MasterClass: Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling (2019): Season 1, Episode 12 - Descriptions - full transcript

Neil shares his techniques to liven up descriptive prose, including cold opens, withholding information, finding emotional weight, and choosing memorable details.

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[MUSIC PLAYING]

I remember Stephen
King once said to me

that Amy Tan grumbled
to him that when writers

get interviewed, the one
thing they don't ask us about

is the words.

And the words are the most
important things that we have.

The words are what we're
doing everything with.

If you're writing
a novel, you're

If you're writing
a novel, you're

going to have to use 70,000 of
them, 100,000, 200,000 of them.

So in the next class, we're
going to talk about words.



We're going to talk about
language and all of the things

you can do with it.

We're going to talk about humor.

We're going to talk about
world building, all as things

that you can do with words.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I do not hold with
anybody who says

no exposition, no description.

You describe what
needs to be described.

You explain what
needs to be explained.

You are god when
you are writing.

You are absolutely in charge.

You can do whatever you like.

There are no rules other
than tell a great story,



tell it as best you can.

But there is an enormous
pleasure to just telling.

But there is an enormous
pleasure to just telling.

And sometimes you
can describe places.

Let's see.

In "Neverwhere," what I was
doing was describing a world.

And the world of London below
was as much of a character

as any of the
characters in the book.

So one of the things
that I loved doing

was describing places
and describing people

was describing places
and describing people

and trying to make
them vivid, trying

to make the imagery
vivid in your head.

I might not actually describe
what somebody would look like.

But I would paint a
picture that would get you

as a reader to imagine
what they looked like.

For example, fashion
in bodyguards

seemed to be everything.

They all had a knack
of one kind or another.

They all had a knack
of one kind or another.

And each of them was desperate
to demonstrate it to the world.

"At this moment,
Ruislip was facing off

against the Fop With No Name.

The Fop With No
Name looked somewhat

like an early 18th
century rake, one

who hadn't been able to
find real rake clothes

and had to make do with what
you can find at the Oxfam shop.

His face was powdered to
white, his lips painted red.

"Ruislip, the Fop's
opponent, looked

like the kind of
dream one might have

like the kind of
dream one might have

if one fell asleep
watching sumo wrestling

on the television with
a Bob Marley record

playing in the background.

He was a huge Rastafarian who
looked like nothing so much

as an obese and enormous baby.

"They were standing face
to face in the middle

of a cleared circle of
spectators and other bodyguards

and sightseers.

Neither man moved a muscle.

The Fop was a good head
taller than Ruislip.

On the other hand, Ruislip
weighed as much as four Fops,

each of them carrying a large
leather suitcase entirely

each of them carrying a large
leather suitcase entirely

filled with lard.

They stared at each other
without breaking eye contact."

It's a way of describing people.

On the other hand, this is
a description of a city,

and it's a description
of a familiar city.

"Three years in London
had not changed Richard.

Although it had changed the
way he perceived the city.

Richard had originally
imagined London as a grey city,

Richard had originally
imagined London as a grey city,

even a black city, from the
pictures he had seen and was

surprised to find it
filled with color.

It was a city of red brick
and white stone, red buses

and large black taxis,
which were often,

to Richard's initial
puzzlement, gold

or green or maroon,
bright red post boxes,

and green, grassy
parks and cemeteries.

"It was a city in which the
very old and the awkwardly new

jostled each other
not uncomfortably

but without respect, a
city of shops and offices

and restaurants and homes,
of parks and churches,

and restaurants and homes,
of parks and churches,

of ignored monuments and
remarkably unpalatial palaces,

a city of hundreds of districts
with strange names, Crouch

End, Chalk Farm, Earls
Court, Marble Arch, and oddly

distinct identities, a noisy,
dirty, cheerful, troubled city

which fed on tourists, needed
them as it despised them,

in which the average speed of
transportation through the city

had not increased in 300
years following the 500

years of fitful road widening
and unskillful compromises

years of fitful road widening
and unskillful compromises

between the needs of
traffic with the horse-drawn

or, more recently,

motorized and the needs of
pedestrians, a city inhabited

by and teeming with people
of every color and manner

and kind."

And that's the kind of
place where you just go,

yeah, I'm going to describe it.

There's no reason not to.

There's no reason to
"show don't tell,"

whatever that actually means.

whatever that actually means.

When you want to tell somebody
what a city looks like,

tell them.

Why show it?

Why not just tell?

It's a lovely scene setting.

And it sets up a place in which
the story is going to occur.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

So for description, what I try
and do is I will scene set.

So for description, what I try
and do is I will scene set.

I'll set a scene for people.

I'll describe a person.

I'll describe a gate.

I'll describe a grave.

But what I will do is
assume that people generally

know what a tree looks like,
what a house looks like,

what a door looks like.

So what I'll try and tell
them while I'm describing

is what makes this
a little different,

what makes this memorable.

what makes this memorable.

And it doesn't have
to be pretty big.

It can be a fairly small image.

But it can be a tree that looks
like a clutching hand trying

to grab the clouds.

And suddenly you
know why that tree

is different to all
the other trees.

And it evokes emotion.

And the other lovely
thing that you

can do if you can
with description

can do if you can
with description

is do more than one
thing at the same time.

I used to be spoiled, because
when I would write comics,

I would just describe what
we were seeing to an artist

and tell them to
draw that thing.

In prose, you have
to be more evocative.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

When you're writing
a description,

the most important thing
is to find something, find

one thing that is memorable,
one thing that's important,

one thing that's different.

And then look at
that using a sense.

It may be touch.

It may be smell.

Smell is often
ignored in writing.

And smell, in the real world, is
subliminal, rolling, evocative,

And smell, in the real world, is
subliminal, rolling, evocative,

and very, very likely to take
you to very strange places.

It can be taste.

It can be touch.

You-- you need to
invoke whatever

is going to be strongest.

And it's not just the
way that something looks.

How something looks is always--

it's always useful.

It's always important.

But sometimes how it feels can
be much, much more powerful.

But sometimes how it feels can
be much, much more powerful.

In "Coraline," I have Coraline
going through a tunnel,

a weird kind of little tunnel,
to get from the world that

she's used to-- she's opened a
door that normally opens onto

a brick wall, and
now it doesn't.

There's a passage.

And let's see.

And let's see.

Here's a little
bit in "Coraline."

"Coraline turned
her back on the door

and began to run, as
fast as was practical,

through the dark corridor,
running her hand along the wall

to make sure she didn't
bump into anything

or get turned around
in the darkness.

It was an uphill run.

And it seemed to her that it
went on for a longer distance

than anything could possibly go.

"The walls she was touching
and felt warm and yielding now.

"The walls she was touching
and felt warm and yielding now.

And, she realized,
it felt as if it were

covered in a fine, downy fur.

It moved as if it
were taking a breath.

She snatched her
hand away from it.

"Winds howled in the dark.

She was scared she would
bump into something.

And she put out her hand
for the wall once more.

This time what she
touched felt hot and wet

as if she had put her
hand in somebody's mouth.

And she pulled it back
with a small wail."

And she pulled it back
with a small wail."

And it's the kind of moment
where touch suddenly becomes

the only sense that matters.

And a moment like
that, where you're

touching something warm and wet,
it's the stuff of nightmares.