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Fairy tales have a deserved reputation for being simple stories, but they’re not easy to write. They have to be simple, but they can’t be dumbed down. They have to be compelling, but they can’t feel contrived. They have to be poetic, but with a clear structure that brings them to a satisfying conclusion. In short, fairy tales have to be just right. And that’s why they’re so hard to write. That being said, if you follow the steps below, you’ll be on your way to writing a masterpiece.
In order to write an amazing, timeless tale of romance and adventure that kids today will enjoy, it’s going to help to draw on myths from fairy tales from different parts of the world. Depending on the history and geography of the location in which you’re writing, try studying the fairy tales of European countries like France, Italy, England, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Germany. Fairy tales over at that broad prove that there are only so many ways to write a good story with a solid conflict and emotional resolution. Use them to your advantage when you write your fairy tale.
There are specific roles that characters generally occupy in fairy tales from all over the world, which is another good reason to familiarize yourself with them. We have the lovable sidekick, a more serious and savvy friend or mentor, the loquacious magical advisor or fairy godmother, the brusque and selfish villains, and so on. Then there’s the role of the main character, who often has a role reversal later on in the story, and whose selflessness starts an unusual chain of events. People in modern western culture are often drawn to tales about ‘the ugly duckling’ because they speak to enduring themes of justice, religious virtues, and personal transformation. On the surface, such tales may seem simplistic, but they address commonplace sorrows and joys. It’s interesting how common themes are able to unite and have an impact on each culture, the more you consider them. Specifically, society could benefit by being told moral stories. All must remember that when reading a morality tale, people must remember that they shouldn’t be comparing themselves with others, or expecting anything but grace.
Know the tropes during its era
A fairy tale goes back far before it reached written form. In fact, it can trace its roots to an oral tradition thousands of years old. So, while a fantasy, sci-fi, or romance novel tend to be easily categorized, it’s not quite so straight-forward to place every fairy tale in a genre. In researching fairy tales, you’ll notice recurring settings, themes, and tropes that show up time and time again. For example, Sleeping Beauty takes place in a castle, and cleverly cyclical storylines are a staple of fairy tales. The detailed description of everyday details, like Rapunzel’s tower, or, most famously, Rose Red and Snow White’s mirror, are also common to fairy tales. It’ll serve your writing well to make sure that your fairy tale has all of these elements in place.
But fairy tale research doesn’t end with the fairy tale itself. True to their oral tradition, fairy tales have been handed from generation to generation. Many fairy tales, like Beauty and the Beast make small adaptations as they’re retold through history. For example, in Brother and Sister by the Brothers Grimm, the sister shoots her brother out of jealousy by accident when he insults her, but in Cinderella by the same brothers, as in the much later Charles Perrault variant, it is carefully planned and intentional. To write a truly authentic fairy tale, make sure to research not only well-known fairy tales, but also obscure ones that have borrowed elements of other tales, or draw from the oral tradition.
Study the structure of fairy tales
Read some truly iconic versions of fairy tales. Looking at the structures of fairy tales, you’ll notice that they follow a specific pattern, one that is rife with symbolism and set pieces. All good examples of what to do when how to write in an established fairy tale genre follow this pattern, whether you’re reading versions of Cinderella, Snow White, or Rumplestilskin. Familiarizing yourself with this pattern will not only help you format your story according to what readers expect, it will also help you to better understand the nuances of fairy tales and the powerful effect the genre can have on readers.
What elements are locked in the pattern? All fairy tales introduce the main character, her conflict, whether an absence of magic or an evil stepmother, the happily ever after attained via the crossing of an epic hurdle or boss battle, and her ultimate transformation. Prince Charming might not always be the charm you think he is for Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, and happily ever after can hide a host of problems within the depths of despair, but the story structure of almost all fairy tales includes these elements and others as well. Adapting that into your own story is as simple as boiling down your story to the bare elements and plugging in your own twists to turn them to your own purposes.
Learn to identify archetypes
While fairy tales can be incredibly diverse — especially once you get to 170 specifically identified tales, most of them having multiple variants — there are some archetypal elements that are almost always present. This includes the hero, a protagonist who is brave and pure of heart, a wise old man, and a powerful adversary, all of whom will test your hero’s mettle. Each tale will also include a magical agency, which can be just about anything — a magic mirror, a spindle, a sailing ship — that influences what happens to your protagonist. Some fairy tales, for example Cinderella, also includes a magical transformation, mostly of the protagonist, but sometimes of something else — The Gift of the Magi both gives and takes away Jim’s long curls. Peruse many fairy tales, see what seems appealing to you, and use it to develop your own unique idea.
