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.

Happy 2015!!!

It is that time of year again. The time where we look back at the last 12 months and assess just how little we’ve achieved on that list of things we wanted to do and look forward to the next 12 and once again set ourselves a bunch of targets we have no hope of hitting. I have this tradition where on the 31st of December I sit down and write my resolutions on a piece of paper before putting them in an envelope with the year written on it and put them away. I open them on the 31st of the following year and see how many of them I’ve hit. This year, for the first time, well… ever, I had a chance to smile.

I had four promises I made to myself this year just gone and I actually managed to make them. So I’m going to make 2015 an even better one. 2014 was about writing. It was about completing a NaNoWriMo for the first time in my career (+100,000 in total over the two sessions I did 😀 ). It was about taking some of those ideas that I’ve had cluttering my mind for so long and actually getting them down on paper. I’ve written two books this year. That is something I thought I’d never be able to say. I don’t care if they are rubbish, if the plots have so many holes they look like Swiss cheese or that they’ll will probably never get further than my recycle bin – for me, that is progress. It was about setting up a blog and putting myself out there (and thank you eternally for anyone reading this – you are part of what helped make 2014 such an awesome year). It was about finally learning how the hell Twitter worked and getting my face active on Social Media.

As writers, I think New Year is an important time for us. It is a time to set targets. Not crazy unreachable ones like selling a million copies of a book that hasn’t even got a coherent plot yet. I mean the ones we can do. We have the capability to amaze ourselves when we put our minds to it. So don’t give up chocolate. Don’t give up coffee. And for the sake of your sanity don’t give up alcohol, lord knows us writers need a nice glass of red once in a while. Instead, make promises. Not to mum and dad. Not to your best friend. But to you. Do it for you. Promise to write 2,000 words a week. Or promise to finally set up that Pinterest board full of inspiring images. Or maybe start that blog you’ve always promised yourself you’ll do but never have.

It is so easy to make New Year about looking back and seeing how stuck you are. Most people stay remarkably stationary in their lives. I should know, I’ve done that for enough years. 2014 proved to me that New Year doesn’t have to be like that. Let 2015 be the year that you move forward. When you open that envelope on the 31st of December let it be a tick-list of things you have done. You don’t need to land on Mars or meet the President of America to achieve something. Dieting is over-rated and no one ever actually goes to the gym. Don’t waste your resolutions. Resolutions are the dreams you have the power to make come true.

For me 2015 is going to be about polishing. I have the rough guts, now I want to turn them into something worth standing behind and being proud of. I want to do NaNoWriMo again (this year with the additional bonus of studying for a professional qualification and holding down a 9 hr a day job). I have promised that I will send a manuscript to at least one agent before the ball falls next year. I have promised that I will get my butt on this blog more regularly and post more than once every three months (sorry about that… in my defence, I have moved country, house, changed job and been unwell). And I have promised to write at least 1,000 words a week come hell or high water.

These are promises I can keep. These are promises I will keep. These are small fragments of a bigger dream I am working to make come true.

So Happy New Year!! I hope 2014 was good to you. I hope 2015 will be even better. And I hope that when you open that envelope it is big ticks next to each item. To writers everywhere, let’s make 2015 about progress. Go on. I dare you!!

Maxi xx

The ‘Write’ Regrets: Beneath a Writer’s Soul

I remember when I first heard this song, while I wasn’t blown away by Ms Messing’s vocals, I fell in love with the lyrics. If this song does not speak to every single writer out there… well I guess you are the lucky ones. I write for a lot of reasons but a part of it is writing myself out of my own life, and this messed-up world we live in. I can make right the things that go wrong. I get to control the ending. And I get to leave something behind. It’s based on an Arthur Miller quote:

“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.”

I hope when I look back at my life, I look back to see the right regrets.

Beautiful lyrics to be found below.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txAOVa_QRu8]

A writer has the empty page where he can set the scene
He puts the actors on the stage or on the movie screen
The characters all say the words the writer wants to hear
And then my friend; a happy end

But when the writer steps outside that room where he is king
He can’t control when lives collide or what the lovers sing
And so he hides behind his words the one place he belongs
And in black and white he can rewrite the wrongs

Where he can find the strength to say what those he loves should hear
And just erase mistakes she’s made then make them disappear
Where he can change the plot so he’s a hero not a louse
And when the curtain falls there’s not a dry eye in the house

A writer hopes to leave behind a work no one forgets
And when he writes the end to find he has the right regrets
A writer has the empty page where he can use his pen
To mend his heart and try to start again

Writer’s Corner: Ten writing terms explained…

It seems the publishing industry of late has created its own special version of slang. Here’s my quick guide for understanding the most common buzzwords of our internal lingo…

1. HEA

Happily Ever After. For definition see any Disney movie. Ever.

2. HFN

Happy For Now. (Used for sequels a lot. For example the ending of The Hunger Games Book 1 is a HFN ending as are the endings of the first six Harry Potter books).

3. Purple Prose

To quote wikipedia, Purple Prose is “ written prose that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.” In other-words, bits that sound like you are trying too hard. Apparently we can blame a Roman poet named Horace for the odd term.

 4. Dialogue Tags

You’ll hear a lot of debate on these. They are words like “said”, “explained”, “answered” that follow the pronoun that follows speech. Current thinking says rule of thumb is to use “said” as much as possible. Not sure I entirely agree.

5. Literary Fiction

In a nutshell, books that are about the writing. I always find the line here a bit blurry. It’s a very subjective matter. Even though most books are written very well, literary fiction has so called ‘literary merit’ that the others don’t. If you are unsure if you work is literary or not, chances are it’s not.

6. Commercial Fiction

Self explanatory. Basically all the fiction books that don’t fit in the above category.

7. Children’s v. Teenage v. Y.A. v. N.A. fiction

Maybe I’ve just been snoozing until recently, but I’ve only fallen across the term ‘new adult’ (NA) in the last couple of years. But it is the final transition in the ‘junior’ fiction ranks. Children’s is traditionally up to about age 12. Teenage is well… teenagers. Young adult (for me anyway) has always been that 18-21 bracket. And now new adult exists to bridge that final gap between YA to Adult. Sort of 21-25. Uni student reading. Normally featuring a protagonist aged between 18-25.

8. Exposition

Disney loves a good exposition song. Do you wanna build a snowman anybody? In short, it is dialogue or narrative that explains or provides information to a reader that is necessary for them to understand the plot.

9. Infodump

Too much of the above at one go. Clare does this all the time in her Mortal Instruments series and its a common error of first timers. Information should be spread evenly to avoid the dreaded infodump.

10. Head-hopping

Not a sport practised by Lafou in Beauty and the Beast but actually a term that refers to the narrative within a chapter. It means that the point of view of the narrative moves from character to character, using multiple visions in one sequence. It can be confusing and frustrating for a reader so advice is to use with caution. Someone who does this very well is Larsson at the end of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.