesh, Rabbi Itzchak Luria. When the Gaon (genius) and Mystic arrived in Safed, he became a student of the Gadol HaDor (Giant of the Generation) Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, the greatest teacher of Kaballah, Jewish Mysticism, in the Land. But after merely 18 months of study, the great master declared the 35 year old Luria to be a greater kaballist and His Master! I was always very impessed by Rav Cordovero’s humility in that act, and always tell him so, whenever I visit his kever (grave) in Tsfat’s Jewish-world-famous cemetery, just 150 meters downhill from my Artist’s Colony home. The Ariz’l or “the Lion of Blessed Memory,” gave the entire Jewish World the beautiful Friday night service of Kabbalat Shabbat; and unto a smaller clique, he gave the concept of the Ten Sefirot of Kaballah; the Ten Emanations of Infinite Light down into the finite space of Malchut – this Material Plane. Learning Kaballah see that the structure and material of the Universe is of Thought and Ideals – you know – like Rod Serling tried to tell you every episode. So if ever there was a place that could be soft enough allow for circumstance to become coincidence, and co-incidence to become a phenomenon, and phenomenon to become miraculous, it is this, the one of the Holyland’s four holy cities; the city of Air; Levitical city, and Biblical city of Refuge: Tsfat, Ir HaKodesh! And I have lived and learned and friended in this magical holy city for over 30 years. I am privy to literally hundreds of wondrous stories of miraculous phenomenon and many more mere “co-incidences” in my time here, and I wish to finally put some of these remarkable tales down on paper because, as sole witness and listener to every side of the shocking events that broke up our community in 1992 and 1993, I feel responsible to see to it that these events are not forgotten, shrugged off as an aberration, nor that the blameless be blamed for the Simchat Torah attack of the Beirav shul. And that demons may exist, and of our near attempt to slay one, that seemed to occupy the hollow shell of a teenaged Canadian girl. Or maybe I just need to work out, now that I am a husband and home-owner and father of three children, whether all that happened, all that I wrote down daily in my journals, really happened the way we believed it did, at that time. So I have no capacity for fiction, and while I see Neil’s point in the opening statement above, I have no desire to lie. Not one bit. I even refuse to turn my final terrifying meeting with this entity-inside-a-girl’s body into a final dramatic battle of good vs. evil, as I may be asked some day, by a Hollywood producer, because it is an amazing story, all told. I just want to tell the Truth, the whole truth, exactly as I knew it in 1993. I would like to tell every conversation nearly word-for-word, but I didn’t have a cellphone recording the dialogue back then – no one did, yet. I want to write a factual history, embellished only within the context of the religious values of our unusual, spiritual Baal Teshuva community, which happens to coexist in one of Earth’s few remaining Soft Places.

Elias M.

This lesson was good. I forced myself to work on the PDF. I choose to write about something I regret. I was aiming for verisimilitude and hopefully achieved it. Please reader, if you have time, let me know your thoughts on the essay & let me know if I can do the same for you. I regret kissing Melanie. I kissed her dark skin. I kissed her back gently. Felt her get tense, then untense. I kissed her chocolate neck when she told me she was tickle-less. She giggled when I did it. I kissed her forehead, and she had no qualms about it. I gave her a hug and she did not hesitate to hug me back. But where I failed was when I didn’t kiss her lips. To “seal the deal” as they say. Why didn’t I? fear comes rushing to answer… fear. I regret kissing Melanie because I lost a friend. I lost a mentee. I should have fought my temptations harder, but I didn’t. We men are weak against female temptation. I regret kissing Melanie because a friendship is bigger than lust. I can’t text her or call her or go shopping with her no more. I can’t even look at her in the eyes. This couch where I am sitting on now, typing this essay away, is where it all happened. It shouldn’t have though. Maybe next time, I will have learned my lesson.


