MasterClass: Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling (2019): Season 1, Episode 3 - Sources of Inspiration - full transcript

Neil believes that even old stories can be approached from new angles. Learn how to create your own "compost heap" of inspiration and how to draw from your experiences to make a story uniquely your own.

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[MUSIC PLAYING]

You know, for all writers,
you kind of have a compost heap.

And if any of you are not
gardeners, kitchen people,

the compost heap
is where you throw

all of the garden and
the kitchen rubbish,

the food scraps--

you throw it all on
the compost heap.

And then it rots down.

And then it rots down.

And a year or so
later, you look around.

And you just have this
lovely brown stuff



that you can put on the
garden, out of which flowers

and vegetables will grow.

And I think it's really
important for a writer

to have a compost heap.

Everything you read,
things that you

write, the things
that you listen to,

people you encounter--

they can all go on
the compost heap.

And they will rot down.

And they will rot down.

And out of them grow
beautiful stories.

I think the thing that you
don't understand, especially

as a young writer, when people
talk about your influences

is the tendency is
simply to go and look



at the things like the thing
that you do and point to them.

So it's easier for
me probably to point

to Tolkien and Dunsany
and James Branch Cabell,

to Tolkien and Dunsany
and James Branch Cabell,

to Ursula Guin or PL Travers
and say, well, I do stuff

like this.

And I can point to those people.

And what you don't
necessarily point to

is the stuff that does
what you do but is

in a different kind of field
or a different kind of area

entirely.

My wife writes songs.

She makes music.

She performs.

And what's important to her is
emotional honesty, is truth.

And what's important to her is
emotional honesty, is truth.

And she was probably
in her late 30s

before she realized that in
all of the lists of influences

that she would give-- when
people would say, well,

what are your influences?

And she'd talk about The
Cure or Leonard Cohen.

She'd talk about punk bands.

She'd talk about all of
these things that she loved.

She'd never talk
about Judy Blume

because Judy Blume
was an author who

she read when she was 10,
11, 12, 13, 14 and an author

she read when she was 10,
11, 12, 13, 14 and an author

who changed her and went
in really deep and talked

about honesty and gave Amanda
the things that she wanted.

For me, I never
talk about Lou Reed.

And Lou was huge for me.

And one of the reasons
he was huge for me is he

would write these songs that
were like three-minute novels.

There was a story in there
even if you weren't quite sure

what it was.

And it was compressed.

And it was compressed.

And it was very, very
heightened because anything

that happens with music is
always incredibly heightened.

And the choice of
words in a song

is so important because
you don't have very many.

So watching how Lou wouldn't
tell you what to feel,

wouldn't tell you how he felt,
that the emotion would actually

be almost pulled
out of the song,

be almost pulled
out of the song,

but it will be there for you to
interpret yourself was probably

huge.

It's something that I still
love doing when I write--

is I would much
rather not tell you

how to feel about something.

I would rather you just felt it.

I will tell you what happens.

And if I leave you
crying because I just

killed a unicorn, I'm
not going to tell you

how sad the death
of the unicorn was.

how sad the death
of the unicorn was.

I'm going to kill that unicorn.

And I'm going to
break your heart.

That was something I
think I learned from Lou.

So your influences are
not necessarily the things

that you think they are.

And your influences-- you,
person watching this who

I'm teaching, I'm instructing,
you're listening to me--

remember that.

Remember that your influences
are all sorts of things.

And some of them are going
to take you by surprise.

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.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

One of the things that's
really fun as a writer

is subverting expectations.

And one of the places
as a young writer--

and, frankly, as an old
writer, as a crusty,

grumpy, aging writer.

grumpy, aging writer.

It's great to do--

is to take apart a story
that you're familiar with

and inspect it in you.

See how it ticks.

See what makes it work.

Look at the things that
people take for granted.

A lot of the time, if you
look at something that you're

very, very familiar
with, but just

look at it as if
it's the first time,

look at it as if
it's the first time,

turn it around, examine
it from odd angles,

suddenly it can open
up into a story.

"Snow White" might have been
the very first ever story

that I remember reading.

It was certainly one of
the first books I ever had.

It was a beautiful
illustrated "Snow White."

So I've known that story since
I was two, three years old.

I must have read in
that time perhaps

1,000 different versions
of "Snow White."

1,000 different versions
of "Snow White."

But reading it the 1,000th
time, I stopped and thought,

you know?

It's a very strange story.

I mean, what kind
of person has hair

as black as coal, lips as red
as blood, skin as white as snow,

and gets to lie in a coffin
for a year and then get up

and gets to lie in a coffin
for a year and then get up

and they're fine again?

And what kind of prince rides
past on a horse and says,

hey, that girl in that coffin--

she's gorgeous.

Can you bring her
back to my castle?

Because that's
kind of weird, too.

And all of a sudden, I'm
looking at something,

which is a story that I've
looked at 1,000 times,

which is a story that I've
looked at 1,000 times,

as if I've never seen it before.

And I'm going, this--

if you view it from
over here, you're

telling a story about
a vampire princess

and her necrophile prince.

And actually, if
you tell that story,

then the heroine
of the story has

to be her stepmother, who
obviously was doing everything

to be her stepmother, who
obviously was doing everything

she possibly could
to save the kingdom

and protect everybody from her
terrible, terrible, dangerous

daughter.

That's a story.

So what I'd love for you
to do is take a folktale

you're familiar with.

Take a fairy tale, a story
that's owned by the world.

