Once upon a time, we sat on the floor somewhere mesmerized as a favorite adult read stories stuffed to brimming with evil stepmothers and beautiful princesses from our favourite big picture book. There may even have been a talking animal or two.
Frequently, fairy tales are our very first encounters with structured stories.
In childhood, these stories appear as nothing more than simple diversions, usually booked-ended with the stylized opening Once upon a time and ending with a conventional And they all lived happily ever after.
At first glance, we could be forgiven for thinking these simple tales belong only as bedtime stories in our earliest childhood.
However, fairy tales offer our students and us so much more than this. And that’s what we’ll explore in this article.
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What Is a Fairy Tale?
We all know one when we see one. But, if we are to teach our students to write their own fairy tales, we’ll need first to nail down a solid definition.
Fairy tales are a distinct genre within the broader genre of folktales. Like all types of folktales, the origins of many of these stories predate our ability to write things down.
Due to their origins in oral traditions, there were many different versions of most popular fairy tales in existence. The same broad story differs from place to place and culture to culture due to an international game of Broken Telephone played across space and time.
When the Grimm Brothers published hundreds of fairy tales in the 19th century, many of these once shifting tales became crystallized in the imagination. Work that the likes of Disney continue to this day.
Some of the best-known and most-loved fairy tales include:
- Goldilocks and the Three Bears
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
- Little Red Riding Hood
- Sleeping Beauty
- Hansel and Gretel
- Beauty and the Beast
- Jack and the Beanstalk
- The Three Little Pigs
- Puss in Boots
Supporting Activity #1
To get familiar with fairy tales and how they work, organize students into groups and provide them with various popular fairy tales. The students can then compare and contrast these.
Challenge the students to choose their favorite stories and discuss the similarities and differences in characters, settings, plot patterns, etc.
The 6 Most Common Elements of Fairy Tales
Looking over the list of fairy tales above, it’s clear that there is a lot of variety in this genre.
Despite the often stark contrast between the stories, there are many identifiable elements common to most tales that fall into this category. If our students are going to write their own tales successfully, they’ll need to understand these conventions well.
Let’s take a look at these.
1. The Opening
While no one story in Grimm’s groundbreaking collection of fairy tales actually beings with the phrase ‘Once upon a time’, it has become a convention that indicates immediately to the listener or reader that they are about to be entertained by a fairy tale.
Storytellers begin their tales with similar openings, even in fairy tales from other countries and cultures. We see this everywhere, from China to Chile.
These formulaic introductions work like a spell, mesmerizing the audience and immediately transporting them into the mystical realm of the fairy tale.
Remember, the traditional audience of these stories are children who are renowned for piling questions on top of questions in rapid succession.
After hearing the incantation ‘Once upon a time’, the audience knows to suspend their critical faculties a little to allow the dreamy phantasmagoria of the fairy tale to work its magic.
2. Defined Characters
From a walking-talking cat clad in remarkably stylish footwear to an exiled princess who likes to hang out with her band of vertically challenged pals, there’s no shortage of interesting characters in fairy tales.
The characters that people the world of these stories are not renowned for their complexity. There is little room for subtlety in this realm.
As mentioned, these stories are designed for children, and children tend to see the world in black and white terms.
While the physical circumstances of a character may change, e.g., Cinderella leaves the dusty hearth for the royal palace, characters do not typically show emotional or psychological growth due to the events in the story.
Generally, the characters in fairy tales can be categorized in simple terms as good, evil, and, occasionally, neutral.
Royalty too frequently makes an appearance. Much like the tabloids’ obsession with celebrity gossip, fairy tales often wheel on stage kings and queens, beautiful princesses and handsome princes.
Other archetypical characters commonly appear in these tales: courageous heroes, evil stepmothers, talking animals, child-eating witches, imposing giants, industrious elves, assorted heroes and villains, and dwarves of various dispositions.
3. Magic Settings
We spoke earlier of the importance of the audience suspending their disbelief. The land of the fairy tale is a magical place, after all.
This magic is evidenced in the fanciful cast of giants, witches, and talking animals. But, it isn’t only the cast that is magical; it’s often the setting itself.
Fairy tales frequently represent the coming together of the human world, mythical creatures, and the animal world. It is only in the realm of magic that this is possible.
The normal rules of physics that we abide by in the dreary, humdrum world of an everyday reality no longer apply.
Instead, fairy tales allow for magic beans that sprout forth a ladder to a magical giant’s lair in the sky. This is a place where a frog might metamorphize into a charming heir-to-throne, or a gleaming, jewel-encrusted chariot might transform back into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight.
Fairy tales are no place for dry reporting. For students to create their own fairy tales, they must delve deep into the realm of possibilities that lie in the imagination.
4. A Central Conflict
In the introduction to this article, we mentioned how fairy tales are often a child’s first introduction to ‘real’ stories.
In a rush to write about fantastical creatures in mystical lands, our students shouldn’t forget that, like all stories, fairy tales need a central conflict or problem.
Conflict serves as the engine of a story. Without it, we have a mere reporting of essentially disconnected events.
Given that the characters in fairy tales are generally one dimensional, it should be no surprise that they are stuffed to the brim with conflict. From big bad wolves wrecking house after house to cruel stepsisters torturing and bullying a sibling into misery, the plot is key.
5. A Moral Lesson
There is a reason why these stories are so clearly designed with children in mind. This is because they usually communicate a moral message to the audience.
