MasterClass: Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling (2019): Season 1, Episode 14 - Genre - full transcript

Readers' expectations are intrinsically tied to genre. Neil explains how an understanding of your story's genre can help you provide delightful surprises to your audience.

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[MUSIC PLAYING]

I used to puzzle a
lot over what genre was.

I knew that I was writing
sometimes genre fiction,

sometimes not.

I knew that I had
a huge advantage

in that the majority of what I
was writing as a young writer

was comics, was
graphic novels, which

is a medium, comics, that
looks to the uninitiated

is a medium, comics, that
looks to the uninitiated

like a genre.

But because it wasn't a
genre, it was just a medium,



I was allowed to do
whatever I wanted.

I could write
historical fiction.

I could write fantasy fiction.

I could write high
fantasy and low fantasy.

I could do science fiction.

I could do pure horror.

I could do political fiction.

I could do it all.

And because it was all
coming out as comics,

people didn't mind.

But what genre was baffled me.

But what genre was baffled me.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

It wasn't until I read a
book by a film professor



in California called
Linda Williams, who wrote

a book called "Hard Core."

And it was a film
professor's analysis

of hardcore pornography.

And 3/4 of the way
through the book,

she compared hardcore
pornography films of the 1970s

she compared hardcore
pornography films of the 1970s

to the musical.

And suddenly, the
penny dropped for me,

because musicals,
like 1970s porn films,

had certain things
that have to happen.

You need the opening song
by a large chorus of people.

You need the heroine singing on
her own about what she thinks

You need the heroine singing on
her own about what she thinks

is going to happen.

You need the song
that's the first meeting

of our heroine and our hero.

You need the comic relief song
with the three robust people

behind him.

You need all of those
things, ending up

with the final song, which
the hero and the heroine

sing together that indicates
they've been brought together.

You need the final chorus,
and then we're out.

And the truth is in
a classic musical,

the plot exists purely
to stop all of the songs

the plot exists purely
to stop all of the songs

from happening at the same time.

Just as in a '70s porn film,
according to Linda Williams,

the plot existed to stop
all of the sex happening

at the same time.

Though actually, that tells
me what the difference

is between a cowboy novel and
a novel set in cowboy times,

because you can just look at
it from a perspective of reader

because you can just look at
it from a perspective of reader

expectations.

What are they
coming to this for?

What will they feel
cheated if they do not get?

They're going to expect
the cattle stampede.

They're going to expect
the showdown at high noon.

They're going to expect
the fight in the saloon.

They're going to expect--

you start listing the things.

And you go, OK.

So the plot actually
needs to exist

to keep all of these things
from happening at the same time.

to keep all of these things
from happening at the same time.

Or you can do a novel
set in the Old West,

and none of those
things need to happen.

You can go after completely
different things.

But you need to
understand, at that point,

you're writing something
that might look like genre,

but isn't.

And that people may point to
it as genre, and it's not.

And that if somebody picks up
your novel expecting genre,

they will be
disappointed, just as they

would be if they
went to see a musical

and there were no songs at all.

and there were no songs at all.

So a lot of what you wind
up doing then with genre

is going, OK.

What makes genre genre?

What would people feel
cheated if they didn't get?

Earlier on, we were talking
about making a novel out

of that March short story
with Anne Bonny, the pirate.

And so at that point,
you might start

And so at that point,
you might start

making a list for yourself
of, OK, if I wrote this novel

and there wasn't at least
one boarding of a ship,

people might feel
a little cheated.

I'd like to put one in.

It might not-- you can
always turn things around.

You don't actually ever
have to give people

the thing they want in the
way they're expecting it.

They actually always
like it if you give them

what they want in a way
that they're not expecting.

If you give them what they
need but didn't realize

that they wanted in a way that's
unfamiliar, people like that.

that they wanted in a way that's
unfamiliar, people like that.

But you're still
trying to give them

the moments that are actually
going to make them feel like,

yes.

This is what I came for.

I'm getting my money's worth.

They are singing all of
the songs in the order

that those songs should be sung.

And actually, it's a musical.

It's not a mysterious
musical without songs.

Or you can go, actually,
those things that

Or you can go, actually,
those things that

are musicals without songs,
they're called plays.

They're OK too.

But it's a different
kind of thing.

And you need to know
what you're going into

and what you're building.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I think understanding genre
is a hugely valuable tool

for writers.

And if you don't
understand genre,

you're going to come a cropper.

you're going to come a cropper.

It's very easy to
look at fiction

and not quite get
what genre it is,

because the surface
trappings of genre

are a lot like the surface
trappings of things

that aren't genre.