Stories tell us the truths we need to know. I have been living in the Amazon rainforest for 8 years -- travelling from tribe to tribe; collecting stories; fighting petrol companies; learning a thing from one tribe and teaching it to another tribe which had already forgotten it. To begin with, the fluidity of lies and truths in the jungle drove me mad -- nothing seemed to be really true, neither were things really lies. People would lie to bluntly (" Yes, this dog IS castrated") and would not even blush when another reality surfaces ('Yes, so he impregnated your bitch"); and the most fantastic of stories were discussed with all seriousness ("Then, one moon ago, the pink dolphin turned into a man and came into the village..."). I did not manage to make sense of it all. One day I have reached a very isolated village where the petrol company have bribed the head of the village to let them enter their ancestral land in order to perform seismic testing. I came from another village where the petrol companies have been operating for over 30 years and the level of contamination have reached a point where people were dying daily of drinking water (and still are). I brought pictures and recordings with me, trying to inform about the reality of letting your land be exploited for the sake of petrol. People were polite, but were not interested. Giving up on the entire mission I spent my time making threads from tree fibres and chatting -- I told them about the teenager I met in another part of the jungle, who told me that his uncle and uncle's friends, while digging for the petrol industry, have mistakenly hit a head of a sleeping serpent. The serpent was 10 meters wide and 500 meters long, with three mighty heads, it was covered with soil and had trees growing on it, which was why the workers did not see it and stroke it with their tools. The petrol company had to call for 3 helicopters in order to shoot the serpent out from the air, until they managed killing it and the workers went back to work. It is a true story. The boy I met have told me his uncle told him. But I did not have to tell the villagers that the story was true- they knew it to be so. Within seconds I had the entire village around me all excited, each one of them telling another similar story, that their "father when he was young" or "the wife of their brother who lived in a different village" had experienced. It was at that moment I realised how to tell true stories. I have learnt that the entire knowledge-base needed for the survival of the tribe, and of the jungle is embedded in such stories - everything that one ever needs to know. And I have learnt to create such stories in order to add knowledge about things which might not have existed once, when the original myth which keeps the tribes from killing the pink dolphin was created, but needs to be known today (like the endangering of the Manatee and the toxic nature of its flesh). And lies?.... Lies are just bad stories which serves no purpose.

Dwight H.

How ironic that I live on St Rt. 39 and have a license plate TOE BEES, A warning about stepping on bees being a thing of evil. I had no idea who you were until I took this course.

Timothy B.

I was abruptly honest with myself. I have always been honest with myself, that's the only way I know how to be honest with others, but in this case, I delved more profound than I have ever gone with my insecurities and fears. I have never been so frank with myself ever before and this too a lot out of me. Even as I was writing these things down, I started to tremble and cry, and yet I found the words as authentic as they ever could be written down on the page in front of me. This exercise was a work of emotional therapy I think I've needed for all my life. This lesson did something to me; I'll never look back from again.

Alyssa W.