But if the fairy tales you already know don’t make you want to write your own, don’t worry — it can be tricky to imagine how a never ending princess hunt or a riches-to-rags grafting can become your own work of art. In fact, to write a fairy tale that conforms to the standard, many people would encourage you to have kids or imbibe some strong drink before you start. But before you write a fairy tale, first brew a cup of your favorite tea and cozy up in your study, or on a sofa by the fire, or anywhere you’ll allow yourself to just sit and think. Remember, you’re going for a happy ending. That’s the whole thematic point of a fairy tale.
Choose your characters
A good fairy tale usually centers on a struggle between the protagonist and some sort of antagonist over what the protagonist most wants. In other words, identify your protagonist, then ask yourself what he or she really wants. Make sure your protagonist wants something so fundamental that losing it would change that character, or fail to get it would make life an unbearable burden for that character. Once you’ve got your protagonist, think about the antagonist, or opposing force. If your protagonist wants love, make the antagonist someone who doesn’t want to give love. To drive the plot, the antagonist should have personality, temper, motivation, backstory, and a distinct way of interacting with the protagonist.
Each of these characters are the most important in your story, so you should make them interesting. Set creative constraints for yourself. Concentrate on grasping what is so vital about your character that it determines his or her actions. Character and plot are inseparable — you can’t have a good story without a problem, and the problem can’t be interesting if the characters aren’t interesting. All good things come in threes, so take special note of the character who really matters, and give this third figure an unusual characteristic — it can be physical, a relationship, or related to time, place or things. Once you have it, there’s never any need for a third figure again.
Find the right narrator
Fairy tales have an omniscient narrator who tells the story, providing exposition and showing us what each character feels and thinks. This narrator is reliable, wise, and detached, and is often telling the story to someone else — a technique known as breaking the fourth wall. But this narration allows the storyteller to slip in personal commentary and indulge in a little lamenting, giving readers insight into the storyteller’s worldview. Listen for these cues as you read a fairy tale, and think about how you might expand upon them to give your narrator personality and flair. Consider how familiar the storyteller is with the characters, and pay close attention to how other characters relate to and interact with the narrator. Do the sarcastic narrators of novels like Gossip Girl reflect the worldview of the author? The narrators of fairy tales are equally as rich in personality and background as the protagonists they tell the stories of. Use this narrator as a starting point for creating characters that readers will come to love and rely upon for guidance.
One important signature of fairy tales is that the magic they contain is subtle — fairy godmothers wave their wands only to softly nudge the story into motion, and stars glow with starlight that only makes wishes come true. The stories themselves are often organized by clear divisions, with identifiable but unobtrusive prologues, first acts, second acts, and final epilogues. This structure suggests the natural progression of a character’s life. In the course of her lifetime, your fairy tale protagonist will grow in knowledge of self, in kindness for others, and in interaction with her world. Make your storyline bold and delineated while still allowing the action to unfold naturally as the characters grow.
Choose your tone
You’ll need to know whether you want to write a darker fairy tale, or a lighter one. Are you telling a Grimm story like Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, or are you more interested in writing a fairy tale closer to something like Peter Pan or the newer Shrek the Halls cartoon every Christmas? Either way, think about what kind of tale you’re telling, and make sure your tone and your setting reflect that. If you’re writing a darker fairy tale, think about reasons why this version of the tale is darker. Is the hero a criminal, or is merely misunderstood? Is your heroine a princess or is she common born? Take cues from your cast, and make sure they don’t just reflect your setting, but speak to it, too.
If you decide that you want a light fairy tale, you need to make sure that you’re leaning into that quality, and not accidentally straying into humorous dark. Think about your subject matter. In Hansel & Gretel, we realize this is a fairy tale right away when we see that the parents are abandoning the children, to punish them — by fairy tale standards, that’s Wicked StepMother territory. If the actions of your characters feel funny and disjointed, look at the plot structure — it may be that you’ve taken a trip into the Twilight Zone. That being said, a little parody never hurts — depending on how you lean into the parody, it can add a lot of humor while keeping it fairy tale appropriate. Try and look at your subject from a more satirical angle than dark. If you poke fun at the people of the fairy tale, it’s more likely that you’re going too far than if you make jokes about the plot.
