Fairy tale structure and The List

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Grimms3 This week I got a truly excellent request: for a list of books that would illustrate some of these things I’ve been talking about. I’ll have to start compiling it.

But this is why I really stress, and I should continue to stress, the importance of creating your OWN master list in your own genre, in that story notebook I talked about.

Anyone who’s developing a new story, or is even remotely thinking about it, who hasn’t done this yet should do it RIGHT NOW: make a list of ten books and movies in the genre that you’re writing in: books and films that you love, that you think are structured similarly to the story that you’re telling, or even that are not in your genre but are your favorite books and movies of all time.

Because what works structurally for me is not necessarily going to do it for YOU.

For me, I am constantly looking at SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (book and movie), A WRINKLE IN TIME (book), THE WIZARD OF OZ (film), THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (book and ORIGINAL film), anything by Ira Levin, especially ROSEMARY’S BABY (book and film), THE EXORCIST (book and film), JAWS (film, but I need to go back and compare the book), PET SEMATERY (book, obviously), THE SHINING (book and film), IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

That’s off the top of my head, just to illustrate the point I’m about to make – and not necessarily specific to the book I’m writing right now.

All of those examples are what I would call perfectly structured stories. But that list is not necessarily going to be much help for someone who’s writing, you know, romantic comedy. (Although the rom coms of George Cukor, Preston Sturges, and Jane Austen, and Shakespeare, are some of my favorite stories on the planet, and my master list for a different story might well have some of those stories on it).

You need to create YOUR list, and break those stories down to see why those stories have such an impact on you – because that’s the kind of impact that you want to have on your readers. My list isn’t going to do that for you. Our tastes and writing and themes and turn-ons are too different – even if they’re very similar.

I will start using more examples of each thing I’m talking about. I’ll go back at some point and revise these posts with more content, too. But in the meantime, I will keep begging for everyone’s examples so we can have a more eclectic and genre-inclusive discussion and so I can learn something, too.

I just taught a story structure workshop last week and it was as always fantastic to hear people’s lists, one after another, because it gives you such an insight into the particular uniqueness of the stories each of those writers is working toward telling. Make your list. Think of the story you are writing right now and list ten books and films that are like it – without thinking about it too much. There will always be some complete surprises on there, and those stories are sometimes the most useful for you to analyze structurally. What you are really listing are your secret thematic preferences. You can learn volumes from these lists if you are willing to go deep.

Always trust something that pops into your head as belonging on your list. The list tells you who you are as a writer.

Bluebeardskey One thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that my favorite stories of all are fairy tales and myths – which are often interchangeable, although Christopher Vogler and John Truby make good arguments that stories with mythic structure and stories with fairy tale structure have their own rules and formulas.

When I respond deeply to a movie or book, no matter how realistic and modern it seems on the surface, chances are it’s going to have a fairy tale structure.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, RED DRAGON, THE EXORCIST, THE GODFATHER, A WRINKLE IN TIME, STAR WARS, THE TREATMENT (Mo Hayder) – every single one of them is a fairy tale. And fairy tales have their own structural rules that just work for me.

This week I finally saw PAN’S LABYRINTH (I know, I’m WAY late on that one, and Del Toro is one of my favorite directors. It’s wonderful, heartbreaking.)

That movie has a blatant fairy tale structure, and as in so many fairy tales, the heroine is told by her mentor and ally the faun that she must perform three tasks to save the underworld kingdom and reclaim her place as the princess of that world (and thus escape her horrifying reality in 1944 Spain.)

The three-task structure is SO useful and successful because it tells the audience exactly what they’re in for. Audiences (and readers – but especially audiences) need to know that things will come to an end eventually, otherwise they get restless and worried that they will never get out of that theater. I’m not kidding. And a reader, particularly a promiscuous reader like me, will bail on a book if it doesn’t seem to be escalating and progressing at a good clip. But with a three-task structure, the audience is, at least subconsciously, mentally ticking off each task as it is completed, and that gives a satisfying sense of progress toward a resolution. 2006_pans_labyrinth_wallpaper_002_2 Plus once you’ve set a three-task structure, you can then play with expectation, as Del Toro did in PAN’S LABYRINTH, and have the heroine FAIL at one of the tasks, say, the second task, and provide a great moment of defeat, a huge reversal and surprise, that in this case was completely emotionally wrenching because of the heroine’s very dire real-life situation.

Another classic fairy tale structure is the three-brother or three-sister structure. You know, as in The White Cat, or The Boy Who Had to Learn Fear, or Cinderella. In this structure there is one task that is the goal, and we watch all three siblings attempt it, but it’s always the youngest and ostensibly weakest sibling that gets it right.

