Two weeks ago, as part of my own “What the @#$% am I going to write next?” ramblings, I posted about making random lists of basically everything in the known universe that appeals to me and looking through those lists for patterns.
One thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer, partly by making lists! is that my favorite stories of all are fairy tales and myths – which are often interchangeable, although story structuralists 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.
And indeed, the couple of stories that are beginning to take shape in my head have tons of fairy tale elements. This, at least is familiar territory to me, exciting territory.
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, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, 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.
I know JT and Cornelia have blatantly (my favorite approach) used fairy tales in at least a few of their books.
Anyone who wants a quick lesson on the fairy tale structure in action, should go out and rent PAN’S LABYRINTH. Wonderful, heartbreaking film, one of the best in years.
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.
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; HARRY POTTER, obviously, with the three magical mentors Dumbledore, MacGonegal and Hagrid; 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 DEERHUNTER also utilizes another classic structure technique, also common in fairy tales: The Promise. In the first act, when the friends are on the mountain, hunting, on their last day before three of them are shipped off to Vietnam, Nick asks Michael to make sure that he doesn’t leave him over in Vietnam. Even if he dies, he wants to return home. “Promise me, Mike,” he says. “You gotta promise me you won’t leave me over there.”
You KNOW when you get a promise scene that the story is going to be about that friend keeping the promise. It’s an anchor to the action of the story – one of those spell-it-out moments that lets an audience subconsciously relax, because they understand what the story is going to be about – and they know the WRITER knows what the story is about, too. That’s a comfortable feeling. You have to let your audience/reader know that you know what your story is about.
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.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m seeing a therapist who is heavily on the Jung side (or at least is canny enough to understand that that’s about the only way he’s going to get through to me), so he’s been having me read a lot of fairy tale analyses: there is some hugely great stuff out there. THE MAIDEN KING, by Robert Bly and Marion Woodman; WOMEN WHO RUN WITH THE WOLVES; Clarissa Pinkola Estes; IRON JOHN, Robert Bly (not at all the squishy male power book I had always assumed it was); and Marie-Louise Von Franz has a classic series on fairy tales that I am looking forward to.
(I’m with Cornelia, though – steer away from Bettelheim).
But the best of all is to just read the tales themselves – Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book and the other colors in that world fairy tale set are wonderful, bloody, and have fantastic, evocative illustrations.
So of course today I am looking for examples – of your own books and your favorite books with fairy tale elements or structure. And of course – your own favorite fairy tales!