MasterClass: Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling (2019): Season 1, Episode 2 - Truth in Fiction - full transcript

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.

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[MUSIC PLAYING]

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 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'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,"

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,

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.

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 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,

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.

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 then we moved to America.

And I had been writing
"Coraline," up to that point,

in my own time.

When I had free time,
I would write it.

Now we've moved to America.

Everything has got a lot busier,
and there was no free time.

Everything has got a lot busier,
and there was no free time.

And nobody was waiting for it.

I'd been told by a publisher
that it was absolutely

and utterly unpublishable
what I was doing.

So the desire to keep going--

I wanted to keep going.

I knew that I had to finish it.

But I was happy
that I had a third,

and I knew that one day I
would get to go back to it.

And then, I was walking with
my children in the woods,

And then, I was walking with
my children in the woods,

and I trod on a
yellow jacket nest.

The yellow jacket nest
was under the ground.

And within a couple
of seconds, I

was surrounded by a
cloud of yellow jackets.

They're like small
wasps, and they're mean.

And I shouted at my
children to get away

And I shouted at my
children to get away

and stayed exactly
where I was because I

knew that if I ran after them,
the cloud of yellow jackets

around me would follow me
and it would get to them.

So I waited till they were
at the top of the hill,

and getting stung the whole
time, and then ran after them.

And I remember climbing
into the bath--

I put all of the three
of us into the bath,

they were very small--

and counted the stings.

and counted the stings.

I had about 39 stings,
and each of them

had been stung once or twice.

And the problem was, in
shaking my head like that

to try and dislodge
some yellow jackets,

my glasses had gone flying,
which meant that the next day,

I needed to go down, go back
to where that had happened,

and get my glasses back.

And that was terrifying.

Going back to get my
glasses was scary.

Standing there getting
stung while my kids ran away

was not scary.

It was absolutely
nothing brave about it.

Going back the next day to find
my glasses, that was brave.

Going back the next day to find
my glasses, that was brave.

And that moment just sat there,
and it sat there, for me,

informing everything
that I felt like I

wanted to write "Coraline" for.

And I suddenly knew
a third of the way

in what the book was about.

I'd been writing a scary book.

I knew that it
was about the idea

that dragons could be defeated.

I knew that I was trying to tell
kids that, yes, you can face up

I knew that I was trying to tell
kids that, yes, you can face up

to the things that scare you.

Yes, you can deal with it.

Yes, you can triumph.

But it was at that
moment that I understood

that actually what I was
just trying to say to them,

the entire message of
this book, was being brave

doesn't mean you're not scared.

It means you're scared and
you do the right thing,

and you do it anyway.

And that gave me a handle
into the rest of the book.

And that gave me a handle
into the rest of the book.

That gave me a place to walk
into the rest of the book.

And it meant that when
I took Coraline back

into the other world, now her
parents had been kidnapped.

She knew they were there,
but the action of going back

was now scary, and
it should be scary.

What is wonderful is now
here we are almost 20 years

What is wonderful is now
here we are almost 20 years

after "Coraline," the
book, was published.

And I will do signings,
and I will do events.

At every event I do,
every signing I do,

there is a woman in her
late teens and her 20s,

now even in their 30s, who
have a battered school printing

edition of "Coraline" with them.

And they're the
ones who just stop

And they're the
ones who just stop

and they tell me very,
very quietly that the book

and Coraline saved their
lives in their teens

when they were going
through a very bad place--

when they were
being abused, when

parents' marriage falling apart,
bad things happening at school.

And they would tell
themselves that if Coraline

could get through what Coraline
got through in the book,

they could get through that.

they could get through that.

But the best thing about it
is I told them a giant lie.

I told them a story
about a little girl who

went through a door
that didn't exist.

Talked about a girl
that doesn't exist,

a place that doesn't exist.

On the other side of
it is her other mother,

with buttons for eyes, who
definitely doesn't exist.

And everything that happens
in there was made up by me.

It's not true.

It's not true.

But it helps them.

It carries them through.

It is true, and they took
the true things from it.

And that human beings are able
to do that is so important, so

gratifying, and so cool.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

All fiction has to be as
honest as you can make it.

This I believe.

This I believe.

This may not be true for
every other writer out there.

It may not be true for
any other writer there.

But it's true for this writer.

You have to make it as honest
as you can because that's

what people respond to.

As far as I'm
concerned, any success I

have achieved as a
writer of fiction,

I have achieved because I am
an honest writer of fiction,

because my people are
real people because you

care about them.

care about them.

The hardest time for
me was starting out

as a very, very young writer.

I wrote short stories,
and I sent them

out to places that could
conceivably publish them.

And they all came back.

And I looked at the stories
which went out and came back

and went out and came back,
and I thought, OK, well,

and went out and came back,
and I thought, OK, well,

one of two things is true here.

Either I'm not good enough, or
I don't understand the world.

I don't-- there's
stuff I don't get.

There's stuff I need to know.

And I thought, OK,
so as of today, I

am now a freelance
journalist specializing

am now a freelance
journalist specializing

in the world of publishing and
fantasy and science fiction.

