I love fairy tales for their ability to be read on different levels. They can be enjoyed as short, fun stories full of wonder and enchantment, or readers can find deeper meanings about the nature of the world, life, and what it means to be human. I love the fact fairy tales provide a safe space to explore difficult or dark ideas, and that they can mean different things to different readers at different times of their lives. They can be interpreted and enjoyed in a seemingly endless variety of ways!
Fairy tales also provide an insight into different societies, histories and cultures, and illustrate diversity whilst showing we are all connected by universal fears, hopes and dreams. I find comfort in the fact fairy tales portray an overarching desire to be good, courageous and kind, to overcome evils both internal and external, and to make sense of life with a story.
Creating new fairy tales, and encouraging future generations to do the same, will help to keep this genre full of wonder, enchantment and wisdom relevant and appealing to new audiences.
So, here are my seven top tips for writing your own fairy tales:
- Read a wide variety of fairy tales; from different times, different cultures and different storytellers. Reading is a hugely enjoyable way to learn how to craft a story and can be a massive source of inspiration to writers. Reading fairy tales will also help you identify motifs you might like to include in your own story (e.g. the various types of heroes, helpers, villains, fantasy characters, magical objects, and quests).
- Reimagine a familiar fairy tale; tell the story from a different point of view (e.g. the villain, the helper, or one of the minor characters), change the setting (e.g. to outer space, the wild west, or the inner city), or change a character’s role or motivations (e.g. make the hero the villain, or the villain the helper).
- Create a main character with clear motivations; decide who your main character is and what they want, then decide what is stopping them from getting what they want, and what will happen if they don’t get what they want. Thinking about this will help you give your main character drive and provide your story with clear stakes and a sense of jeopardy (this is rephrased from some advice my agent Gemma Cooper gave me!).
- Use fairy tale language; traditional phrases can set the mood (e.g. once upon a time, beyond seven lands and seas, a long time ago, across thrice-nine lands), as can common fairy tale vocabulary (e.g. wish, curse, malevolent, wise, enchantment), but it is also important to remember that most fairy tales are written in simple, accessible language.
- Don’t force metaphors, messages, or morals; fairy tales may contain metaphors (e.g. it has been suggested the wolf in Red Riding Hood represents a predatory male, the cow in Jack and the Beanstalk failing to give milk represents the end of infancy, and Rapunzel’s Tower represents the segregation or exclusion of women), and fairy tales sometimes contain moral lessons (although these are often later additions and feature less commonly in older versions of tales). I believe metaphors and moral questions work best when they are left open for readers to interpret, and when they arise naturally through writing a story, so I wouldn’t recommend forcing them into a tale.
- Consider Themes; fairy tales contain powerful themes (e.g. Hansel and Gretel addresses fear of abandonment, Cinderella the death of a parent and sibling rivalry, Beauty and the Beast the idea of beauty transcending the physical, and Snow White mother daughter conflicts). It is definitely worth considering what theme or themes you wish to address, as this can become the ‘glue that knits your story together’ (rephrased from some advice my editor Rebecca Hill gave me!).
- Choose your ‘Happily Ever After’ carefully; recognise you don’t have to give your main character everything they wanted at the start of the story, and good doesn’t necessarily have to triumph over evil completely. But in satisfactory endings, the main character has usually learned and grown as a person, and there is often a fresh sense of hope for the future.
Sophie Anderson: The Girl Who Speaks Bear is published by Usborne Children’s Books. You can purchase this title from the Just Imagine Bookshop here: The Girl Who Speaks Bear | Just Imagine… (justimaginestorycentre.co.uk)