Practical Advice On Writing From Neil Gaiman

Hey! Welcome back.  This post is part 1 of 2 where I’ll be discussing some writing advice from English author Neil Gaiman, one of the top ten living postmodern writers according to The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Gaiman is well known for his fantasy novels, comic books, graphic novels and short stories. His novels have received many prestigious awards and several have screen adaptations, including:

  • Coraline – a dark fantasy children’s novella which took the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker and Locus awards and became an animated film
  • American Gods – a fantasy novel which also took the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker and Locus awards and has been adapted for TV (it’s currently in its second season)
  • The Graveyard Book – a young adult fantasy that is the only work ever to win both the Newbury and Carnegie Medals

I recently took Gaiman’s online course Neil Gaiman Teaches The Art Of Storytelling on Masterclass (this is not an affiliate link).  The course is incredibly well-structured and filled with excellent advice on topics including discovering who you are as a writer, finding inspiration, developing dialogue and characters and writing short stories.  Let’s take a look at the first half of his teachings.

Truth in Fiction and Finding Inspiration

“All fiction has to be as honest as you can make it… because that’s what people respond to.”

At the beginning of his career, when Gaiman’s short stories were getting rejected, he thought that either he wasn’t good enough to be published or that he didn’t understand the world.  These thoughts led him to begin thinking of himself as a ‘freelance journalist’ specializing in publishing, fantasy and science fiction. 

“We are using lies, we are using memorable lies, taking people who don’t 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 and to each other.”

When stressing the importance of reading as a writer, Gaiman tells the story of a time he attended a writer’s workshop and was given a piece of work to read.  When discussions of the text began, Gaiman realised that the others were responding to the story on a deeper level; he was reading as an audience member and they were reading as craftspeople.

“You have to be willing to do the equivalent of walking down the street naked… You have to be willing to just open your chest a little bit too much and show rather more that is comfortable of your heart and of your mind.”

Gaiman emphasises that the goal of writing fiction is to be credible and convincing, and gives the following advice on how to do this:

  • Provide specific, concrete sensory details
  • Focus on emotions that are true to your characters
  • Incorporate the familiar alongside the unfamiliar
  • Avoid technical mistakes – get your facts straight
  • Take time to cover objections – let your characters address situations or things that perhaps don’t belong

When finding inspiration it is important for writers to have what Gaiman refers to as a ‘compost heap’, which is a collection of everything you have encountered in your life which may one day contribute to your writing.  It is not only other writers that will influence you, so ensure that you are open to receiving inspiration from anything in life.

“I think it’s really important to have a compost heap.  Everything you read, things that you write, things that you listen to, people you encounter, they can all go on the compost heap.  And they will rot down.  And out of them grow beautiful stories.”

Finding Your Voice

“A writer’s voice is, at the end of the day, a result of getting to the point where you discover that this is what you sound like.”

Gaiman encourages young writers (and by young he means those just starting out) to begin by imitating authors whose voice they like.  The more you write, the closer you will get to finding your own voice. Gaiman also stresses the importance of finishing what you write.  This is where you learn the most because as you finish you learn what you did. 

“Mistakes may be the most important thing for a writer. As a writer, and especially as a young writer, your job is to get the bad words out, the bad sentences out, the stories that aren’t any good yet… You learn more from finishing a failure then you do from writing a success.”

Sometimes a story will have its own voice, a voice that tells the story but is not the writer.  Gaiman gives three examples:

  • ‘American Transparent’ is where the author is invisible.  They disappear into the text and do nothing to draw attention to themselves
  • ‘Formal’ writing borrows syntax or vocabulary from an earlier time period
  • ‘Informal’ writing imitates real life so that the reader feels there is an actual person explaining the story to them

Developing your story, dialogue and characters

“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.”

The most important words for a writer, what you want your reader to keep asking, is ‘and then what happened?’ This is what keeps your readers turning the page; caring about your story and wanting to know what is going to happen, wanting to find out what they don’t know.

“The main thing you have to do is care, because if you don’t care nobody else will.  You need to care and you need to imbue that care into your writing because then anytime you stop, anytime you move from one character to another, anytime you move from place to place, anytime you hesitate, the question is going to be and then what happened?”

No matter what story you’re telling, suspense plays a crucial role.  Suspense is the questions the reader wants answered, usually based on what a character wants, and if it isn’t answered by the end of your story then the story won’t feel complete.  Gaiman suggests the following aspects when building suspense:

  • Withhold information
  • Let your reader know things your characters don’t
  • Make the stakes clear – what are the possible consequences?
  • Generate conflict and increase it as the story progresses

There are two types of characters in fiction: flat and round.  You round characters are your main characters and your flat characters are the supporting cast.  When developing your round characters remember that motivation is revealed in the choices they make, people will always choose what they perceive to be good (even if it is evil), and conflict is essential for story development!

Your characters drive your story, and so you must get to know them.  Ask yourself:

  • Who are they?
  • What do they do?
  • What do they want?

“Remember, characters always, for good or for evil, get what they need.  They do not get what they want.”

Dialogue reveals characters, advances plot line and provides entertainment.  Keep in mind when writing dialogue that you need to make people sound as realistic as possible.  According to Gaiman, compression is key and there are several ways you can work on this, including using sentence fragments and contractions, trimming filler words, remembering that people don’t call each other by name in real life and using body language as a form of communication.

“Dialogue is character – the way somebody talks, what they say, how they say it is character. And dialogue has to show character.  It also has to show plot, and maybe it can be funny along the way.”

There are a number of ways to convey dialogue:

  • Direct dialogue uses speech marks and quotes the character
  • Indirect dialogue has no quotes but the reader is given the impression of being in the scene
  • A summary tells the reader what happened
  • Internal monologue lets the reader see a character’s thoughts

“Characters become part of who you are and become separate from you at the same time.  You have to know your characters well enough to know would they do this… You are going into yourself.  And you have to not be afraid of yourself.  You have to be willing, if you’re writing a murderer, if you’re a bad person, to go and find that part of you that is the bad person, that is the murderer, that would take pleasure in this thing, and go, okay, what would you say? What would you do? Who are you?”

Short Fiction

“When you’re writing short fiction, what you want is to feel like these characters didn’t just start to exist the moment the story began.  You want to know they’re all been in existence all along.”

When writing you need to create conflict for your protagonist, and this is where forces of antagonism come in.  They don’t have to be people; they can be any element that is working against your protagonist’s desires and forcing them towards the story’s climax.  Examples include weather conditions (the massive snow storm that leave the Torrance family stranded at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ is a great example here), environmental factors (the Donner party losing their trail in Alma Katsu’s ‘The Hunger’), or a supernatural force (back to ‘The Shining’ and the Overlook Hotel itself, who the reader comes to find out is a force of evil).

Gaiman gives the following principles of antagonism for writers to remember:

  • The stronger the forces of antagonism are, the more well-developed your character will become.
  • Conflict should be tailored to your protagonist’s main desires
  • Antagonism must increase as the story progresses or the reader will lose interest

I’ll wrap this post up here but there will be plenty more advice in part 2! I found Gaiman’s Masterclass to be incredibly inspiring and both the advice and the exercises contained to be very useful.  Have you read Gaiman’s work? Which of his novels/short stories is your favourite and why? If you have taken this course or know any advice from Gaiman that I have missed please comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,


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