And I decided I was a journalist
because I thought that gives me

license to ask questions.

It gives me license to
go out into that world

and meet everybody, find
out who everybody is,

find out what they do, and find
out how they read to learn.

And then I got invited to
my first writer's workshop.

And then I got invited to
my first writer's workshop.

It was the Milford
Writer's Workshop,

and I was sitting there with
a bunch of fantastic writers,

like Gwyneth Jones and Diana
Wynne Jones and Mary Gentle.

And I realized
very, very quickly

that my reactions to stories
were things like, I like this,

or, I don't like this,
or, this is good.

That wasn't their reaction.

They were responding to
stories on a much deeper level.

They were responding to
stories on a much deeper level.

They were reading
different stories

than what I was reading.

And I realized I was reading
the stories as an audience,

and they were reading
stories as craftspeople,

as people who built these
things, as people who did this.

And I also realized I was wrong.

I was wrong if I
wanted to be a writer.

And they were right.

And that experience
more than anything else,

And that experience
more than anything else,

I think, changed me.

And it changed me
mostly because I

realized that in order to write
fiction, I needed to be honest.

Up until that point, I had a--

I had a facility with voices.

I could do essentially
impressions of other writers.

I could write things that
felt kind of like things

I could write things that
felt kind of like things

that other writers would have
written and written well.

But I didn't have
anything to say.

And that wasn't
because I hadn't lived.

That was because I
wasn't really prepared

to say anything true
about who I was.

I didn't want to be judged.

I didn't want people reading any
of my stories to know who I was

or what I thought or
to get in too close.

or what I thought or
to get in too close.

And I realized that
if you're going

to write, if you're going
to be a successful writer,

at least if you're going to
be the kind of writer who

did the kind of stuff
that I was going to do,

you had to be willing to do
the equivalent of walking down

a street naked.

You had to be able to
show too much of yourself.

You had to be just a
little bit more honest

than you were comfortable with.

And if people
judged you, if they

felt they knew
who you were, that

felt they knew
who you were, that

was just something that you
were going to have to live with.

And what was strange is
once I started doing that

and I was expecting to be judged
or shunned or people's opinions

or to have to deal with things,
and what I discovered was

actually their opinions were--

we really like this, we love
this story, it's a good story.

It felt huge.

It felt personal.

It felt personal.

And I realized that's because
I was being honest about me.

And some things, when
you get really specific,

applied to so many of us.

So that was how I
took my darkest period

and eventually turned it around.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

"The Ocean at the
End of the Lane"

"The Ocean at the
End of the Lane"

is my most personal novel.

It's the one that really is
about a seven-year-old me.

And it was a very
uncomfortable book

to write because it had to be
too honest about who I was,

about what I felt
when I was that age.

The great thing about being
an adult writer writing

from the perspective
of a seven-year-old boy

is I was a seven-year-old boy.

I have that in my armory.

I have that in my armory.

I didn't need to go out and
interview seven-year-old boys,

meet seven-year-old boys,
talk to seven-year-old boys,

because somewhere inside me is
the seven-year-old boy that I

was.

So I started writing
a short story,

and the protagonist was
very much me, me age 7.

The family wasn't
really my family,

but the house and the
environment and the place

was my house, my
environment, my place.

was my house, my
environment, my place.

What then started happening
was the more that I wrote

remembering what it
was like to be seven,

the more being seven
came back to me.

Things that I hadn't
thought about for 40 years,

for 50 years, came
flooding back.

In the same kind of
emotional, I guess,

In the same kind of
emotional, I guess,

space that you're in when
you go back to a town

that you lived in
30 or 40 years ago,

and the first time you're there,
everything seems very strange.

And then you go, but hang
on, if you go down here,

that's that road.

And all of the spaces suddenly
start to make sense again.

You haven't been
there for a long time.

You didn't even
think you knew it.

But it's in there
waiting for you.

So writing yourself and
going back to your own past

So writing yourself and
going back to your own past

and visiting your own
past, as a writer,

you're not writing
autobiography.

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

You're using the
truth as a condiment

to make an otherwise
unconvincing narrative

absolutely credible.

It is vitally important
that whatever engines

you might have used to convince
your teacher that your homework

really was eaten by
the dog now come out

to convince the reader that
your father really was having

an affair with an
extraterrestrial monster

an affair with an
extraterrestrial monster

from another dimension who is
about to destroy the earth.

And all of that becomes
very, very important.

You're deploying
truth, and you're

deploying emotional truth
in a way that is convincing.

And the strange
thing about it is

that once it was
published, over and over

again, I had people coming up
to me, people writing to me

saying, you wrote my childhood.

saying, you wrote my childhood.

None of those things
happened to me.

My childhood wasn't like that.

But you wrote
about my childhood.

You wrote about me.

And I did because I
was writing about me,

because I was being honest,
because I was being specific.

And if you're specific, then
what you say that's true

applies to other people, too.

But you have to be
willing to just open

But you have to be
willing to just open

your chest a little
bit too much and show

rather more than is comfortable
of your heart and of your mind.