Want to write a fairytale? Unsure where to start? In this post, you will learn nine tips on how to write a fairytale. Drawing on the storytelling from the Grimm Brothers, Arabian Nights, Hans Christian Anderson and Angela Carter, this list aims to help writers of any stage in their journey.
Tip One: Add A National Flair To Your Fairytale
Vast amounts of fairytales draw on national mythology and folklore. By ‘nation’, I am not just referring to UN-recognised nations. Rather, I am also referring to language groups, cultures, and even continents. A reason why Western audiences read Arabian Nights year after year is due to the opportunity to further understand the Middle East and its history. Aladdin may be a simple ‘boy tries to win the heart of his dream girl’ story, but the references to Arabia help distinguish it from all the others.
Arabian Nights is a great example of ‘national’ literature, and while you read the tales, you’ll observe great literary devices such as satire, themes of fate and destiny, and even ‘inappropriate’ humour.
Tip Two: Make Your Fairytale Moral Layered And Complex
Fairytales have morals, or at least lean towards them. This is daunting for many writers, as they don’t want to write in a patronizing tone. But what makes morals patronizing is when they aren’t layered, complex or well-thought out. Unfortunately, some of the Grimm Brother’s tales venture into the territory of simplistic storytelling. (Snowdrop is an example). Poorly-thought out morals cheat fairytales of their believability and reader engagement. The good news is that it’s possible to write fairytale morals which are layered and complex.
The best way to demonstrate moral complexity is through character dynamics and motivations. Do not treat your characters like puppets, waiting to move around. Instead, give them unique motivations. Mix sympathetic traits with unsympathetic ones. When writing a fairytale, it’s not a bad idea to question a presumption your reader may have about morality. Beauty And The Beast challenges the presumption of ‘beauty equating to goodness.’ There’s no reason why you can’t do this too.
An author who does this well is Angela Carter, especially in The Bloody Chamber.
Tip Three: Keep Your Fairytale Precise
Despite the fantastic imagination underpinning each fairytale, they do not lend themselves well to long word counts or ‘wordiness.’ The best fairytales (and fables) are precise and get to the point. That doesn’t make them sloppy or lazy: precise language is superior communication.
However, you can certainly have character complexity, wonderful setting descriptions and unique dialogue in your fairytale! (If anything, these three factors contribute to how ‘memorable’ a fairytale is!)
But take a close eye to your syntax, word choice and pacing.
Writing in a precise way takes practice, and no writer gets it correct the first few times. Keep at it, and your fairytale can be as sharp as an Aesop Fable. You should also consider your audience: are adults reading this? Or do you intend children as your main market? If so, what age are they? All these answers contribute to length, pacing and word choice.
Tip Four: Work On Characterisation
A weak point of many fairytales are weak characters. The problem with passive or weak characters is the difficulty the audience has with investing in them. They also aren’t interesting, and don’t stand out or move the story along.
What I love about the Grimm Brother’s Hansel And Gretel is how active the children are. Although their situation is horrible, they demonstrate cleverness and emotion. There’s nothing wrong with tragic fairytale characters (the titular character in The Little Mermaid is a fantastic example) but it’s vital they make decisions which impact on the narrative.
Tip Five: Give Your Fairytale A Timeless Feel
Fairytales belong to another world entirely. It’s incredible how a writer can ‘readapt’ a fairytale to another time or place, with ease. What else explains the many versions of Cinderella? Fairytales are timeless, and you can read them hundreds of years after they are written, and get value out of them.
This is because fairytales appeal to archetypes, universal symbols and classical storytelling. An archetype refers to recurring images in storytelling and reality. For example, an archetype is ‘the hero.’
When writing your fairytale, use archetypes. But remember, an archetype is not the same as a cliche. A cliche drags your story down, makes it appear unoriginal and dulls the reading experience. Think hard about what archetypes you are using, and why you are using them.
Tip Six: Look To The Past For Inspiration
Fairytales are rich in historical inspiration: from bewitching castles to the candlesticks inside of them. When writing fairytales, draw from the past in your fiction. This could mean using mythology & folklore as sources of inspiration, or referencing classic literature.
Consider the Disney 2015 adaption of Cinderella. You have classic early modern French art and architecture, as well as ‘traditional’ customs such as fancy-dress balls. A common reason why many read fairytales is escapism to the past, as well as being fascinated by it. Keep this in mind while worldbuilding.
You have many options available to you. And once you study the past, you’ll unlock many possibilities within your storytelling.
Tip Seven: Get Strange
Fairytales that have a wiff of strangeness are memorable and have legendary status in the genre. Think Alice In Wonderland, and how it inspires readers today. Lewis Carroll is strange, but he achieves it due to understanding what humans fear and avoid. This helps Carroll create an awesome sense of mystery, and traps the reader into a strange world of his making. Remember: strangeness thrives on mystery and the unknown.
A mistake many writers make when creating ‘strange’ environments is they overdo it. Not everything in your fairytale needs to be strange, but a few moments of pecularity can go a long way.
Tip Eight: Don’t Limit Your Inspiration Solely To Fairytales
A problem with many aspiring fairytale writers is a lack of inspiration. They immediately go to the ‘classic’ authors of fairytales, such as Charles Perrault. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with inspiration from him. But it’s not enough. The best fairytales are inspired by other fictional works and ideas besides short tales.
Perhaps you are inspired by Beauty And The Beast. But maybe you’re also interested in the magical realism of Salman Rushdie (I recommend The Enchantress Of Florence!) or the geopolitics of India and Pakistan. Fusing non fairytale related influences from fiction and non-fiction can give your fairytale a unique and unforgettable edge.
To discover non-fiction influences, having insight into geography, history, political science, commerce, or various human cultures, can help. They will add more ‘meat’ to your fairytale.
Keep in mind your reader already has familiarity with fairytales. They know the tropes of ‘true loves kiss’ or ‘the evil queen.’ But they don’t know you, or your unique interpretation of such tropes.
Tip Nine: Make Your Setting Stand Out
Fairytales should never be dull. That’s why it’s crucial for the setting to stand out. Give it life with its own history and customs. Give your setting a unique world, and readers will appreciate it. They are also more likely to remember a story with a distinguished setting. Whilst ‘setting’ isn’t everything in fairytales (characterisation, theme / moral and plot are crucial), it can elevate your fairytale.
When these nine tips are applied, your fairytale will be enchanting, and draw readers in.
What are your thoughts on crafting fairytales? Are you working on one at the moment, or do you have a favourite one to read? Comment below!