Establish your setting
Fairy tales don’t seem to have much in common with each other — but they do have a lot in common with historical fantasy novels. This means they’re similarly gritty and fantastical. The particular quality and tone of a fairy tale is strongly derived from an author’s choice of setting. How will your readers respond to a dark, late-medieval setting? A version of one or more prescient present-day dimensions? Or perhaps a mashup of the two? The answer depends on both your audience, and which is more personally meaningful to you.
The other big decision you’ll be facing is whether or not you wish to incorporate a culturally prevalent element of your society into your worldbuilding. Writing in slang, or consciously utilizing Western storytelling tropes, are both ways of lending immediacy to the dialogue while also subconsciously making use of cultural familiarity. Of course, this isn’t a question that only applies to fairy tales — but since they tend to have simple storylines, audiences are often pretty sure of what they’ll find in them. Make sure you’re comfortable with delivering what your audience wants.
Set it in the right era
Setting is one of the best ways to push a story in an old or modern direction — especially for a fairy tale retelling. Set your fairy tale in an age that’s foreign to the audience. Describe the characters’ clothing, speech, and scenery — including the architectural and material buildings of the age — to attract readers who might not be familiar with the time period. Alternatively, choose a time period in current fiction and use the conflicts of the time to elevate the themes in your fairy tale.
Find inspiration in works by the great fairy tale writers, like Giambattista Basile, Charles Perrault, and The Brothers Grimm — which will also look good if your work turns into a best-seller and makes the above authors’ greats lists. If you’re really committed, immerse yourself in past works, learning everything you can about everything from the culture and history of the period to the way people talked, what kind of flora and fauna were around, and how it was all reflected in the art and literature of the time.
Think in symbols
Fairy tales share a structure of using archetypal characters, the use of symbols and motifs, a specific kind of setting, and a sort of fairy tale ending, which isn’t necessarily a happy ending. To begin writing a fairy tale that works, begin by deciding which of these fairy tale elements you are going to play up, and which ones you’re going to downplay. For example, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast is an archetypal fairy tale character, as is the witch in The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. The three little pigs also have archetypal characters in the form of the three pigs, but there’s no witch, as the pigs’ enemies are three not-especially-fascinating pigs.
The same goes for symbols, storylines, and the fairy tale ending. In Beauty and the Beast, a rose is a symbolic representation of Beauty’s feelings for the Beast, while in The Odyssey, the Cyclops is a fantasy symbol of what happens when you get too greedy. The symbolism manifests again in The Land of Oz with the Emerald City representing the ultimate prize that awaits if Dorothy arrives at her destination. In Little Red Riding Hood, the moral of the story is “don’t talk to strange men full of crumbs in a big forest when you’re on your way to see your grandma.”
Establish your suspense
Suspense is one of the most enjoyable emotions a writer can evoke in a reader. And though more experimental genres like magical realism also rely on suspense, it’s not limited to genre fiction. Try creating a diverse cast of family members, whose life-changing event will cause at least one of their daughters to live without fear. Or start your story with the event itself, then allow a character that witnessed it to convey the details at her leisure to both the audience and the other characters. Don’t forget to pull the last thread in your story. You’re trying to create a lived-in, non-boring world, so start laying the scene now.
Make sure your readers remember the smallest details — the sisters’ dresses, the golden coins, the jeweled crown itself — so that they’ll be shocked to hear that the princess is married without it. Foreshadow the incident so that it will take both your readers and your characters by surprise, and really drive home how you’re shaking up the fairy story formula, which will draw more readers to your work. If your main character’s true love is a surprise to the other characters themselves — that’s both suspense on multiple levels and a compelling twist for the reader. Writing a fairy tale is not easy, but if you follow these steps, and work hard at creating compelling characters and filling the narrative with suspense, you’ll be on your way to telling the kind of cathartic story that readers crave.
Start a countdown clock
Fairy tales have the charm of being both trapped in time, and rooted in it. Even the ones that got their start in more rural cultures inevitably fell prey to more modern sensibilities as they moved into the modern age, exhibiting just how flexible they are. The consequence of this evolution, besides the startling dearth of Disney villains in most folktales, is that there is no single definitive version of a folktale that you need to conform to. More than that — who wants to do that, if they have any imagination at all? But this is all very good news for authors who want to write a fairy tale, because it makes it easy to suddenly find yourself in the right place at the right time to evolve a centuries-old story into something new and relevant — meaning that there are all kinds of authors writing fairy tales right now.