And yet, there's
a huge difference.

There is a difference between a
novel set in the American Wild

West and a cowboy novel.

There is a difference between
a novel set in the intelligence

community and a spy story.

community and a spy story.

And if you don't
understand that,

you will wind up
disappointing your readers,

confusing your
publishers, making

a general mess of things.

If you do understand it, then
it can be useful for you.

And you can use it,
or you can ignore it.

Many, many years ago when
I was nine, 10 years old,

I had an appalling lisp and
was sent to an elocution

teacher named Ms. Webster.

teacher named Ms. Webster.

And Ms. Webster had a
number of Scottie dogs.

I kind of borrowed her for
"Coraline," her and her best

friend as the actresses
in "Coraline."

And she would smoke
little black cigarillos

and rest her arms on
her magnificent bosom

as she listened to me.

And I remember
once, she listened

to my reading of a
speech from Puck.

to my reading of a
speech from Puck.

At the end of it,
she said, Neil, dear,

before you can be
eccentric, you have

to know where the circle is.

And I took that
as glorious advice

that has always seen me safe.

It's always good to
know what the rules are

before you break them.

It's always good to
know what the rules are

when you're breaking them.

It's good to know what the
rules are even if you're

going to ignore them absolutely,
completely from the word

go and just set
off to break them.

go and just set
off to break them.

Because at least that
way, you know how

people have been doing this.

You know how people
ought to do this.

You know how people think
they ought to do this.

And you can set off and
do whatever you like.

But know before you go.

Know safely what the rules are,
and then break them with joy.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

When you're writing
fiction, you need

to know more than the reader.

You do not need to
know everything,

but you always need to know
more than the reader does.

Now the great thing about
beginning any piece of fiction

is you know something,
and that something

is more than any reader knows,
because the reader knows

is more than any reader knows,
because the reader knows

nothing about what you're
doing, and you at least

know something.

But where and who
and how and what,

these are all things that
you can know and the reader

doesn't.

The way you reveal information
is in a way that suits you.

It's not in a way that
necessarily is going

to initially suit the reader.

You can know more, which
means that you can hide things

You can know more, which
means that you can hide things

in the text, which means
you can set things up

in the text, which means that
you can play with things.

You can play with
things as simple

as the fundamental sexism
of language, for example.

In "Sandman," I took enormous
pleasure in "Sandman" number 1

already having an idea
of who this family was

already having an idea
of who this family was

and the shape of
it, of mentioning

that a black magic
organization in 1916

had been attempting to capture
Death, but they had failed

and they had caught Dream,
Death's younger brother.

And back in those days,
people would actually

write letters to the editor,
and the letters would come in.

And I asked the
people of DC Comics

And I asked the
people of DC Comics

if they would mind just sending
me the letters to the editor

as they came in.

And I took enormous pleasure
over the next months

in seeing every now and
then at the end of a letter,

people would say,
you've said that they

were trying to capture
Death's younger brother.

When are we going to see
Dream's older brother, Death?

And I, knowing
full well that this

was going to be an older sister,
just took pleasure in that.

was going to be an older sister,
just took pleasure in that.

I knew more about the
story than they did.

I'd built a little
trap for the reader.

I knew that that was going
to be to my advantage.

I knew that having a
reader think that something

is going to happen, and
actually something else

that will be much more
satisfactory, much

more interesting than
something they haven't seen,

is going to be really fun.

So reader expectations are
a lovely thing to play with

So reader expectations are
a lovely thing to play with

and to sail against.

It's like the wind on
a little sailing ship.

You're using it to power you.

And it comes sometimes
from the side,

and it pushes you forward.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

For a writer starting out, I
would tend to push you away

For a writer starting out, I
would tend to push you away

from genre fiction.

And I'll push you away from
genre fiction on the basis

that you've probably
spent your life reading

some kind of genre fiction,
and you love genre fiction,

and that's what you know.

And I think it's really
important for a young writer--

and it could be a young
writer of any age to get out

of their comfort zone.

Don't write things
that you know,

Don't write things
that you know,

that aren't the
fiction that you know.

Because if you write the
fiction that you know,

then the best you'll ever be is
a good copy of somebody else,

and what you're
most likely to be

is something that
looks like a photocopy

of a photocopy of a photocopy.

And now you're gray
and unattractive

and barely readable.

Be yourself.

And that may involve
dipping into genre.

And that may involve
dipping into genre.

It may involve going
to lots of places.

But go explore.

There are so many things
that you can do in fiction.

Go find what they are.

Go play.