The Fairy Tale structure

by Alexandra Sokoloff

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!

– Alex

Screenwriting Tricks For Authors

46 thoughts on “The Fairy Tale structure

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Very interesting blog. I’m always intrigued by the similarities in structure between the ‘Star Wars’ films and ‘Lord of The Rings’ trilogy. Young innocent sent on a quest, with a magical mentor and an unlikely group of comrades, to fight a foe with supernatural powers.

  2. James Scott Bell

    Alex, I loved Jack, the Giant Killer as a kid (esp. the movie with Kerwin Matthews). I think that’s why I favor the "one against" plot pattern in my books. It’s a staple of Hitchcock films as well, so it’s no wonder I’ve always had him as my favorite director.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Z, it’s so true about Star Wars and LOTR. And Harry Potter swept in after them and reiterated so many of those iterations. Wizard of Oz, a Wrinkle in Time… it’s the hero’s journey. Nothing more satisfying!

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey James, thanks for stopping by!!

    Now there’s a personal theme for you, Jack the Giant Killer. I can see how that would be deeply appealing to a lot of people. Classic.

    You’re right, Hitchcock so often has an isolated hero. It’s funny, I prefer his films that don’t necessarily riff on that theme, like Suspicion and Notorious. But of course, there you have the strong feminine POV, no surprise!

  5. R.J. Mangahas

    Now that I think about it, another three task film is The Karate Kid. Daniel has the tasks of waxing the cars, sanding the decks and painting the fence and house. Of course it’s revealed that he has been learning some basic movements for karate.

    And there of course is the hero’s journey (Daniel preparing to compete in the tournament) and of course the mentor theme (Mr. Miyagi). So really, this film is a great example of some of the elements of fairy tale structure.

    See? No matter how long I’ve been reading this (as well as your blog) I always tend to learn something new. Thanks, Alex. 🙂

  6. Louise Ure

    Your analysis of the three sibling structure is spot on, Alex. Someplace in the back of my mind, though, is a desire to write a mystery version of "The Tongue-Cut Sparrow."

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Good God, Alex! Am I going to have to print out EVERY one of your blogs?
    Or…maybe what I need to do is pick up SCREENWRITING TRICKS FOR AUTHORS.
    You are such a good instructor, mentor, ally.
    I usually read through Vogler’s book before I start any project – my writing is always influenced by mythical structure. Or I’ll read through the original, Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.

  8. Stacey Cochran

    This is great, Alex! Thanks for sharing.

    I’ve been doing a series of in-store discussions on "The 5 Fundamentals of Fiction": Character, Plot, Setting, Style, and Theme.

    It’s a very helpful lens to analyze work, and I’ve made a tentative thesis out of it. The stories that become bestsellers offer each of these components in a fully-realized form. Story structure would fit within the "plot" area, but what I’ve found is that authors who emphasize character over plot (or at least equal to plot) are the ones who typically do very well with readers. The trouble with too much emphasis on plot is that the work can come off as gimmicky and inauthentic (a problem in some of my early novels, I think).

    A cadre of characters with clear motivations (a la Mystic River) and clear character arcs for each is critical to success.

  9. anonymous

    My favorite myth is by Lord Dunsany. The Gods Of Pegana. I first read it when I was 15. I have a lovely first edition with illustrations by S.H. Sime. Such a mysterious little book. I was enchanted by the names of the gods and prophets: Mana-Yood-Sushai; Skarl the Drummer; Kib,Who Broke the Silence of Pegana, by Speaking Like A Man; Slid, Whose Soul is by the Sea; Ood; Roon,The God of Going; Yonath; Alhireth-Hotep The Prophet. It is a story of Creation and how the gods work and play with mortals and the elements of nature. The language Dunsany used was archaic and exotic, very poetic.
    I imagined a vast place of gods and smaller gods playing out idle rivalries and politics with hapless man. Tossing whimsical frisbies of tsunamis and thunder storms and darkness until they tire of their games.

    There be islands in the Central Sea, whose waters are bounded by no shore and where no ships come–this is the faith of their people.

    In the mists before the Beginning, Fate and Chance cast lots to decide whose the Game should be; and he that won strode through the mists to Mana-Yood-Sushai and said: "Now make gods for Me, for I have won the cast and the Game is to be Mine." Who it was that won the cast, and whether it was Fate or whether Chance that went through mists before the Beginning to Mana-Yood-Sushai–none knoweth.


