Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass Session on Storytelling

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If you’re going to write… you have to be willing to do the equivalent of walking down a street naked. You have to be able to show too much of yourself. You have to be just a little bit more honest than you’re comfortable with…”

The Dictionary of Literary Biography lists him as one of the top ten living postmodern writers. Born in England, Neil lives in the United States and taught for five years at Bard College, where he is a Professor of the Arts. He is married to artist/musician Amanda Palmer.

Today, as one of the most celebrated writers of our time, his popular and critically-acclaimed works bend genres while reaching audiences of all ages and winning awards of all kinds. The Graveyard Book is the only work ever to win both the Newbery (US) and Carnegie (UK) Medals, awarded by librarians for the most prestigious contribution to children’s literature, and Neil’s bestselling contemporary fantasy novel, American Gods, took the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, and Locus awards, as did his young adult novel Coraline.

The Emmy-nominated adaptation of American Gods renewed for a 3rd season on Starz and most recently, Neil scripted an Amazon/BBC six-part series based on the novel Good Omens, which he co-wrote with the late Terry Pratchett.

Here are my favourite take aways from viewing

What you’re doing is lying, but you’re using the truth in order to make your lies convincing and true. You’re using them as seasoning. You’re using the truth as a condiment to make an otherwise unconvincing narrative absolutely credible

Truth in Fiction

The goal is to be credible and convincing.

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.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge explained that in order to sink into and enjoy a story, an audience must have “poetic faith”—meaning that they must be willing to accept that the story they are hearing is a facsimile of reality.

In order to encourage a reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” writers strive for verisimilitude. (Today, Stephen Colbert would call this “truthiness.”) The goal is to be credible and convincing.  It doesn’t matter how outlandish the world of your story is, it should feel real to the reader.

Do a lot of living cos everything in the living would be needed in the fiction

Study Counterfactual Books

To understand more about verisimilitude (Truthfulness), study the counterfactual genre. These books tackle “what if” questions, such as “What if Hitler had won the war?” They set their stories in a familiar reality that is twisted in some meaningful way, coupling the familiar and unfamiliar.

Sources of Inspiration – Ideas Come From

Remember that your influences are all sorts of things. And some of them are going to take you by surprise. But the most important thing that you can do is open yourself to everything.


An allusion is a short reference to another story, usually through the use of well-known elements. For example, you can quickly reference Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by mentioning a white rabbit. Allusions generate interest because they set a context for the story you’re reading while hinting at the similarities or differences in the two works

Neil suggests many tools for approaching an old story from a new angle.

Change point of view:

 Choose an alternate character to retell a familiar story. In the novel Foe (1986), J.M. Coetzee narrates the tale of Robinson Crusoe from the point of view of Susan Barton, a castaway who washed up on the island in the middle of Crusoe’s adventures.

Modernize themes:

A lot of classic tales get a gender-based upgrade, where an author will delve into a female character’s head from a more modern perspective. Margaret Atwood’s novella The Penelopiad (2005) revisits Homer’s Odyssey through the eyes of Penelope and her chorus of twelve maids.

Switch a story element:

 This could mean taking a story to a new location—Cinder (2012) by Marissa Meyer re-imagines Cinderella as a cyborg in Beijing.

Make it yours:

Take a familiar story and add in a bit of your own background or experience. Mario Puzo did this with panache in The Godfather (1969), bringing elements of Shakespeare’s Henry IV to the world he knew well: Italian immigrants in post-war America.

You get ideas from two things coming together. You get ideas from things that you have seen and thought and known about and then something else that you’ve seen and thought and known about, and the realization that you can just collide those things.

Composite Heap

In Writing Down the Bones, author Natalie Goldberg argues that “it takes a while for our experience to sift through our consciousness” and that our senses “need the richness of sifting” in order that we can “see the rich garden we have inside us and use that for writing.” She coined the term “composting” to describe this process of allowing the unconscious an conscious minds to process experience before sharing or re-inventing it in writing.

Many writers practice composting in one form or another—usually by collecting various things that inspire them and assembling them in a journal, folder, or online file. Rereading your compost heap can not only give you time to process difficult subjects, it can trigger fresh inspiration and help you make creative leaps by linking up seemingly disparate elements.


Neil posits that ideas come from confluence, or the peculiar combinations of thoughts and experiences that are unique to you. Many writers would agree. Others have found ideas in dreams (Stephen King and Stephanie Meyer), in sudden flashes of inspiration (J.K. Rowling), in a casual joke (Kazuo Ishiguro), while doing a mundane task like visiting a yard sale (Donna Tartt) or while grading papers (J.R.R. Tolkien). Still others find inspiration in the people they know (P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, and Ian McEwan). Roald Dahl kept an Ideas Book (his own compost heap) and found an ideafor a novel from an old comment he’d written many years before.

In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert goes so far as to say that ideas are a “disembodied, energetic life form” and that creativity “is a force of enchantment…like in the Hogwarts sense.” In order to collaborate with these life forms, you must simply engage in “unglamorous, disciplined labor” and write.

You get ideas from two things coming together. You get ideas from things that you have seen and thought and known about and then something else that you’ve seen and thought and known about, and the realization that you can just collide those things.

Online Tools

  • I Write Like, a free online tool that allows you to analyze your own writing and tells you which authors you most resemble.

Recommended Reading

• Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

The Art of the Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn

• The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing by Alice LaPlante

Recommended Counterfactual Books

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Neil Gaiman Teaches The Art of Storytelling

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