For example, The Three Little Pigs teaches us that our laziness catches up with us. While Beauty and the Beast teaches us not to judge a book by its cover (or, alternatively, beware of Stockholm Syndrome – depending on which version you’re reading!)
At this point, it is worth taking a moment to differentiate between a fairy tale and a fable. Similar to fables in this regard, fairy tales usually teach a moral lesson. While both genres are clearly fictional and pass on a moral lesson, the fable’s primary focus is on that moral lesson, while the fairy tale displays more concern for creating a fantasy world.
If you want to learn more about the related genre of fables, check out our Complete Guide to Fables here.
6. Happy Endings
Like any well-constructed story, fairy tales have a climax and resolution. However, generally, these won’t be tragic. These are stories of make-believe and designed for children to boot. A clear bias for the happy ending exists.
This is where our formulaic conclusion bookends our visit to the magical realm – and they all lived happily ever after…
How to Write a Fairy Tale
Once your students have a good understanding of the main elements of the genre, they are ready to have a go at creating their own. But, to do that, they’ll need a process to follow.
Let’s take a look at a step-by-step process to help get them going.
The process below describes how to write an ‘original’ fairy tale, but it is also easily adapted to the process of rewriting a well-known fairy tale.
1. Decide on a Moral Lesson
First, the student will need to decide on a moral lesson they wish to convey to the reader. The student’s story will work towards expressing this theme by the end of the action.
Well-known proverbs such as ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ or ‘A bad workman always blames his tools’ are great places to start.
Support Activity #2
Instruct students to perform an internet search for terms such as ‘Common English Proverbs’.
Students read through the proverbs and discuss ideas on conveying their selected morals in story form.
2. Define a Conflict
We know already that without a conflict, we have no story.
Once a student has decided on a moral message to convey, they’ll need to come up with a conflict that can embody that teaching as it plays out.
There are many different types of conflict to choose from in fairy tales, but they are usually external conflicts.
Most commonly, fairy tales tell the story of Good vs Evil, with Good ultimately triumphing. These elements of good and evil are usually personified in the story’s main characters, the protagonist and antagonist.
Support Activity #3
Group discussions are a great way to explore ideas for conflict here. This is a time to encourage students to let their imaginations run wild.
It is also helpful for students to examine popular tales and define the central conflicts therein.
3. Create a Cast List and Describe a Setting
With the conflict defined, it’s time to put some flesh on the bones of this story.
There’ll need to be characters to do the doing. Students should make a list of human, magical, and animal characters they want to push around their ‘chessboard’.
When students have chosen their cast list for their story, they should also spend a little time listing their characters’ traits.
This chessboard is, of course, the setting, and they’ll need to describe this too.
- Where is all this action taking place?
- Is there a castle scene?
- A palace ball?
- A tower?
Students can begin their planning by writing a detailed description of each setting they will use.
Remind students that their settings will have a significant impact on the mood of their stories. For example, a gloomy castle is perfect for a darker fairy tale, while a lavish palace is suited to a happier tale.
Of course, the type of character the student chooses to work with may lead them towards a particular setting and, conversely, if they select a specific setting first, this may inform the type of characters they choose too.
Students should remember that these are fairy tales, and they should also contain some magical elements. These supernatural elements help facilitate the action of the story, almost like another character.
Support Activity #4
Provide students with lists of a range of characters and settings to choose from to help get them started.
Family: a cruel stepmother, mischievous brothers, a sweet grandmother
Royalty: a handsome prince, a beautiful princess, an evil queen
Villains: a vicious dragon, mean giants, wicked witches, ravenous wolves
Magical Elements: talking animals, metamorphosis, flying broomsticks, magic mirrors, fairy godmothers
A magical kingdom, an enchanted forest, a castle, a faraway land, a humble cottage, a humpback bridge
4. Work Towards the Climax and a Resolution
With the central conflict established and the characters and settings in place, the student will need to figure out how their story will play out scene by scene. Storyboarding can be helpful here.
Often, starting with the climax and then working backwards to reverse engineer the story is an effective way of piecing a plot together.
To decide on the climax or dramatic highpoint of their story, students will need to think about how their two main opposing forces resolve their differences.
- Is the villain of the piece vanquished in battle?
- Do they have a change of heart and see the light in the end?
The moral lesson the story is designed to communicate must be made apparent in the story’s conclusion.
There is a lot of scope on ending a fairy tale but remember, generally speaking, they will all (or, most of them will) live happily ever after in the end.
Supporting Activity #5
There’s little to do here regarding the opening sentence as it’s done for the student.
However, later, when the student has decided on their story arc, they must also decide on what moment to start their story.
As with all short stories, it’s best to start at the last possible moment, usually after a brief exposition on who the central characters are.
To get familiar with the conventions of fairy tale openings, have students read and discuss the first paragraphs of several well-known stories.
To Sum Up
The best way for students to understand how to write their own fairy tales is to learn from the masters.
Students will learn lots and discover tons of inspiration from the famous stories collected by the likes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson.
Not only will students take great enjoyment from revisiting these familiar tales, but they’ll learn to internalize the patterns and conventions of these folktales. They can then use these in their own storytelling.
To learn more about teaching the craft of storytelling, check out our Complete Guide to Narrative Writing here.
Writing fairy tales is all about simplicity. We love these tales because of their familiarity.
They are, in many regards, the comfort blanket of the literary world.
By following the guidelines above, students will learn to weave their own handcrafted comfort blanket with ease.
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Content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and university English lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book the Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.