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.

5 Questions To Ask When Writing a Fairytale Retelling

Fairytales are very vogue at the moment. Everyone is jumping on the band wagon. The bookshelves (particularly for young adult) are full of princesses and heroes. Shows like Grimm and Once Upon A Time are prime time and widely watched. And even Disney has taken to rehashing its own stories on the silver screen. They are the new vampires and everyone is getting in on the action.

But there is a great difference between doing a thing (say… Twilight for instance) and doing it well (say… True Blood). And I, of course, want to do it well so over the last two years I’ve given myself a crash course in how to handle already existing stories. Because that’s the fundamental problem. People have literally read that one already. So when you launch in, it’s not like handling any other genre. It isn’t enough to have a story. You have to justify to those legions of existing fans of the original story why you are taking their beloved tale and rehashing it. How do you get people to reread a story where they already know the plot and the characters and still surprise them? How do you keep them hooked?

I have learnt a hell of a lot over my time in this minefield. I thought I knew fairytales until I tried writing one. Which means I’ve done this backwards. I started with the mistakes and then have spent two odd years fixing them all. I don’t recommend this approach. It’s frustrating and demoralising at times and involves hours of stress. (This is what I get for being a “pantser” I guess – I’m terrible at pre-writing research)

The problem is, despite there being so much momentum in this area (retellings generally, not just fairytales), there is not a lot of guidance out there for people. Even when I went looking I struggled. I can find fifty infograms telling me how to get my character out of a straitjacket but nothing when it comes to copyright implications and types of retellings. And so, I thought I’d put together a quick guide of five questions I wish I had asked before I launched into my fairytale retelling with the hopes that maybe it can help some of my fellow fairytale lovers.

5 questionsQuestion 1: Do you really know your fairytales?

The honest answer for me was a resounding no. If I’m completely honest, I was a bit of a Disney reliant. I trusted the mouse to have done his research and just springboarded off the back of what he had done. Mistake. I knew about the Grimm fairytales but I’d never actually read them. I knew people had told me they were (and I quote) “a tad” darker than Disney.

You don’t say.

As I illustrated last week, the Grimm brothers somewhat live up to their names. So my advice here is pick your source material and then dedicate some serious time to research. That doesn’t just mean the Disney and the Grimm but try to watch/read what other people have done with it. Once Upon A Time is a great melting pot for all fairytales. My book is based on Snow White so I suffered through both Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman as well as the obscure version the BBC made in the early 90s and as many others as I could find and I read any and every book based thereupon.

The purpose of this is two-fold.

1. You get to really understand the story you are handling before you start and by looking at the common denominators across all the other versions, you can find the core themes/ideas of your fairytale in question.

2. You’ve got to know what’s out there to avoid rehashing something someone has already done.

Question 2: What kind of retelling are you doing?

A retelling is a retelling is a retelling right? Wrong. In my experience, there are four overarching ways to handle a retelling.

The Reimagining

The same story. Same characters. Different cast. The recent Disney remake of Cinderella is a classic example. Same story. More three-dimensional cast. No real changes. It looks different but basically does the same thing. I imagine the live action Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson (breaths held) will run a similar pattern. Or look at the Rogers and Hammerstein version of Cinderella – that’s another straight reimagining. I also put things like Burton’s Alice in Wonderland under this category. It’s borderline to retelling but there just wasn’t enough original content. I’m sorry but “Wonderland” to “Underland” does not count. At the end of the day, same story.

My advice? Leave these to Disney. It is very difficult to do a straight reimagining that doesn’t come across as “because I do this better than the original did” and that tends to put backs up.

The Prequel/Sequel approach

Gregory Maguire showed how successfully this can work with his novel (and the now incredibly popular stage show soon to be film) Wicked. It’s a prequel to the Wizard of Oz. Same world. Same characters. Different part of their timelines. It’s brave territory because you are effectively leaping into an existing world with someone else’s characters and picking up where they left off but it has been done successfully. Let’s face it, Disney are pretty terrible at their own sequels so the field is open for new players.

The Retelling

This covers pretty much everything else. Similar story with some kind of twist. Maleficent retold Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of the villain. Once Upon A Time puts everyone in a giant melting pot called Storybrooke and throws in a memory curse for good measure. Tangled updated Rapunzel for a more modern story, giving the usual 2D prince an upgrade and a personality (shock horror) – Shrek is another good retelling of the same story. Frozen is perhaps the most high profile retelling of the old classic The Snow Queen. A Cinderella Story (I was a Hilary fan) takes Cinderella and puts it in a different time period.

As the above illustrate, retellings can stay pretty close to the original story but tend more often to drift quite a ways from the original so the options here are pretty endless. Generally speaking though, each one has a key detail that is the core of the retelling (Maleficent – villain pov; OUAT – mixed tales in one place; Shrek – erm… prince charming is an Ogre; Frozen – villain isn’t a villain). If this is the path you are taking, my advice would be to have very clear in your mind what your linchpin is and keep it in focus at all time.

