Thursday, July 16, 2009

What Fairy Tales Have Taught Me About Writing

Pied Piper of I’m still in the point of my life where I’m reading a lot of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Sometimes I even feel like I’m continuing the storytelling tradition by retelling the tales to my kids sans books.

No matter how often I read and tell these stories, the kids are caught up in them.

What I’ve learned from fairy tales:

Start out right in the middle of the action: Jack and his mother are out of food at the beginning of Jack and the Beanstalk. So Jack goes off to sell the old cow, the last saleable asset, for their very survival.

If you start out with an ordinary day, it should abruptly veer off course (and pretty quickly.) Red Riding Hood was on a run-of-the-mill trip to Grandma’s house before ill-advisedly chatting with a wolf. In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the bears had some hot food that needed to cool--and the need to walk off a few pounds. It was a normal morning for the bears until that naughty Goldilocks broke into their cottage and started destroying their furniture.

Limit the number of characters: Fairy tales have only a handful, suitable for easy retelling through the generations. And, yes, the stories are super-short. But think how memorable these characters are.

Characters’ shortcomings can contribute to their downfalls: Yes, the wolf was a terrible antagonist for the Three Little Pigs. But two of the pigs were brought down just as much by their own failure—laziness. Obviously, brick building matter was available, but they decided to go the easy route with twigs and straw. Little Red Riding Hood shouldn’t have talked to strangers. The poor villager should never have bragged to the king that his daughter could spin straw into gold. Peter’s habit of lying nearly caused him to be devoured by a wolf.

Greed is a powerful motivator: The people of Hamelin didn’t pay the Pied Piper for ridding them of their rats; he lured off their children in retaliation. Jack’s greed (he went back up the beanstalk several times to steal additional items from the giant) nearly killed him.

Before an attack, have tension build steadily. We know something that Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t know—she’s in the room with a ravenous wolf. The tension builds as Red comes slowly toward the bed. “Grandma! What big eyes you have!” Jack hides in an oven while the giant bellows, “Fee-fi-fo-fum!” It’s not a jumping-out-at-you kind of fear. We hear the giant’s heavy steps, see Red come closer to the wolf to peer at her ‘grandma.’ Waiting for the inevitable attack creates painstaking tension.

Have the protagonist save himself by using his wits. Now this isn’t always the case in fairy tales. Yes, the woodsman saved Red and Grandma. And Bluebeard’s wife was saved by her brothers. But in many cases, there wasn’t some last-minute savior. In Three Billy Goats Gruff, the goats outwitted the troll by repeatedly promising him that a better meal was on its way to the bridge. In Hansel and Gretel, Hansel tricked the nearsighted witch by sticking out a small bone leftover from a meal to prove to the witch he wasn’t fat enough for her to eat. The pig with the brick house was one step ahead of the wolf: realizing he was going to try to enter via the chimney, he anticipated the attack and boiled a large pot of water.

When the characters save themselves, the result is much more satisfying.

When I’m reading fairy tales to the kids, I sometimes think I’m getting more out of it than they are. Sharing the stories is a good experience for both of us.