Who doesn’t love a good fairy tale? Simple, classic, and inspiring, they’re the foundation of a child’s daydreams, and three or four are the basis of about half of all Hollywood films ever made. This deep treasure trove has a bounty of inspiration for writers. Whether you need the bones of a plot, the roots of your character’s drive, or a shade of horror to twist through the narrative, you’ll find what you need in the pages of bedtime story. Here are four ways you can find your next plot in a fairy tale.
Original World Fodder
Fairy tales blend seamlessly with fantasy. They’re already part of the genre, and fleshing out a brief children’s story is a favorite shortcut to amazing fantasy realms. You may choose to hide the fairy tale roots, letting avid readers dig for them, or you may wield your world’s fairy tale premise as an aid to marketing. Shannon Hale’s award-winning novel The Goose Girl kicked off an entire series set in her original world, even though the first book followed the Grimm’s tale of the same name. When you’re introducing an alien world, a familiar story can help ease readers across the border.
Kick the Castle
Just because the original story happened “Once upon a time” doesn’t mean the themes, characters, and plots aren’t timeless. They don’t have to stay in the dark ages. Great stories transcend millennia, and with a few tweaks, you can bring any old tale to the modern day.
Just pull out the bones and use the skeleton to build something fresh. Fairy tales are rich with family drama, financial struggles, fear of the supernatural, and – of course – complicated romances. Any of these fit a city just as well as a medieval hamlet.
Embrace (and Subvert) the Tropes
Most fairy tales come armed with moral lessons and instruction. Don’t go into the woods. Be nice to your siblings. Hard work pays off in the end. Character tropes rush alongside these lessons. The beautiful girl is also the hardworking one. Unkind stepsisters tend to be ugly, and stepmothers are always a threat. Boys must be clever, and even if they spend the first part of their lives as a hedgehog, so long as they behave themselves and strive to achieve greatness, they’ll win the princess and rule the land.
Some of these tropes are still with us. Every action flick echoes a fairy tale narrative. You can go that route if you like, but flipping (or inverting) the script is much more fun. What happens when the stepmother is the hero? What if the determined peasant boy isn’t as fierce or determined as his little sister? Does she get the princess? What about that princess, anyway – does she have a story, or is she just a prop?
Seek Out Conflict
No matter what genre you care to write, fairy tales can give you an unexpected core conflict. While we tend to think of the conflict in these stories as either stepdaughter vs. stepmother or aspiring hero vs dragon, there is a huge range of other narratives that have little or nothing to do with stepmothers or dragons at all. Conflict in these stories is complex, challenging, and a goldmine for aspiring novelists.
Some of it is very dark. The Brothers Grimm collection features threats of incest and assault. Characters are mutilated – even the good guys! Children die, parents turn a blind eye, and political intrigue leads to murder. The cornerstones of such tales vary wildly, but they include all the most potent plot-fodder: fear of rejection, abandonment, saving face over saving lives, individual freedom and the rule of law, corruption, temptation, and the subversion of good intentions.
What fairy tales engrossed you as a child? Do you see those stories differently as an adult? If you haven’t read beyond “Snow White,” and “Cinderella,” it’s time to get your hands dirty and check out the obscure corners of fairyland. You’ll be surprised what you find.