Writing tips from Neil Gaiman

October 18, 2021

Neil Gaiman is among my favorite authors. I read the Sandman comic series as a young adult and remember it vividly. It is a wonderful collaboration between top artists, with fantastic covers from Dave Mckean.

Neil also wrote Coraline. It’s been adapted into an animated movie. I love how Neil doesn’t shy away from darkness for children. Dark tales are about survival, the most valuable knowledge we can pass on to future generations.

I took Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass on Storytelling and noted down bits for digestion.

How to move the story forward

  1. Ask questions and answer them
  2. Find the characters’ ulterior motive: what do they want, and where are their wants mutually exclusive?

Short stories

Short stories are chapters of novels one didn’t write, set at a time when everything unravels.

Comic books

Comic books are created by a 2-person film crew: the writer is director and screenwriter, the artist is the camera-person and director of photography. When someone does both roles eg. Frank Miller, they’re a one-person film crew.

On research

Be a smash and grab robber. Do not stick around since research can take an unlimited amount of time.

There are 3 types of stories

  1. From rags to riches, eg. Aladdin
  2. Boy meets girl, eg. Romeo and Juliet
  3. A person learns a lesson, eg. The Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy

The process of writing is 2 steps

  1. The bomb explodes (write). Jot down thoughts to add to the compost heap of imagination.
  2. Inspect what worked and what didn’t (edit)


Dialogue has to show character and plot. It can also be funny.

On world-building

  1. Build from the real world
  2. Change it: make a school bigger/smaller, put it on the back of a bird, … subvert the reality


  1. What makes the subject memorable?
  2. Use 5 senses: smell, taste, feels, touch ← especially important in the dark

How to deal with writer’s block

It’s a sign that a piece of writing is not working.

  1. Do something else
  2. Pretend you never read it. Read it from the beginning
  3. Write something new in 12 hours. Eg. hanging concentrates the mind

What is:

  1. What is a story: anything that keeps the reader turning the page
  2. What is satisfying: characters get what they need, not what they want.

Lastly, almost as a warning: You can’t fix a blank sheet of paper.

Those are the tips and takeaways, noted down for posterity.

Here is my favorite short story from Neil. It is about a Christmas celebrity and is only 100 words long.