Looking for fresh inspiration to jumpstart your writing? Look no further than Once Upon a Time . . . ♦
Now I know that you’re already familiar with fairy tales, given their place in our culture (and in our movies, television shows, and other entertainments), and you might even think that it’d be relatively easy to write one . . . but it can be harder than it looks. For one thing, fairy tales have a specific tone that usually avoids overly sentimental scenes and narratives (unless they’re French) in favor of an almost dispassionate telling of fantastic events, which can be a difficult balance to get right. Additionally, there’s no one kind of tale, even if we tend to lump them all together in one category in our minds—to name but a few, there are fables (which use animals/inanimate objects as main characters), etiological tales (which explain how the world works), moral tales (which contrast good and evil), pious tales (religious teachings), and frame narratives (sort of like a story within a story), all of which have their own unique characteristics and purposes. Fairy tales can actually be rather tricky to pull off, and when you see modern writers taking on the form—including such notables as Angela Carter, Lin Lan, Roald Dahl, and Anne Sexton—you can more easily see just how difficult the form can sometimes be.
But, the good news is that you need not write fairy tales themselves to learn from them—in fact, no matter what kind of fiction you write, the fairy tale can offer inspiration to see your work in a new way and get you moving. So let’s look at a few key elements of fairy tales that can help you when you’re writing, along with some writing prompts you can use to get the creative juices flowing again.
Originally, fairy tales and folklores developed within and grew out of communities, spreading by word of mouth and passing down from generation to generation. This oral tradition was democratic and community-driven, since anyone could sit back and listen to a story around the campfire, as well as retell it to others (maybe putting a slightly different spin on the tale). Fairy tales were thus shaped by the community’s fears and common sense, reflecting different cultural notions of the place and time. This aspect of fairy tales changed somewhat in the early to mid-1800s, when Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s fairy tale collections (though not the first of their kind) marked a transition that moved fairy tales from the scattered oral tradition and into a more of the literary discourse. However, the tales still reflected the importance of cultural norms and fears in the telling, even as these became less community-driven and more commodified into universal “morals” that one could take away from the story.
The takeaway for the fiction writer, then, is to recognize their community (or audience) when crafting a story. This might seem a simple concept, but what it means is to be engaged and aware of things happening right in your community, not just society at large. Listen to people. What are their fears? Why do they have them? What stories were they told growing up? And how did those stories affect them?
WP: Observe what’s happening in your community. Investigate the local news. Look for oddities. What’s famous in your hometown and how did it come to be? If you don’t know, make something up. Or, interview a family member, friend, or stranger about their childhood memories. If you have that one great-aunt that always pulls you aside by the arm to tell you an “in my day” story, soak that in and listen to what she or others have to say. What did they believe that might be different now or in other communities? Which things stick out to you? What were their fears? What did they love most to do? How did they see the world?
Listen. Observe. Take notes. Then write a story or scene revolving around something that stood out to you from your research.
Along with the oral tradition comes the importance of writers reading their work aloud. There’s something special about hearing the story from the writer’s own voice; if done right, the storytelling experience shifts into something more personal as the audience can not only hear the story with voice inflections and at a certain pace, but they can also watch the writer’s body language and facial expressions, which gives more life to the story. Even more, reading your work aloud allows you to hear what’s actually there (not just what you think is there), what works in the piece and what doesn’t, and how it actually plays in front of an audience. Plus, readings are a good place to sell books, have good conversations about writing, and meet more of the community.
WP: Practice reading your work aloud. Sometimes you can catch mistakes easier that way. Also, take a piece of yours that’s stalled out and transform it into a brief performance piece. Focus on adding lines that could captivate an audience, whether through thoughtfulness, humor, or grotesque horror. Make sure you don’t have any awkward sentences that you stumble through. If they trip you up, they’ll trip the reader up. You could also take a page from poetry, which focuses on the sound of words, not just the meaning. Which words sound right for the piece? What do your ears desire to hear?