Take that story and then
just turn it around.

Take that story and then
just turn it around.

Try to look at it
for the first time.

See where the bits are that
don't quite make sense.

See where it could be
completely reinvented.

And then write your
own take on it.

Try and make the people people.

But tell that story.

And then see where you got to.

And then see where you got to.

Find out where it took you.

Use it as a framework.

Or use it as a mirror.

Or use it as something
to bounce ideas off.

And see what you get.

And the things that
you put into it--

it could be things that
you personally care about.

You can take a story and
tell it now in modern days.

You can tell it in a
never-never land time.

But just try and make it yours.

But just try and make it yours.

Try and make the people breathe.

And see what happens.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I think something
that's enormously fun

for any young writer is
just thought experiments.

Make up stories with
the people around you.

I highly recommend
train carriages,

underground carriages,
bus journeys,

anything where you have a
bunch of disparate people

anything where you have a
bunch of disparate people

that you don't know.

Then look at them.

Throw all of you
into a situation

you've never been in before.

And start wondering, well,
okay, what would this person do?

What would that person do?

The train is transported
to a distant planet.

Somebody in here
has a heart attack.

What happens if somebody
gets sick, we get trapped,

and it goes on for days?

and it goes on for days?

And you just start
making up little stories.

And you start playing
with the people

and realizing that
actually, people

are so much more
interesting and strange

and more unlikely than anything
that you could make up.

So imagining that--
going to a coffee shop.

Look at the people around you.

Listen to what they're saying.

Listen to how people talk.

I used to have notebooks filled
with either little overheard

I used to have notebooks filled
with either little overheard

conversations or occasionally
just conversations

that I would have with
people like bus drivers,

where I would go,
I don't believe

I just had that conversation.

I should write it
down while it's fresh.

And you almost never use
actual lines that you hear.

Or I don't.

But they're still
fantastic as sort of things

But they're still
fantastic as sort of things

to throw on the compost heap.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

If you ask an author, where
do you get your ideas,

the author will
probably mock you.

Authors have jokes.

And they'll say, oh, from a
little "idea of the month" club

or from a little ideas
shop behind Charing Cross.

Or they'll say, oh, I
get them from my friend.

Or they'll just be
horrible to you.

Or they'll just be
horrible to you.

This is because
authors are scared.

And we don't know.

And because we don't know
and because we're scared,

we lash out.

And we make you feel like
you asked a stupid question.

You didn't.

You asked the big question.

You asked the real question.

Where do you get your
ideas is a real question.

And I used to do
the funny answers.

And then many years ago, I
went to my daughter's school

when she was seven,
eight years old.

when she was seven,
eight years old.

And I'm sitting there with some
seven- and eight-year-olds.

And they're asking me
about being a writer.

And one of them says, where
do you get your ideas?

And I thought, I
can't make fun of you.

You're seven.

And you have actually asked the
only big, important question.

So I thought, I'd better
give you a straight answer.

And I thought for a little bit.

And I said, well, really,
I think you get ideas

And I said, well, really,
I think you get ideas

from confluence,
although I probably

didn't use the word
"confluence" because I

was talking to seven-year-olds.

I said, 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.

And a lot of that right in the
beginning can just be boredom.

And a lot of that right in the
beginning can just be boredom.

It can be looking
out of a window.

It can be-- I love going to
junior school and middle school

kids' drama.

You cannot escape.

You are stuck there.

You can't take out your phone.

You can't read.

You have to watch.

And yet the need to
be elsewhere is such

that you can absolutely go off
and come up with some fantastic

that you can absolutely go off
and come up with some fantastic

ideas for things.

Ideas-- two things
coming together.

For example, everybody knows
that if a werewolf bites you,

you will become a werewolf
when the moon is full.

That's an idea.

The what ifs, the I wonder
whethers, the places

The what ifs, the I wonder
whethers, the places

where you go with that--

it can be things
like, well, okay.

So what if a werewolf
bites a wolf?

Would you get a wolf that
turns into a different wolf

when the moon is full?

What if a werewolf
bit a goldfish?

Would you get a goldfish that
became hairy and came out

of its bowl and killed
people at the full moon?

What about a werewolf that
absentmindedly started

chewing on a chair?

chewing on a chair?

Would you get a chair
that turned into a wolf?

Would this be a chair wolf
when the moon is full?

And at that point,
you're suddenly

starting to play
around with that.

You're going,
okay, so now we get

bodies found with their
throats ripped out.

And in the mud nearby, you just
have the marks of a chair leg.

You'd have the moment where
the great detective is

You'd have the moment where
the great detective is

sitting in the library as
the full moon slowly rises.

And he's figuring this out.

And just as he starts
to figure it out,

he realizes that the leather
chair that he's sitting in

is starting to get
hairier and furrier.

And it's starting to move.

And now you have
something that--

you've really got a
couple of scenes there.

It's not yet a plot.

It's just moments from a plot.

It's just moments from a plot.

But now you have something
that you could build up from

and you can build up to.

And you can go, okay,
well what would happen?

What would have to happen before
that in order to make a story?

What happens after that?

Can you shoot a chair
with a silver bullet?

Would that work?

What does it do?

Does it turn back into a chair?

How do you destroy
a chair that is

coming after you up the stairs?

And you begin to just rethink.

And really, that's
just confluence.

And really, that's
just confluence.

That's things coming together
that you have seen 1,000 times.

But you just look at them
in a slightly different way.

And now you have the
beginning of a story.