Another Rule Of Three fairy tale structure deals with the three magical allies. THE WIZARD OF OZ has this – Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion; the animated classic SLEEPING BEAUTY – fairy godmothers Flora, Fauna and Merriwether; A WRINKLE IN TIME – the “witches”: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, Mrs Which; and STAR WARS – R2D2, C3P0, Han Solo (Okay, there’s four, Chewbacca, but he’s so joined at the hip to Han that they’re really one entity.). Magical allies give gifts, and they provide substructure for stories by each having their moment or moments of aiding the hero/ine.

I must point out that you DO NOT have to be writing a fantasy to use any of these structural techniques. They all can work just as well in the most grittily realistic story. Just look at THE GODFATHER, the most classic modern example I know of the three-brother structure. There’s the old king, the Godfather; the two older brothers, Sonny, with his lethal temper, and Fredo, with his weak womanizing; and the youngest brother, Michael, who is the outsider in the family: college-educated, Americanized, kept apart from the family business, and thought of as the weakest. And throughout the story we see this unlikely younger brother ascend to his father’s throne (even though it’s about the last thing we want.)

You can see the three-brother structure working loosely in MYSTIC RIVER, with the three friends who are all cursed by a horrific childhood event that inextricably binds their fates together. Lehane even uses a fairy tale analogy in the tale: “The Boy Who Was Captured By Wolves,” and the fairy-tale resonances in that book and film contribute to its haunting power.

THE DEERHUNTER is another three-brother structure, that opens with another huge fairy tale story element: a curse. The whole first sequence is a wedding, complete with unwanted guest (the Green Beret who won’t talk to the three friends about Vietnam), and at the height of the merrymaking the bride and groom drink from the same cup and spill wine on the bride’s gown, thus bringing on the curse for all three friends.

The point is, if you really look closely at stories on your list, you might just find a similar meta-structure at work that will help you shape your own story. Try it!

And please do give us all some examples today – your own master list, or books and films with fairy tale elements or structure.

Previous articles on story structure:

What’s Your Premise?

Story Structure 101 – The Index Card Method

Screenwriting – The Craft

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Creating Suspense

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

22 thoughts on “Fairy tale structure and The List

  1. B.G. Ritts

    The three sons on Bonanza, Gibbs’s three member team on NCIS, and the obvious Three Musketeers, Three Stooges and Three Little Pigs. There’s also a three-dog-night when it’s really cold, but that’s not a story by itself.

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    ISTR that in LORD OF THE RINGS, the Fellowship starts off as nine, but then breaks down into three groups of three: Frodo, Sam, and Gollum; Merry, Pippin, and Gandalf; and Aragorn, Gimli,and Legolas.

    BTW, Alex, I LOVE reading these posts of yours. I’m referring every writer who asks me for advice to them.

  3. Jake Nantz

    Mr. Rhoades, I thought the same thing about LOTR. In addition:

    Lincoln Rhyme has Thom the caregiver, Amelia Sachs, and Lon Selitto.

    Roland has Jake (with Oy), Susannah, and Eddie.

    William has the primary three (The Farris, Wot, and Roland) who could also act as one, along with Chaucer (two) and Rosaline (three) in A KNIGHT’S TALE.

    You can sorta see the Three Brother thing in the main boys of DPS, with Thomas Anderson being the youngest and ‘weakest’ of him, Charlie Dalton, and Neil Perry. I say those three because Knox Overstreet, Meeks, and Pitts are a separate, lesser group, and Cameron is, well, a ‘fink’ as Charlie puts it.

    In ENDER’S GAME, Ender Wiggins is a “third”, a third child who wasn’t supposed to be allowed at that time.

    For your favorite, Alex, the Monster in the Maze, you can use the 4th Harry Potter. Yeah, the Triwizard cup is in the middle, but it’s a portkey that takes Harry straight to Voldemort.

    That’s all I’ve got off the top of my head. Back for more later. Thank you as always, Alex. Whether these help me be a better writer or not, they are making me a better storyteller, and also a better teacher (and I mean literature analysis, not just creative writing). Thank you.

  4. Louise Ure

    Dear Professor Sokoloff. What a fine series you’re providing us!

    I find that there’s a lot of Shakespeare and King Arthur mythology in my story list … albeit with a feminine slant.

  5. Jake Nantz

    Sorry Alex. DPS is Dead Poets’ Society. I’m assuming you knew the rest, but for anybody else reading this who didn’t:Rhyme is from Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series, and Roland is from Stephen King’s THE DARK TOWER series.