This is what I got out of the lesson: That One Time I Was Abducted by an Extraterrestrial Aria and I are driving down the 405 towards Santa Monica. 102.7 playing in the background. I wasn’t paying attention to whether Ryan Seacrest’s voice was talking , making “jokes” or if that was the new Kanye West song. Aria is talking about a business class she is taking where they have to analyze how to merge companies and still keep the comradely of the two departments joining together in tact. What she is saying reminds me of a dream I had recently that looked exactly like they very moment. We — I say we, could have really been anyone talking about “merging” anything together to bring me back to the memory of that dream. Better yet, in my dream this time, a huge ship that was in the sky flies about the freeway. My first thought is the huge thing is a military ship in the sky, there was no way. I look up to watch this aircraft fly along the 405 as it makes its way to land right on the freeway. Almost as if in slow motion, I am blasted back from my day dream and have to slam on my breaks to avoid the damn Nissan Altima in front of me. She is finishing her explanation of a question I asked about the psychology that goes into running companies of the degree she is explaining. We start moving again, her and I hop into a conversation on how she regrets not pursuing a relationship with a guy from her past, who today is well known for his hustle of producing and PRing for different celebrities. I tell her I can relate, “There was one last slice of pepperoni pizza left in the fridge last night — which was still there this morning. Pepperoni is not exactly my favorite type of thing to eat in the morning, but now I am regretting that I didn’t say it, because well, now I am hungry.” She rolled her eyes. I shrugged my shoulders. Personally, I can see how the story correlates in my own head to a man. Aria is an interesting one, she will listen to all my outlandish ideas and stories — as I hers, yet there is just something almost smug about her that turns people away in my opinion. That could be a reflection here also for, I may be the smug one… who knows. Now, it is Monday. I did not say what the other day was, but today is Monday and I am sitting in class. First day of a new semester. I think I am about 35 semesters into an infinite amount of schooling that really will never end until I am dead, unless I am lucky and there is more after death. What ever you believe. This teacher wants to build trust between her and the class, and the classmates with each other. She gives us all name tags that either say a person, place, or thing and we are supposed to go around the class asking our mates to describe or act out the word. Like charades, except well we are grown young adults with papers attached to out foreheads. The point of the silly exercise is really to ready us for the fun part. She gives is the typical list of questions to “look deep within” to bring out past skeletons or.. to help Brittany get over her dad losing all his money and them having to down size their life. That was just an example of the stories the class heard. The question consisted of: - A time when you were deeply embarrassed - When you regret something you did - The saddest moment of your life - A secret you are afraid to talk about Okay cool. I have seen these before. I am really thinking this should not be to difficult to bring my story to light. We have the weekend to write and bring out stories back to Miss Teacher to gobble up and us to have a new embarrassing story to talk about, after she announced that we will be reading our stories to the class. Of course, duh, why would we not. Makes total sense. As us millennials would say — ‘checks out’. Or just me. I don’t know I am an entitled millennial that sees bigger things in life than spending the whole thing working for some one else. I sit down the next Sunday night before class, she really wanted us to take time for this writing. 8AM the next morning, my turn has come to read my story to the class. Well, I chose all four and I also made the whole story up. It went like this: As the ship was landing on the 405 in front of us, Aria was still talking about the psychology that went into merging a mans world into a woman’s world and the struggle that goes into (I think she used the word compromise), the compromising of the two entities. Unfortunately, I did not hear her statement fully, my mind was elsewhere. Really embarrassing, I will have to ask her later to repeat herself because I was not listening. Finally, her sight has met mine, the Nissan Altima has totally pulled to the shoulder as the chaos of the freeway being completely blocked by a giant ship caught everyone’s attention. (Side-Note: I can just see some of my fellow LA-ions first though being “I am already late for work” or something funnier that people around the world can think of. We like to live up to our M.O., so ___fill in the blank here of what an LA-ion would think when an alien ship touches down and stops every one from getting to their destination in a timely manner. Where Aria and I were going did not quite matter to us as much anymore. There was a fucking ship in front of us that landed right on the damn 405. Felt like we all were lost kids being found by Peter Pan in Captain Hook’s ship ready to whisk us off to Neverland to save us all from growing up. I look over at Aria, she has her phone out recording the whole damn thing. Damn millennial I think. How embarrassing that I wish I thought of that first. I’ll have to have her airdrop the video to me later. If there is a later. I am sure you are all wondering what I am really thinking in this moment, well I was regretting I didn’t pull out my phone first because she always forgets to send me thing even though I send her the ones that she asks for. I look around the class and am met with different gazes of confusion, interest, and annoyance from Brittany because she didn’t think of a better analogy to put her hurt little girl story into like I did. Miss Teacher has that blank look of “Continue, I hope there is a point to all this…” Same Miss Teacher, same. In my dream, what came out of the ship were human looking beings yet we all knew they could not necessarily be Earth’s definition of humans. The first ones that step out on the the long ramp that extended from the ship were a bunch of men with suits and dark sunglasses on. They must have got the memo that it is sunny in Los Angeles. I look around my car for my shades, dang forgot them at home, another regret that I didn’t think of them before my journey out of the house today. Aria is there though, shades pushed to the top of her head, eyes wide, still recording the moment. Next what came out looked like an orange man with a toupee a top his head and a suit, with a hat in his hand that said “Make America Great Again”. Just kidding, sure would be funny though if these foreign life forms took on the human form and their leader was a replica of a Donald Trump look-a-like. That probably would have been the saddest moment of my life; the best these life forms got from America was a shitty man that bought the title ‘president’.. ooff. Wouldn’t that be awkward explaining to them. “No, actually alien life forms, we regret to inform you, your kind with him as your leader would be responded to best if you travelled a little further South East towards Florida.” Unless actually we take into consideration that DT is probably a one in a million, I sure hope no one would replicate him. Actually the figure that stepped out after the secret service men onto the ramp was a woman of color, dressed in an all white dress down to her feet. Her hair was in one long braid that almost swept the ground like the Balinese brooms. I was close enough to see the outer details of the woman, not close enough though to truly see what else she looked like. Now, these entities, I can not say they are humans yet, for I do not know, all I know is that the five of them are moving on a conveyor belt towards the bottom of the ramp. They stop half way through the ramp ride —long haired lady points in my direction. How do I know that? I just knew deep inside my soul, she was pointing at me. Her eyes were looking at me and she wanted me. As almost everyone else on the freeway was already, I followed by opening my door to step out of my car. I raise my head to look towards the light of this woman pointing through me, and I am zapped into death. That was when I woke up. I woke to smoke coming out of my hood, the front end of my car smashed into the Nissan Altima and Aria on the phone with 911 I assume. All the freeway is still stopped, and the woman is still there, pointing at me. “Aria, is there a ship with a woman standing atop it, pointing in our direction?” I look over Aria is out of the car talking to the guy in the Nissan Altima about the crash. They are looking around at all the other cars analyzing how the paramedic is going to get to me. All I wanted to know was, what does she want? I undid my seat belt, stepped out of my car, still looking at the woman with her ship. The moment I looked away, I found myself 31years into the future surrounded by people, I consciously knew I knew. Yet, what I could tell is that I had lived my biggest regret, fear, lie, and truth. I had looked away. The time had passed me by.