    We are the gods; We are the little games of Mana-Yood-Sushai that he hath played and hath forgotten. Mana-Yood-Sushai hath made us, and We made the Worlds and the Suns. And We play with the Worlds and the Sun and Life and Death until Mana arise to rebuke us, saying ‘What do ye playing with Worlds and Suns?’ It is a very serious thing that there be Worlds and Suns, and yet most withering is the laughter of Mana-Yood-Sushai. And when he arises from resting at the Last, and laughs at us for playing with Worlds and Suns, We will hastily put them behind us, and there shall be Worlds no more.

    And there fell a hush upon the gods when they saw that Mana rested, and there was silence on Pegana save for the drumming of Skarl. Skarl sitteth upon the mist before the feet of Mana-Yood-Sushai, above the gods of Pegana, and there he beateth his drum. Some say that the Worlds and the Suns are but the echos of the drumming of Skarl, and the others say that they be dreams that arise in the mind of Mana because of the drumming of Skarl, as one may dream whose rest is troubled by sound of song…………..

    It was Kib who first broke the Silence of Pegana, by speaking with his mouth like a man. And all the other gods were angry with Kib that he had spoken with his mouth. And there was no longer silence in Pegana or the Worlds.

  10. anonymous

    Sorry. None of that previous blather has anything to do with plot structure……… just reminded me of an old book that I hadn’t read in ages. I read it before LOTR and Dune and such. I loved the god characters and fantasy world. There are parts of it that were sad to me… helpless at the hands of fate and chance and death……

  11. BCB

    So. . . if someone is carrying out a promise and it’s only implied, are you saying it’s better/stronger that the promise is explicit, actually asked for and given?

    And you can have more than one fairytale element in a story? Because I can kind of see the three brothers in my story, but they aren’t literally brothers and one is a woman and two have already failed and are dead (or about to be) and– hmmm.

    Alex, I sort of feel like I need a therapist myself after reading your posts. I keep telling myself, "No, no, it’s okay that your head just exploded. That mess is a prerequisite for learning." Might need to start wearing a burqa though.

  12. BCB

    Sorry, that doesn’t exactly give you examples. I loved reading fairy tales, but I’m bad at seeing their structure and figuring out what "kind" they are. Very helpful to have you spell them out like this.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Steve, I go back to Vogler a lot, too. But there are so many variations of fairy tale structures that you could write a whole book about, all on their own. The Underworld Descent, for example, which I really should tackle, sometime. That seems to be what is trying to come out of me in a new thriller.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks for shilling for me, RGB! 😉

    Stacey, I think plot comes off as gimmicky when authors aren’t looking hard enough to connect THEME with STRUCTURE. That’s sort of the wonderful cheat about using fairy tale structure – these are themes that are archetypal, ingrained in us. I know fairy tales just open worlds of emotion in me.

    Mystic River being one of the most powerful examples.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lord Dunsany – that’s a name you don’t hear often enough. Wonderful, wonderful stories, and yes, fairy tales forever there.

    Fate and Chance casting lots? How can you not love that?

    Thank you for the beautiful excerpts.

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    BCB, I often have that effect on people…

    Yes, you can definitely have lots of different fairy tale elements in one story. That’s one reason I love fairy tales, is the OVERabundance of images, elements, themes.

    I think you can have either an implicit promise or an explicit promise. I’m always in favor of making things explicit at first and then scaling back if necessary. Derek Nicitas would disagree with me! But great storytelling is often on the nose.

  17. Cornelia Read

    This is hugely what I needed to read today, thank you!

    And thank you even more for hating Bettelheim for me.

    I’m taking a break from writing right now to watch tsunami coverage, hoping everyone in Chile and the wave path survive okay…

  18. alli

    Alex, your posts always leave me inspired and saying "Wow, I never realised that, but yes! yes! it’s true!". What hit home for me today was the description of the three task structure (and failing at one of them like in Pan’s Labyrinth). I have written exactly that meta structure, but didn’t realise it at the time (it’s the MS I am querying agents with now). I am naturally drawn to these stories and I love, love, love hero’s journeys.

    So… examples. Most of my favourites have already been mentioned by others (The Karate Kid, LOTR, etc). Loosely fitting into what we’re talking about today could be Stand by Me, Indiana Jones. Of course, as soon as I post this comment I’ll think of ten better examples…

  19. alli

    "Writing gets so much easier (umm, comparatively)… when you learn to recognize when you’re doing these things."