  6. pari

    TURTLE MOON is one of my favorite books, Alex, because though it’s billed as lit fic, it’s really a mystery and love story tied into one. And the mystery is slow developing in a world rich with just unseen, out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye magic.

    I adore fairy tales and myths. In thinking about the rule of three, I’m not sure that the number is quite so essential. In the NARNIA CHRONICLES we have four protags (in many of the books) but usually only a few of them drive the story forward. IMHO, they work pretty well in the context of your post today.

    As to my own list, I think it depends on what I’m writing. For example, I’m focusing on the Dortmunder series by Donald Westlake and some of Hiassen’s books for the caper novel I plan to write as soon as I finish this next Sasha book.

  7. billie

    Late checking in today, but I think much of what I write re-works the Persephone myth, and Odysseus’ journey. Loosely, granted, but it’s sort of in there.

    And fairy tales – the Princess and the Pea.

    Love thinking about this – thanks for the nudge!

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Pari, I didn’t mean you HAVE to use three of anything in any particular story – I was just meaning that if you find you are working with three brothers, or brother/friends, or three sisters, or a hero with three allies, then you might want to look at the classic antecedents and see if there’s something helpful for you there.

    And yes – it’s useful to make a new list for each new project.

  9. Allison Brennan

    I read this earlier and have been thinking about it all day, but I have a hard time seeing structure. Whenever I think about it, I can’t seem to grasp it, but when I don’t think about it, I can use it. I know, I’m weird.

    However, I do things in threes all the time. In SPEAK NO EVIL, for example, it starts with a dead body (so I don’t count her) and I have two victims, the first where they make the connection with the dead body from the beginning, the second that they realize how the killer is picking his victims, and a potential third–can she be saved in time?

    I also use threes on the micro level–three descriptive words or phrases for character and setting, for example. I don’t consciously do this, but I know when something is off and usually it’s because I used too few or too many words to describe something.

    I also realized recently that I give three hints about my villain’s identity when a reader emailed me about PLAYING DEAD and said she was surprised and had she missed any hints? So I went through the book and found three key places (in three different character POVs) that either ruled that character out, or gave a key hint about the identity of the killer. The first “hint” narrowed the killer to three, the second “hint” to two, and the third (which is subtle and a passing thought in a character’s POV) rules the other character out. To me it was obvious, but apparently it was too subtle.

    My books tend to be sort of an epic structure, I think, in condensed form (both length and time.) I introduce a lot of characters and the connection may not be obvious, but then I pull them together at the end (at least I always hope to.) There’s always a crime to be solved, usually murder, and because I usually start with a murder that’s more a mystery structure, except there’s also that ticking clock in the background.

    I’m just not good at this. 🙁 I’m sure Toni could figure out what my books are. I needed someone else to tell me that I had a theme, too, and she even knew what it was. (no one is an island.)

  10. JT Ellison

    I’m not any good at this either. I can totally see it now that you’ve pointed it out, but I couldn’t find it to save my life.

    Though I use a lot of mythology and fairy tales in my work. It’s a great influence, and subtle throughout, but it’s there if you want to go looking for it.

    Alex, as always, you’ve given me food for thought. Thank you!

  11. Catherine


    I can see lot’s of instances of three in story and religion ,Maiden, Mother, Crone, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and the three murderers and three witches in Macbeth are the ones that come readily to mind, but after reading your post it got me thinking about Jung. Maybe because of archetype…and I found an article [http://www.goertzel.org/dynapsyc/1996/num.html],that rather dependably relayed Jung looking into the symbolism of smaller natural numbers and tying in his knowledge of the whole shebang(science, fairytales ,art , myth )… “The integers seemed to correspond to progressive stages of development within the psyche. In brief, one corresponds to a stage of non-differentiation; two—polarity or opposition; three—movement toward resolution…”

    I find it interesting to think this rhythm, is so closely tied to our psyche and also the building blocks of a story.

    It’s interesting to see Allison be able to find micro and macro level threes through her story telling, and still think she’s not good at seeing structure.

  12. Catherine

    Allison, that last comment wasn’t meant to be picky. I was just amused and well empathising at how very tough we are on our own abilities some days.

  13. Allison Brennan

    LOL Catherine and Alex. I think what happens with me is like when you see something out of the corner of your eye, but turn to look, it’s gone. When I start looking at my structure and process too hard, I lose it completely. This is one reason I’m having such a hard time with my current WIP–I’m second and triple guessing myself and not writing. It’s actually be a kind of hell. I feel like I’m in NO EXIT.


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