MasterClass: Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling (2019): Season 1, Episode 5 - Developing the Story - full transcript

Every story has a big idea. Learn how to find a big idea that's meaningful to you, as well as how to create conflict and compelling stakes for your characters.

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Beginning writers
often don't know

and can't tell if
they have a story.

They know that
they've got an idea.

But even once you've got an
idea, what do you do with it?

How do you build it up?

How do you know if
your idea has legs?

If it's going to go anywhere?

We're going to talk about that.

We're going to talk about that.

We're going to talk about how
you build a short story, how

you build a novel, how you
build a plot, how you find out



if you have an idea or a notion
or a concept or something that

actually might be able to stand
up there on its own two legs

as a novel.

I, especially during
the "Sandman" years,

I, especially during
the "Sandman" years,

would worry and think and
obsessively ask myself

questions about
what is the story?

What is the story?

I'm making these things.

They're how I feed myself.

They're how I feed my family.

They're how I pay the rent.

What is the story?

And eventually what I
decided was the story



is anything fictional that
keeps you turning the pages

and doesn't leave you
feeling cheated at the end.

and doesn't leave you
feeling cheated at the end.

That was my definition.

My son, Ash, is three
years old, just turned 3.

And his favorite game is to
stand next to me on a bed

or on a large sofa and go
"what's going to happen?"

And then I have to
go "I don't know.

What's going to happen?"

And then he jumps in the air
and falls down on the sofa.

This can go on for
weeks if you let him.

He just thinks the what's
going to happen game

is the best game in the world.

is the best game in the world.

The what's going to
happen game is the game

that you play as a
writer with your readers.

What's going to happen?

And that is what keeps
them turning the pages,

things they don't know,
things they need to find out,

things they care about.

And coming into a
story, it can just

be things like who
are these people?

be things like who
are these people?

What are they doing?

Why should I care?

That's a bit odd.

After a while, it
can get a lot deeper.

It can be is she
going to kiss her?

Is she going to poison her?

Does she know about
the missing will?

Did they know the
grandmother's body is still

in the room upstairs?

in the room upstairs?

What's going to happen?

I wrote an essay once,
a very small essay,

in a book called "Stories."

And it was called,
"Just Four Words."

"It began when somebody
wrote in to my blog.

'Dear Neil, if you could
choose a quote either by you

or another author
to be inscribed

or another author
to be inscribed

on the wall the public
library children's area,

what would it be?

Thanks, Lynn.'

"I pondered for a bit and I'd
said a lot about books and kids

reading over the
years and other people

had said things pithier and
wiser than I ever could.

And then it hit me, and
this is what I wrote.

'I'm not sure I'd put
a quote up if it was me

and I had a library
wall to deface.

I think I'd just remind people
of the power of stories,

I think I'd just remind people
of the power of stories,

of why they exist
in the first place.

I'd put up the four words
that anyone telling a story

wants to hear, the ones
that show that it's working

and that pages will be turned--

and then what happened.

"The four words that
children ask when

you pause telling them a story.

The four words you hear
at the end of a chapter.

The four words
spoken or unspoken

that show you as a
storyteller that people care.

that show you as a
storyteller that people care.

And then what happened."

And those words I think are
the most important words

there are for a storyteller.

So anything you can do to
keep people turning the pages

is legitimate.

The main thing
that you have to do

is to care because if you
don't care what happened,

is to care because if you
don't care what happened,

nobody else will.

If you don't care about these
people, nobody else will.

If it doesn't matter to
you what happened next,

nobody else is going to
give the smallest toss.

So you need to
care, and you need

to imbue that care
into your writing

because then anytime
you stop, any time you

because then anytime
you stop, any time you

move from one character
to another character,

any time you move from place
to place, anytime you hesitate,

the question is going to
be and then what happened?

So you are starting a project.