    Yes (as easy as it can get!). And thanks to you and other Murderati bloggers, I have learnt so much. Those lists have been excellent to make, and boy, it makes a difference now I can recognise (and label) what I love to read, watch and write.

    The earthquake is horrible. I lived near there many years ago and I’m praying for the safety of everyone in that region.

  20. anonymous

    Yes. Lord Dunsany was cool. Influenced so many writers like Tolkien. and the grand master of weird, Arthur Machen…….oh yeah …good stuff there

  21. anonymous

    Alex. Thank you for talking fTales today. I went for a hike with my teacher friend and she was saying that she had just bought some beautiful fairy tale books for a friend’s toddler. We sighed and kvelled for awhile and I told her about your "writing lesson" today. She said that sadly, most of the children in her kindergarten class had never been exposed to nursery rhymes or fairy tales. "So what did their parents sing or read to them in the rocking chair?" She shrugged and said "Stock quotes?"

  22. anonymous

    and in case others don’t know this……….Machen’s influence is seen in Pan’s Labyrinth and also in John Carpenter’s The Fog……..

  23. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Anon, I don’t know how kids not exposed to fairy tales can even begin to deal with the darkness of human reality. In fairy tales, every horrible thing people have ever thought of doing is spelled out in living color… and yet the weak and good always triumph. How satisfying is that?

    (And living in the South, "kvell" is a word I just don’t hear often enough anymore. There’s nothing so apt for – what that is.)

  24. toni mcgee causey

    My head just went ‘splodey. But in a good way. Thank you, Alex. I love your post.

    I keep recasting most films as fairy tales or myths… like the Bourne stories are quest films, and the Ocean films are King Arthur and the Round Table, (particularly the first).

  25. kit

    I have to look into this some more…I feel like the dumb kid in chemistry class…needing hundreds of examples before I truely *get it*.
    Anon– I Feel for those kids….maybe you should dress up like a vagbond storyteller, visit your friend’s classroom and round out their education.
    Expose them to the joy of listening to one of the oldest art forms in the world. just thinking out loud….

  26. allison davis

    arg, I wrote a long post and thought it up went up but had the Tsumani news streaming and it must have crashed.

    Loved this post and the fairy tale structure is totally me — who would have known? (Love Jack the Giant Killer, the movie? Haven’t thought about that in a like the endings to be the hero prevails (sorry David Corbett, you dark dark man).

    Someone gave me Women Who Run with The Wolves and now I guess I better read it… maybe I need the therapy to go along with it.

    So the trinity, brothers, or just three — works well — I’m thinking of emphasizing it as I have a cop, a lawyer and a priest…sigh (bad bar joke?) It’s late, the first post was better that was lost, but thanks for all of this. Staring at the screen as I edit, this structure discussion is really greats and helpful.

    So Grimm’s and Anderson’s fairy tales? Anyone have the box set with the Red and Green books with the scary pictures? Still have the original books from my childhood. Going to go find them and pull them out for some late Saturday night reading….

  27. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Kit, don’t beat yourself up, this is complicated stuff. I wish I had more time to give dozens of examples. I am culling them, but slowly – too easy to procrastinate with my own writing.

    Start by making your list of ten movies/books that really do it for you. Then let yourself ponder a bit and see if you can see fairy tale elements in any of those.

  28. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Allison, the cop, the lawyer and the priest sound like a very powerful three sibling trio. The boxed set you’re talking about I believe is the Andrew Lang set – the same one I’m talking about. Scary pictures is right!

  29. kit

    I go back to your other blog…the last one and do an exercise …then i leave it alone for awhile…so I can absorb it without trying to swallow it whole.
    I’m gonna have to do that with this one as well.

  30. Persephone

    Amusing & ironic, as this structure is something of which SF & Fantasy writers are well aware, and exactly why many critics claim these genres are not "literature". But SF&F simply descend directly from the literary lineage of myth, folktale, & fairytale, and now they are taking over the world!

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    It is a very serious thing that there be Worlds and Suns, and yet most withering is the laughter of Mana-Yood-Sushai. And when he arises from resting at the Last, and laughs at us for playing with Worlds and Suns, We will hastily put them behind us, and there shall be Worlds no more.

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