No, this doesn’t refer to the prince coming along to wake up the damsel with a smooch; rather, this stands for “keep it simple stupid.” Fairy tales, especially those edited by the Grimms, have a clear, logical structure that’s easy to follow, putting a character into one predicament and then allowing that to play out. The takeaway? Don’t overload (and overburden) your story with too much backstory, context, or mythology . . . keep it focused and forward-moving. This isn’t to say your story should be bare bones and predictable, of course, but rather that it should not lose the reader along the way, nor waste any words doing so.
Fairy tales usually start with a version of “once upon a time” where the protagonists are introduced, along with the setting, and then the conflict along with the antagonist. A problem or challenge is introduced which the main character(s) must succeed or fail in solving. Depending on whether they succeed or fail depends on the lesson at the end. One way writers can use this simple structure is to take their story (whether already written or not) and create an outline following fairy tale structure. This exercise can help you get organized and see your story from a different viewpoint. Perhaps this also will help you recognize any pitfalls in your plot while providing a fun break from the writing doldrums.
WP: Start with the typical “once upon a time” and explain the basics of who’s who, where, what’s happened to put the character into this situation, what conflicts or obstacles arise (by an antagonist, whatever or whomever that is), and then list all the actions (or counteractions) the protagonist must make to overcome these obstacles with or without the help of others. Finally, conclude with whether the protagonist succeeds or fails, and why they succeed or fail. Either way there needs to be a change involved, but it doesn’t matter whether it’s a moral, amoral or immoral one. Contrary to popular belief, not all fairy tales end with happy endings. (In fact, some are rather gruesome.)
What’s this Rule of Three? A secret spell? An ancient incantation? Actually, it refers to the fact that, in most fairy tales, things usually happen in patterns of three—three bears, three wishes, three chances to guess the name, and so on—a repetition that helps put the story into a particular rhythm and helps the reader recognize the pattern (and, especially, what it means when the pattern breaks). Overdone, the rule could seem predictable and boring, but if done right, a repeating motif can enhance the story and provide opportunities for unexpected turns. Also, this repetition, along with a straightforward structure, can make the tale easier to recall by the reader and easier to share with others.
WP: Pick an object/animal/feeling/action and connect it with your character, showing how it comes up three times throughout the story and in different ways while also holding things together, acting as dots to connect the story with, Or, pick an object that keeps coming up for the wrong reasons and gets in the way of your character’s quest.
In every fairy tale—and in the majority of fiction, too—the main character experiences a change in status. It’s a basic necessity for every story, but this can sometimes be forgotten, especially in the first few drafts. What is the character’s motivation that leads up to the end? What’s the character attempting to do, and why is it important for him or her? And, what does the reader make of the way the events play out, based on what we know of why the goal is important for the character? Protagonists need some sort of inner dilemma (along with the outer one) that they must either succeed or fail in overcoming, which can be easily seen in the best fairy tales: the main character is treated poorly by family, for example, or lives in poverty, or is taken for granted, and the magical or unusual event that takes place allows her to transcend that station in life. What lesson do you want to share with the world? What makes you passionate/angry/joyful? What’s the purpose in telling this story other than to quiet the Muse?
WP: Define your character’s inner and outer dilemma, then show the change they encounter, for the better or worse. Remember that your characters, whether human or not, are always human at heart.
There are rarely any new fairy tales out there, at least not those that faithfully follow the traditional mode; it’s much more common now to come upon fractured fairy tales, wherein a writer takes the original fairy tale and gives it a twist (or, takes the mold and breaks it to make something new). This can appeal to readers, because a story can be familiar but not predictable, and it can also help the writer if you’re stuck on ideas, as it allows you a familiar baseline from which to work as well as permission to play with the familiar.
WP: Take a fairy tale that you know (or find one that you don’t) and put a spin on it, either changing one of the outcomes, putting it in a different setting or time that would affect the decision-making, or reversing the roles of the characters, making the protagonist the antagonist and vice versa. Of course, many of these have been tried before, so try and develop one in a way that’s unique to your own interests. What if the stepmother was nice and Cinderella was a brat? What if the prince actually had a foot fetish? What if the story took place in Kansas during the Dust Bowl? Endless of possibilities. In the same way, you could take one of your own stories and try putting different twists on it. What if this happened, and how will that affect everything else? Play with the “what ifs” and see if you uncover something new or even better than the original.