You are starting from
scratch whether it's

a comic, a graphic
novel, whether it's

a comic, a graphic
novel, whether it's

a novel, whether it's a short
story, whether it's television,

whether it's a
movie script, you're

starting something
completely new.

One of the best things that
you can do is just sit there.

I like to do it
by hand if I can.

I will take out a notebook,
and I will write down

everything I know.

And it's a giant brain dump.

Sometimes there'll
be little doodles.

Sometimes there'll
be little doodles.

Words will get circled.

This is not an essay
for people to read.

This is me telling myself
right up front just

everything I know.

The process of writing is a
really important one because

even in the process of
writing anything simple,

your mind starts to
notice connections.

And connections are what
fiction is made out of.

And connections are what
fiction is made out of.

So stories begin with ideas.

And the idea can be
very, very small.

It can be a feeling.

It can be an image.

It can be something that you--

it can be something
your story begins with.

It could be something
your story ends with.

It could be some
moment from the middle.

It could be two
characters interacting.

It could be two
characters interacting.

Mostly you don't
know an entire story,

or I don't know an entire story.

I will write it find
out what happens,

but I have something going in.

The question then is is that
enough to start a story with?

Sometimes if it's
a beginning, I have

to have a general idea of
where it's going to go.

If it's an end, I need
to know how we got there.

If it's an end, I need
to know how we got there.

I've been writing
long enough that I

have a certain amount
of faith in myself,

and I think faith in
yourself is something

that you need because
the process of writing--

it's Wile E Coyote running along
a cliff and then still running.

And he's fine until you
stop and looks down.

And he's fine until you
stop and looks down.

So as a writer, part
of your job is not

to stop and look down and go
there is nothing underneath me

because then you will fall.

It's a process of
just continuing

to run toward the
place, but you have

to know where you're running to.

Very often something
that I'm going

to want to know before I
begin is what it's about.

to want to know before I
begin is what it's about.

And I'm probably really
not going to find that out

until it's over, until I
sit there and reread it

and I go what was this about.

But I need to have
some kind of idea

of what it's about going
in, and that isn't plot.

If anything, I guess
you could call it theme.

For me, it's just
what is this about.

For me, it's just
what is this about.

I'm not going to
write "Neverwhere."

I have an idea of people
living under London, a world

under London.

I have this idea of--

the idea of a hidden
London, the idea

of giving London place
names literal meanings.

So there really will be
shepherds in Shepherd's Bush.

That-- that's an idea.

What's it about?

What it has to be about--

and this is what I thought
going into it and it was also

wasn't entirely
what I discovered

it had been about at the end.

But it was what I went
home with was just

going OK, I want this to
be about the people who

fall through the cracks.

I want to write
about homelessness.

I want to write about
the mentally ill.

I want to write about
the mentally ill.

I want to write
about the people who

have fallen through the
cracks in big cities

and are living rough
on the sidewalks who

are living as they can.

And I want to do that in a
way that anybody reading it

is going to enjoy it.

And they will come to
it unconvinced and not

necessarily know that
that's what it's about.

necessarily know that
that's what it's about.

Because if I sat
down and said right,

I'm writing a big book
about homelessness,

the only people who would
pick it up and read it

would be people interested
in a book about homelessness.

What I want to do
here is write a book

about living in a big city.

I want to write an
adventure, but I

want to write an adventure
which when people finish reading

that story, they're going
to look at the homeless,

they're going to look at the
people sleeping in the shop

doorways, they're going
to look at these people,

doorways, they're going
to look at these people,

and they aren't going to
pretend they're invisible.

Because-- and that
for me suddenly

crystallized the metaphor.

I mean, for me, so much fantasy
is about making a metaphor

concrete.

What it's about
for me is the way

that we treat the
homeless as invisible

and treat them as non-persons.

Good.

Then they are going to
essentially be invisible.

Then they are going to
essentially be invisible.

They are going to
be non-persons.

How do I build up from that?

And I have my hero Richard--

Richard Mayhew-- and
he encounters a girl

from London Below, from this
other London that exists

beneath and all around London.

