We all know how important it is to read within our genre. Doing so shows us what elements make those books successful (and also what overdone tropes to avoid). But reading outside of our genre can be just as helpful. It’s always a good idea to examine what works and why, so we can apply those successful components to our own stories. Fairy tales have been around forever, and Grimm’s stories have particular longevity. What universal guidelines can we borrow from them to bolster our own writing? Shonna Slayton is going to show us what she’s learned from these age-old tales.
One of the best ways to learn how to write better fiction is to study the work of great authors. Now, the Brothers Grimm may not be the best technical writers, but their collection of fairy tales has stood the test of time. There are several lessons we can learn from them about entertaining readers.
1. Don’t Be Subtle
Too often, we tone things down. We write with nuance, assuming that everyone will know what we’re talking about. But the Grimms’ tales teach us how to work with extremes in all aspects of storytelling: characters, setting, plot, theme.
Characters are either down to their last piece of bread or they live in a gold castle. It’s not good enough for the evil queen to send the princess away; the princess must be killed. If a bargain is struck, it’s in exchange for a life. Extremes can be useful when it comes to setting up stakes and character motivations.
Consider the evil queen in Little Snow-White when she finds out she is not the fairest in the land:
Then the Queen was shocked, and turned yellow and green with envy. From that hour, whenever she looked at Snow-White, her heart heaved in her breast, she hated the girl so much.
And envy and pride grew higher and higher in her heart like a weed, so that she had no peace day or night.
She called a huntsman, and said, “Take the child away into the forest; I will no longer have her in my sight. Kill her, and bring me back her heart as a token.”
The huntsman lets the girl go and kills a wild boar, bringing back its heart instead. Then:
…The cook had to salt this [heart of a wild boar, given as proof from the huntsman], and the wicked Queen ate it, and thought she had eaten the heart of Snow-White.
The queen thinks she is literally eating the heart of the one she hated so much! There is nothing subtle about that.
Take a look at your own WIP and see if you are being too subtle. Start with your stakes… are they clear? What in the text specifically points to those stakes? Highlight those sections. If the highlights are few and far between, consider adding more references to keep the stakes in the forefront of the reader’s mind.
2. Focus On Reversals
Fairy tales are all about change, reversals in fortune. How the character begins the story is not how they end it. They grow up. They escape their captivity. They become kings and queens.
The classic tale of reversal is Cinderella. After her mother dies and her father remarries, Cinderella becomes the household servant, daily derided by her family until she goes to a ball and catches the eye of a prince. The reversal is made starker in the Grimms’ telling as even her father puts her down:
“There is still a little stunted kitchen-wench which my late wife left behind her, but she cannot possibly be the bride.”
The King’s son absolutely insisted on it, and Cinderella had to be called. She seated herself on a stool, drew her foot out of the heavy wooden shoe, and put it into the slipper, which fitted like a glove. And when she rose up and the King’s son looked at her face, he recognized the beautiful maiden who had danced with him and cried, “That is the true bride!”
What are the reversals like in your WIP? Create a chart and copy/paste the descriptions, actions, and dialogue you have of your characters at the beginning of your story and at the end. Do you see growth in the character? Do you see changes in circumstances? Can you define these more?
3. Remember Justice
A central theme in fairy tales is that the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.
A satisfying ending includes a final judgment scene where the protagonist, who has been struggling and fighting for the entire story, finally wins. In contrast, the person or force they’ve been fighting is taken down and crushed.
Here is how the Grimms end The Goose-Girl. When the false bride was asked how she would punish someone who acted falsely, here is her reply:
Then the false bride said, “She deserves no better fate than to be stripped entirely naked, and put in a barrel which is studded inside with pointed nails, and two white horses should be harnessed to it, which will drag her along through one street after another, till she is dead.”
“It is you,” said the aged King, “and you have pronounced your own sentence, and thus shall it be done to you.”
Analyze the final judgment scene in your WIP. Can you heighten the reward and clarify the protagonist’s downfall?
I love this example because all three of the techniques we’ve discussed have been implemented. The guilty party is being punished, the methods are extreme, and her role in the story has been reversed.
There are many more lessons to learn from Grimm. After all, there are two hundred and ten stories in their final collection of fairy tales! If it’s been a while since you’ve read these stories, why not take another look and see what you can learn?
SHONNA SLAYTON writes the Fairy-tale Inheritance Series and is the co-creator of the Fairy-tale Forum group on Facebook. Her newest book, Lessons from Grimm: How to Write a Fairy Tale, is now available for purchase.
She finds inspiration in reading vintage diaries written by teens, who despite using different slang, sound a lot like teenagers today. When not writing, Shonna enjoys amaretto lattes and spending time with her husband and children in Arizona.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Brilliant article and equally brilliant suggestions. A lot to consider and work with. Thanks.
Deborah Makarios says
Clear and helpful advice – thanks!
Anita Louise Crawford Clark says
Love this article. So helpful. The nuggets of suggestion for improvement of manuscripts is priceless. Thanks for sharing.
Shonna Slayton says
You’re welcome, Anita! I’m glad you picked up some useful tips.
BECCA PUGLISI says
So much of good storytelling is universal, regardless of genre, age-level, or format. Thanks for sharing these techniques, Shonna.
Shonna Slayton says
Thanks for hosting me on the blog today, Becca! I’ll be popping in and out all day to see if anyone has any questions or comments or wants to chat about fairy tales in general or the Grimms in particular.
What happens when the guilty go free, the innocent are punished?
Shonna Slayton says
There are some lesser-known Grimm stories that leave out the final judgement scene. But when the guilty go free, we end up with an unsatisfying ending, and those stories are not very popular with readers. In these cases, the Grimms show us what not to do. If you find that your story is ending in this way, consider leaving a hint of hope and then write a sequel to build toward that satisfying ending.
BECCA PUGLISI says
I think it also depends on the kind of story you’re writing and, to a certain degree, reader preference. Readers who like happy endings where the loose ends are all tied up are going to be looking for books that include that justice piece. Other readers aren’t fussed about that. Look at Gone Girl——extremely well-written, ends without the villain getting what we would consider true justice. And yet it’s super successful. Readers may or may not like the ending, but it works for the story. I read this book nonstop——totally riveted, couldn’t put it down——and really disliked that ending. But the story stuck with me, and I was thinking about it for days afterward. IMO, that’s a successful story. Justice can often be avoided in antihero stories and those where the character experiences a failed arc.
This is where it’s important to remember that not every technique works in every situation. Know what kind of story you’re writing and figure out what works best for it.
Shonna Slayton says
You’re right, you have to know your target market, what they like to read, and the tropes and conventions for the genre. Thanks for noting the counterpoint. You can’t please everyone all the time; you have to aim at the readers you’re trying to attract to your work.