The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: How to Read Like a Writer
Neil Gaiman is a master world builder and wordsmith, and The Graveyard Book lives up to his reputation. The story follows the childhood of a boy named Bod, who is raised by the ghosts of a graveyard. When other writers read The Graveyard Book, they should keep mind that this novel appeals to readers of all ages, contains multiple story and character arcs, and leaves readers bursting with emotion at the end. Because of these, readers are haunted by The Graveyard Book and wish it wasn’t over.
Breadth of Audience
Mixing Literary and Genre
I’ve never been the kind of reader who scours book covers and descriptions to see which novel won an award. This is probably because, as a child, I hated the tragic themes common in Newbery medal winners. I still do. However, The Graveyard Book won both a Newbery and a Hugo. This shows how broad the book’s audience is. The Newbery award denotes literary merit, and the Hugo award shows strength of story and world. The novel fits with readers looking for eloquent uses of language as well as those seeking to escape in another world – not an easy feat. Writers reading The Graveyard Book should analyze how Gaiman is able to accomplish both of these at the same time.
In the first chapter, Gaiman describes the graveyard:
You could see the funeral chapel, iron doors padlocked, ivy on the sides of the spire, a small tree growing out of the guttering at roof level. You could see stones and tombs and vaults and memorial plaques. You could see the occasional dash or scuttle of a rabbit or vole or weasel as it slipped out of the undergrowth along the path. You would have seen these things, in the moonlight, if you had been there that night. You might not have seen a pale, plump woman, who walked the path near the front gates, and if you had seen her, with a second, more careful glance, you would have realized that she was only moonlight, mist, and shadow (12).
The language within this passage is deceptively simple. Each word is either part of a typical middle schooler’s vocabulary or understood through context, yet a vivid picture is created through lists of specific details with a rhythm that compels readers to continue. By directing this passage at the reader, Gaiman invites us into the world of the story. The Graveyard Book is composed of passages like this: rhythmic prose and settings readers can interact with. (I should note the whole book is not second person. Passages of it are sprinkled throughout.)
A Familiar Yet Magical Setting
The somewhat familiar setting of the graveyard in Gaiman’s novel guides readers who don’t normally read speculative fiction into a world that is both different and the same as the one they live in. This is one way The Graveyard Book reaches beyond the fantasy genre’s typical readers. Even if a reader has never been in a graveyard, they have seen one on TV and are familiar with the setting and mythology of ghosts and other creatures roaming among headstones. This is seen is the passage above, where the graveyard setting is firmly established both as a physical place that could exist in reality and, in the next sentence, as a magical place where spirits roam and on rare occasions, interact with the living.
Emotions for All Ages
In addition, The Graveyard Book, like Harry Potter, appeals to readers from nine to ninety. Marketed as a middle grade novel, the themes, character depth, and emotional journey of the book are applicable to people of all ages and life stages. For example chapter two begins with Silas, Bod’s father figure, leaving to take care of some business. Gaiman states:
Bod had been upset by this when he first learned about it. He was no longer upset. He was furious. . . . Bod’s six-year-old mind tried to imagine something that could make Silas want to leave him, and failed. “It’s not fair” (65).
Most people can relate to the fear, confusion, and betrayal Bod feels when Silas goes on a trip without him for the first time. We either empathize with Bod because we have experienced our own feeling of abandonment, or we sympathize with Silas because we’ve had to leave loved ones behind, too, even if it was only temporary. In moments like these, Gaiman connects with both the middle grade reader and the fantasy reader and the parent and whoever else might have picked up The Graveyard Book by using a specific event in Bod’s life to illustrate an emotion everyone has felt.
Chapters as Stories
Although Gaiman is not the first author to make each chapter its own individual story, this technique is essential to the success of The Graveyard Book. Each story-chapter depicts Bod at a different age and point in his childhood. Gaiman expertly adjusts Bod’s voice and thinking process in each chapter to depict his age and show how he is growing. This is the advantage to the chronological story-chapter technique. For example in chapter two, when Bod is upset Silas is leaving, he is six, and he thinks like a six-year-old. He cannot fathom a reason Silas would want to go on this trip without him. Then in chapter six, Bod is eleven and argues with Silas, saying:
“Or what?” said Bod, his cheeks burning. “What would you do to keep me here? Kill me?” And he turned on his heel and began to walk down the path that led to the gates and out of the graveyard (194).
Here the rebellious, independent nature of a pre-teen shows in Bod’s words and actions. Both sections express an angry Bod, but the first is the anger of a little boy; the second is the anger of a child on the cusp of adolescence. Gaiman doesn’t just tell readers Bod is older in each chapter; he shows them through moments of dialogue and inner thoughts. If an author is writing a book covering a large span of time like the nearly sixteen years covered in The Graveyard Book, they should look at how Gaiman subtly adjusts Bod’s voice to show the passing of time and character’s growth and change, and writers might consider a similar story-chapter format.
A danger of the story-chapter is readers stopping at the end of the chapter and not returning to the book because they’ve already felt the satisfaction of reaching the end of a tale. Gaiman combats this with the overall plot arc of the man Jack. Authors working with the story-chapter would do well to think of it like a book series. Each book in a series has its own plot arc, however, readers continue onto the next book because of the characters and threads of plot tied throughout the series. Similarly, readers of The Graveyard Book continuing reading because Bod and the other characters are so compelling that they want to know what happens to them and because of the ominous presence of the man Jack lurking in the background (the through thread).
Why a Professional Editor Recommends Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book
As an editor, I recommend writers read The Graveyard Book to see how Gaiman appeals to such a wide audience and the advantages of making each chapter its own individual story. Authors are often great at picking out what’s wrong with bad or mediocre novels, but it’s much more difficult to analyze a good book because we become lost in the story. By priming writers for the techniques working in The Graveyard Book, I illustrate why it is so successful, so authors can apply the methods to their own writing.
The Graveyard Book is an excellent example of a novel that haunts and lingers with readers. For months after I first read the book I continued to think about it. I wondered how Bod was doing and wanted to return to the world. The story captured the emotions of growing up and leaving home, something everyone can relate to. Neil Gaiman ignites the ink of The Graveyard Book through elegant, rhythmic language, excellent world building in the somewhat familiar graveyard setting, depicting character growth through subtly changing Bod’s voice, and expertly using story-chapters. I highly advise all writers read this novel to learn ways to Ignite Their Ink.
What do you think about the techniques Neil Gaiman uses in The Graveyard Book? Let me know in the comments section. To order The Graveyard Book click the image to the left.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.