He helps her.

He saves her.

And in so doing, he becomes
part of London Below

and discovers that people
can no longer see him.

and discovers that people
can no longer see him.

He goes in his office.

They don't know who he is.

ATMs no longer give him money.

Taxis won't stop for him.

He has become an
invisible unperson,

and now he needs to
going into London Below

and the plot needs to happen.

So a lot of what I'm doing
is going OK, I have an idea.

The idea is this kind of London
Above, London Below thing.

The what's it about then carries
me a lot further into it.

The what's it about then carries
me a lot further into it.

What am I trying to say?

What am I trying to tell here.

There is an old line that, you
know, if you want a message,

you use Western Union,
and that may be true.

But really if you're
writing something,

you have to have
something you want to say.

It has to be about
something, and it has

to be about something for you.

I'm not saying everything
needs a giant social message,

I'm not saying everything
needs a giant social message,

but I am saying you need to
know what your story is about.

Young writers-- because young
writers are peaceable souls,

because young
writers want to live

in a happy place, because
young writers have had

enough conflict in
their lives already,

tend to shy away from conflict.

And you will read
short stories by them,

And you will read
short stories by them,

and you'll go but there,
that's the place where

your two characters are meant
to bounce and meant to collide.

This is where the plot
is meant to get tough.

This is when things are going
to get difficult for people.

But they'll avoid it.

And making young
writers face conflict,

making them write
conflict, making

them realize that there
are so many different ways

them realize that there
are so many different ways

you can solve
problems of conflict,

but you have to have
the conflict first.

You can attack
something head on.

You can go around it.

You can attack it
surreptitiously.

You can deal with
it with strength.

You can deal with it
with intelligence.

You can go into it,
and you can fail.

You can go into it,
and you can succeed.

You can go into it,
neither succeed nor fail,

but create an outcome that
was completely unexpected

but create an outcome that
was completely unexpected

and sends everything off
into a whole new direction.

You can succeed,
but in succeeding

make things worse as
all of these things

that you can do in conflict.

But you have to allow
the conflict to happen.

And that is so much
of what a plot is.

If you're building a story,
you have a whole bunch

of building blocks.

You have the words
and the language.

It's going to be a huge part,
just the voice of the story.

What does it sound like?

What is your narrative voice?

What do your
characters sound like?

That's huge.

The next is the characters.

Who are they?

What do they do?

What do they want?

I'm going to harp on a lot
about what characters want.

I'm going to harp on a lot
about what characters want.

I'm going to harp on
about what characters

want because over and
over again, you'll

find when you're plotting,
when you're putting something

together, it's the only question
that opens the door to what

do you do next.

If you get stuck,
you can ask yourself

what your characters want.

And that is like a flashlight.

It shines a light
on the road ahead

and lets you move forward.

Somebody once asked me--

they said I keep coming
up with great characters,

they said I keep coming
up with great characters,

and great characters
and I know who they are.

And I know what they're doing.

But I can't make a plot happen.

And I say great.

In which case, just have
two of your best characters

and have them figure
out what they want

and have them want things
that are mutually exclusive.

And then set them
off on their quest.

And you know that only one
of them can have the thing.

And you know that only one
of them can have the thing.

Whatever the thing
that they want

is, if they succeed the other
one fails and vice versa.

And now let's get them going.

That's got to give you conflict.

It's got to give you a plot.

And sometimes the what
does a character want

will surprise you.

You know, it's not just
they want the money.

They want the boy.

A lot of the time it's
they want to learn.

They want to grow up.

They want to save their friend.

They need-- and so
it's what do you want?

What do you need?

And that as a driver is always
one stage below the mechanics

of plotting.

And it will save your ass
over and over as a writer

if you take that as
an important thing.

And remember that characters
always, for good or for evil,

And remember that characters
always, for good or for evil,

get what they need.

They do not get what they want.