One of the surest ways to cater to all ages is to insert humor into your story. Think about the fairy tales you love the most—do they have funny moments in them? How about goofy creatures or animals? Just take a look at Disney films, they are pretty popular for a reason. Humor is entertaining for readers of any age. Humor can enliven your story and help your readers connect to your characters, which will make them seem more lifelike.
However, humor shouldn’t feel forced. Make sure you understand the genre expectations. Do your fairy tales typically have comedic elements or not? You can add humor to a story about a tragedy, or drama to a story with a light tone, but know what your boundaries are before you start. Also remember that humor doesn’t just concern your characters or plot—you can poke fun at the genre, or at fairy tales in general. This can be a lot of fun, and a great way to bring new flair to your writing. And, if you’re still not sure how to work in humor, here are some additional tips for using humor in fiction.
Add some magic
Magic is an excellent way to inject the kind of epic adventure that keeps people turning the pages, while still conjuring a certain nostalgia for fantasy stories. More so than a strictly realist coming-of-age tale, a magical fairy tale maintains a thread of escape from the confines of the worlds we know, which can be a positive thing. But how do you get magic into a fairy tale in the first place?
Decide on your magic’s cost. The most familiar equation is that to learn magic, the mage/wizard/witch must pay with their life — whether or not it’s literal. But there are ways otherwise to keep the costs steep, even if the life of the magic-user isn’t on the table — perhaps power comes with great sacrifice, or at great cost to the magic user. And let’s not forget that magic times two isn’t just more… it’s chaos.
Nail your twist ending
Fairy tales are masterpieces of irony and contrast. So, while the tales have happy endings, not all the characters and concerns within those fairy tales get what they want 100% of the time. Furthermore, the truly traditional fairy tale subverts the idea of happy endings by including a few false solutions and denials along the way, in addition to tricking the readers into expecting or even hoping for a terrible ending. This is the hallmark of twist tales, such as the twist at the end of the Grimm Brothers’ The Singing Bone or, more famously, Sleeping Beauty. Give your readers reason to doubt the inevitable by introducing an alternate ending.
Somewhere along the line, we started calling these anti-ending fairy tales “tragic”, rather than having any understanding of what makes them actually tragic. Hey, bad things happen in fairy tales, sure, but the reason we wonder how to write a fairy tale is tragic because we misunderstand the thing we’re writing to begin with. Ultimately, the main job of a fairy tale writer is to create a past-present-future set of fairy tales which all come together at some phenomenally unlikely point and end up in an inevitably strange place. The point of a fairy tale about King Midas is not the celebrity gold, but the money problems. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is not the idea of walking through walls, but the horror of unreliability.
Know what a fairy tale isn’t
Before you can decide how to write a fairy tale, you need to have clear parameters for this traditionally loose genre. First and foremost, you should know what a fairy tale isn’t. Fairy tales aren’t thinly veiled morality stories — the characters who are good tend to live happily ever after, not because they “get it” and were rewarded. It’s also not a genre with a nationality or a particularly universal tone. Sleeping Beauty, for example, is British in Disney’s animated adaptation, and Russian in the folktale, but was also rewritten as Hawaiian and played completely straight with Native American characters in Raven.
Tackling the more basic question of what fairy tales are often leads to two differing interpretations that have sprung up over time. The first is that they function primarily as children’s literature, and often have some unique stylistic devices that highlight their “fairytalesque” character. The second is that they’re short primers on endearing relationship development, which tend to use archetypes like the princess, the hero, the stepmother, and the huntress. Linking it back to your own creative writing by creating a world and story unified by theme, plot, and thematic symbolism is easy — like the best fairy tales, your story will teach people something universal about the process of loving ourselves and others.
The best stories walk the line between “once upon a time” and “ever after” — they’ll whisk you away to a magical land and remind you that you’ll have to return to earth eventually. They’ll teach you how to behave, set you up with prince charming or vanquish an evil wolf with just a “bah.” They’ll make you cry, and maybe even make you laugh. Above all, make the effort to perfectly weave your words so that your readers never want your story to end.
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