What’s In A Fairytale? 5 Helpful Starting Points

So, we’ve established (more or less) what a fairytale is and what kind of story we want to tell. Question is, how do we go about telling it? Every genre has its own markers – the key elements that readers expect to see. Fairytales are no different. When we pick up a fairytale, or something that guises to be one, as readers we have certain expectations and, as writers, we have to be careful to fulfil enough of them not to leave the reader feeling cheated.


An important caveat. There are no rules in writing. Actually, a lie. Considering we are in the business of art, people seem in a hell of a rush to bind us in so many rules I sometimes think it’s a miracle anything original ever gets published with all the bureaucratic strangling going on in our market. So let’s change that to…

There shouldn’t be any rules in writing

So while the below listed and explored are common themes, they are not the be all and end all. They are guidelines. Ideas. Suggestions. If  you ask me, our job as writers shouldn’t be a tick box exercise of combining an expected set of conditions into one linear narrative, it should be a challenge so see how many of them we can leave out and still get the same end result. Personally as a reader, I love to be surprised. I love that moment when I actually have to put the book down for a moment to admire the mastery of such a warped imagination that created such an unexpected twist.


But that said, if you want to get published, particularly traditionally, you have to play by the rules. (That’s not to say there aren’t agents out there who will take a chance on something new and controversial (in a literary sense) but they are needles in a very big haystack). Most books I pick up these days are so formulaic it hurts.

So here’s a couple of elements to keep in mind when working on your own fairytale as well as a few tips from me on how to rebel (whoo to the writing revolution):

Starting points for fairytales

  1. OUR DASHING HERO, DARLING DAMSEL IN DISTRESS AND VILLAINOUS VILLAIN

The Golden Trio. Pick up any fairytale and you’ll more than often find all three in residence. If your name is Disney, it’s normally the princess of the week, the nameless prince who is only there to kill things and save the afore-mentioned princess from the cliché evil villain. From Snow White, the literally unnamed Prince Charming and equally unnamed Evil Queen to bang up to date with Anna, Kristoff and the we-were-going-to-do-an-original-hero-as-villain-story-but-chickened-out Hans, these three characters are the foundation around which the fairytale is built.

That does not mean by any stretch that there isn’t room for some interpretation. My favourites are where the damsel is just fine saving herself while the hero has his own problems to contend with (Hercules and Meg), linked instead of by a sappy love story but by the mutual villain; or where the villain is actually the hero of the story (Maleficent) or better yet starts as the villain and comes full circle to hero as the hero takes the opposite journey (absolutely loved the Black Swan mirroring in Once Upon a Time S5 p1 with Regina and Emma as they switched roles). I actually love this cliché because it gives us so much room as writers to go “screw that” and mix things up. Why can’t the princess be the villain and the wicked witch saves the prince? Why can’t the hero have their own story completely independent of the princess? What if the hero has to team up with the villain to save the princess and falls in love with the wrong one? There is so much scope here. As any self-respecting Oncer will tell you “Evil isn’t born, it’s made” and “Anyone can be a hero.” Break the rules. Shock the reader. Make them really question their assumptions. Write a story where no one is who they appear to be. All three should be distinct characters with their own stories, motivations and development. That is when a fairytale is at its most powerful.

2. THE EPIC BATTLE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL

You can’t have a fairytale without some kind of great war between all that is good and all that is evil. Back when Snow White was released in 1937, people were happier to accept the simple lines drawn between good and evil, cheer on the heroes and go home satisfied. Since then, audiences have become much more demanding and questioning. Our job as writers is to ask those questions. What is good? What is evil? Is someone evil for doing the right things for the wrong reasons? Or for doing the wrong things for the right reasons? Which is better? Which is worse? Can a hero still be hero if they are willing to kill? What makes people evil? Are people all evil or all good? What are the shades of grey in play? Can a villain ever be redeemed? When does a hero become just a vigilante with a sword? Here’s a fun writing prompt:

Write an entire book from the point of view of one character as the hero. It’s only as the reader reaches the end, they realise that character is actually the villain and they’ve just witnessed them killing the real hero.

3. The Great Moral Lesson

Fairytales, as established back in March, are as much about examining the “human experience” as they are about princesses and wicked witches. They are morality tales. Each one has a “lesson” that it wishes to teach. Frozen teaches girls everywhere that they don’t need a prince to save them and depression can be beaten. Tangled teaches little girls that ignoring their mother’s direct instruction and running away is a great idea. Snow White taught a generation that it really is the be all and end all to be the prettiest of them all. Okay, okay, I’ll stop. Tangled is also about growing up and identity. And Snow White is about the perils of vanity. Each fairytale has its core lesson to share with the world. And so should yours.

For me, this is why we choose to write fairytales. This is the very core of what they are. We as writers want to give a voice to a particular story, or struggle, or theme and share that. For me personally, the theme I looked at was the constant fight we all face to find who we are in this crazy, mixed up world that is so quick to want to shove us in neat little boxes and fundamentally  the idea that just because you are born as one thing does not mean that is the thing you must be for the rest of your life – in other words, just because you are born a hero does not mean you cannot become the villain and vice versa. I also wanted a chance to really explore accountability (as for me personally this is something somewhat lacking in fairytales). I chose these themes because they are close to my heart. They are things I struggled with as a kid, and continue to now as an adult and are stories I have never been able to find in the books I’ve read so I wrote my own.

Everyone has their thing. That one or two moral/ethical/emotive topics that really sets our hearts burning. If you aren’t sure of yours, look back over everything you’ve ever written and write down all the things they have in common. You might be surprised by what you find. I did this a couple of years ago and it really made me more self-aware as a writer and in many ways, my findings created the foundation for the fairytales I’m now writing. It’s a fantastic exercise to do, even if you don’t plan on writing anything that ends in “happily ever after”.

4. Once Upon A Time to Happily Ever After

I don’t know if it was different for you, but back when I was just starting to write as a kid, fairytales were the device my teachers used to explain the formula of a story. It starts “once upon a time” there is a great thrilling quest and it ends “happily ever after”. Of course, I’ve since learnt that stories are somewhat more complicated than that but it’s important to keep the format in the back of your mind when you are working on a fairytale. A few questions you might want to ask:

  • Where do I want to begin?
  • Am I going to follow one primary character through the whole story (which is the traditional route) or jump around and show different sides of the story?
  • Where do I want to end?
  • What is happily ever after for me/my characters? Am I a “True Lover” or is there a different kind of ever after I want to explore?
  • Will this have a happy ending?
  • What exists after “happily ever after”? Do I care? Is this something I want to explore? What happens when “happily ever after” breaks?

5. The Sappy Love Story

Can you write a fairytale without one? Frozen tried. But even without it being the primary “love” story, it was still there in the background. Maleficent is probably as close as Disney has ever gotten to a fairytale that doesn’t have a love story (and even then her past/backstory is one giant love story – just because it ends badly doesn’t stop it being a love story, or does it? When does a love story become a revenge story?) As I explored a couple of posts back, a lot of the original fairytales do actually step away from the traditional love story. Some of that is time based, perceptions have changed. Things we are disgusted by now were just not that frowned upon back then. Friendly reminder that rape within marriage only became illegal in the UK in 1990. And some of it is to do with the fact those stories were downright twisted. My favourite retellings are the ones that push the love story to the back. As a woman, I do not enjoy being informed that my happily ever after comes in the form of biceps and abs. As a writer, I’ve made the choice to very much marginalise any romantic storyline in my own work. My protagonist is a strong female whose happily ever after has absolutely no correlation to whom she happens to be dating at the time.