The Thematic Retelling

The most subtle of the collection. I suppose you could argue these aren’t really retellings. They are completely different stories with completely different characters but they borrow themes and ideologies and iconologies from the source material. The best example of this I’ve ever witnessed is House MD. For those of you who don’t know, Greg House is actually based on Sherlock Holmes and throughout the eight series, small little idiosyncracies are added here and there to thematically retell Conon Doyle’s classic story. There is no argument that the stories are completely different. But themes they share are things like both principles are unnaturally smart and observant; there is a heavy focus on puzzles and solving the impossible; Drug use and addition.

And then there are the smaller “cuter” things. Holmes/House (someone somewhere was very proud of that); Watson/Wilson; House lives in apartment 221B; and every so often they’ll throw in a line of dialogue that throws back to the original material.

This is my choice of retelling. For me, it offers the most flexibility. It allows you complete creative control over your stories and characters but allows you to still use the existing background of the fairytale to add depth and familiarity for the reader.

Question 3: Do you know your copyright limitations?

This is the one that will give you the most headaches and heartache if you aren’t 100% certain of what you are allowed to use and what you aren’t. Copyright law changes from place to place so I’m not going to even being to start to try to provide details here. Each story will be different. It will depend on when and what the original source is. Peter Pan, for example, is a fairly modern novel and so has more restrictions than Sleeping Beauty but Disney can get quite protective over their stories but it tends not to cover fictional novels. From Wiki:

In 2013, the US Patent and Trademark Office issued a trademark to Disney Enterprises, Inc. for the name “Snow White” that covers all live and recorded movie, television, radio, stage, computer, Internet, news, and photographic entertainment uses, excluding literary works of fiction and nonfiction

An afternoon of research will save you a lot of worrying later down the road. Particularly if you are thinking of self publishing and so don’t have the safety net of an agent and a publishing house.

Question 4: What are you bringing to the party?

I’m sounding like a broken record at the moment. I lament to anyone misfortunate enough to be around me Hollywood’s loss of ability to do anything original. I swear, if they remake another “classic” 80s movie I’m staging a protest. First Fame, Flashdance, 90210, Superman – the list just goes on and on. I nearly cried when they released that they were redoing Mary Poppins.

So what are you doing writing a retelling? – I hear you ask. Is that not exactly the same thing?

My answer. Not if I do it right.

Big if, I know, but an important one. Think about Romeo and Juliet for a second. Do you know how many movie versions have been made? No? Me either. I had to Google it. According to TCM…

There have been more than 30 film versions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – silent versions, sound versions, versions in foreign languages, and in modern dress. Source

Now, how many have you heard of? One, two? I’d reckon the two most people know is the Baz Luhrmann movie from 1996 and Disney’s Gnomeo and Juliet. I’ve seen more, I know I have but these two stick in my mind. Why? Because they did something different and they stuck to it – for better or worse. They knew what they were bringing to the party. If you give the reader the same stuff they’ve already seen, at best your work will be forgettable, at worst left discarded and unfinished. A retelling can so easily become a very boring experience for a reader if they haven’t got anything new and exciting to be drawn to.

It’s all about balance between keeping the stuff you love and that inspired you to write the retelling in the first place from the original but combine it with enough new elements and surprises to have your fingerprints all over the prose and keep the reader hooked and second guessing.

Question 5: What are you trying to accomplish?

Imagine the following (fictional) conversation that must have happened between Stephanie Meyer and the agents she pitched her work to:

Agent: “So what is this book about?”

Stephanie: “A vampire falling in love with a human.”

Agent: “Been done. If I want star-crossed lovers I’ll read Romeo and Juliet.”

Stephanie: “Funny you should mention that. R+J is a massive theme throughout my book.”

Agent: “Okay, so it’s Romeo and Juliet with vampires. Isn’t that just Dracula?”

Stephanie: “No. Mine is for young adults and, get this, my vampires sparkle.”

Agent: “Okay… you’ve got me intrigued. But tell me why I should publish this book over all the other ones? What does your book accomplish that they don’t?”

Stephanie: “…”

Actually Steph, bless her, had quite a choice of answers. Love or hate Twilight, it does do a lot of new things to an old hat. It made vampires attractive to a young audience. It retold the old story of Romeo and Juliet and the star-crossed lovers against a (faux) gothic background. It makes stalking an attractive feature… okay, okay, I’ll stop. But my point is, whatever your view on this book, the first one anyway, brought something new to the shelves.

If you have ever got as far as pitching a novel to an agent, you’ll know this question has a nasty habit of popping up. It isn’t enough to just have a story these days. The publishing industry is about the bottom line. You have to do more than just justify your story as a story, you have to justify it as a book as well.

So have this in the back of your mind. Think about what you are doing that makes your novel unique. Is it addressing a new audience? Has it got a currently relevant message? Is it exploring a moral dilemma? Is it changing the genre of an old classic? In short, why is someone going to choose to pick up your book out of the millions out there? What is your sales pitch? If the best you’ve got is “cos I love Sleeping Beauty and wanted to have a play around with my own version” you might want to sit down and really think about this one.

If you are struggling with this, write a blurb. Write yourself the paragraph you’d put on the back cover to hook new readers. That 500 odd words is everything unique about your book. It’s your “why you should read this” declaration to the world. Look at what you’ve written and ask yourself if you would pick up that book. Better yet, hand it to half a dozen beta readers and ask them if it makes them want to read the book. They come back with a yes and you’ve got yourself a book.

Next week I look at elements of the fairytale and how to start turning ideas into a novel…