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How to write a fairy tale

Fairy Castle For How To Write A Fairy Tale Blog Post

In this workshop you will learn how to write a fairy tale. I give you the main ingredients for writing fairy tales, some ideas to get you started, and offer advice from leading writers and lovers of fairy tales.

Once upon a time …

Long ago and far away …

Once, long ago, not near, not far …

By the side of a wood, in a country a long way off …

… There was a little girl who loved stories. Most of all she loved fairy tales; she couldn’t get enough of them. She would borrow books of fairy tales from the library, and she would beg anyone who came to the house, but especially Dad, to tell her a fairy story. And if there wasn’t anyone handy, she would make one up for herself. She would go into a place called Daydream, and something magic would happen.

That little girl was called Me.

My fairy tales
Montage of covers of my fairy story retellings

I have retold many fairy stories, both on their own, as in The Snow Queen, The Three Princes and The Nutcracker, and as a collection: Classic Fairy Tales.

Sometimes I weave traditional fairy stories into much longer stories and novels, so they slip in and out of the narrative – The Famous Adventures of Jack, The Golden Bird and Rose Doran Dreams (a novel for adults).

And sometimes I make them up, as in The Girl Who Couldn’t Walk (collected in Tales of Wonder and Magic), The Girl From Lake Silver (collected in Mirrors, 2001) and Blue John.

…. And they all lived happily ever after.

The enduring magic of fairy tales

Fairy tales have been with us for hundreds of years. They would have been carried in the mouths and minds of travellers, and told round firesides in return for food and shelter. They have travelled across oceans and through forests, and sometimes the same stories have been told and retold and newly fangled till you could hardly recognise them, unless you were a scholar. But they’re still here, enduring the shape-changing magic of different tellers. They link us to our far distant past and ripple into our shared memories.

Why have some fairy stories lasted so long?

Fairy tales have lasted for centuries and endured thousand of retellings because they’re powerful stories. The early stories, even those that were written down in Ancient China, Russia, Greece and Roman times, were much darker than the versions that we read now, and were meant for any ears, not just children’s. Even as late as the early 19th century the Brothers Grimm included many gruesome and often terrifying stories among the hundreds that they collected.

Also, essentially, fairy stories are very easy to remember. Unlike dreams, they’re very simple. You can write down the bones of a fairy story in five simple steps, and we’re going to do that in a few minutes. But for the moment, I’m still telling my tale of enduring magic and the power of stories.

Another reason why they’ve lasted so long is because they explain things. When, long ago, our ancestors lived in caves or rough woodland shelters or huts on mountainsides, how else would parents warn their children not to wander away from them? Tell them about the little girl who met a wolf disguised as a grandmother, and that the wolf has big teeth to eat her with, and they’ll understand danger.

Not to mention the old lady in the cottage in the woods, who has a nice pot boiling ready to pop a little boy into. Trust no-one!

The main ingredients of a fairy tale

Pantomime and Disney have sweetened the old tales, and thrown in comedy to spice them up, but still the main ingredients are unfailingly present:

Beauty. A villain. A tricky situation. Magic. A happy ending.

Let’s look at the five main ingredients, and see if you can make sure to include them in your story.

Beauty

Sometimes your central character is even called Beauty, but she doesn’t have to be the prettiest girl in the palace. Beauty here means innocence, or goodness, or youth. They can’t be blamed for what happens to them. Whatever lies ahead in the story isn’t their fault.

A villain

Everybody loves a villain in a story. It might be the Stepmother, who is jealous as in the stories of Snow White and Cinderella. There’s often an old woman who is downright nasty as in Hansel and Gretel or there might be a witch living next door (Rapunzel). It’s amazing how many of theses wicked characters in fairy tales are women! And occasionally they’re beautiful. Remember the Snow Queen? But sometimes the villain isn’t cruel, but ugly (Beauty and the Beast) or slimy (The Frog Prince). The difference is that in these stories ugliness is only skin deep, and villainy is imagined. The reward for the girls who overcome their disgust is that they break the spell of ugliness and see the Beast and the Frog for who they really are.

A tricky situation

Well, in all of those stories, the tricky situation is quite clear. There’s a poisoned apple. A stepmother who won’t let you go to the ball. The pot of stew bubbling on the hob. The promise that must be kept. Or the tricky situation might be that a treacherous journey has to be made (Gerda in The Snow Queen), or impossible tasks have to completed (Cinderella, The Tinder Box, Rumpelstiltskin, The Three Princes, The Wild Swans).

Magic

There’s a point in the story, a crucial point, where something happens to turn the events. It’s sometimes a moment of transformation (metamorphosis; shape-change) – an old woman becomes a fairy godmother, a dead Snow White opens her eyes and breathes, a frog becomes a prince. It doesn’t matter how it happens, the important thing is it could only happen by magic, and it happens because of goodness, kindness, love or loyalty.

Happy ending

There’s no other way. Good deeds and magic have brought the main character this far, and all will now be well. A fairy story that doesn’t end happily is, well, not a fairy story! Change it at your peril!

General tips on writing fairy stories

  • When? Because they come from long ago, fairy tales are often set long ago, or in no particular time at all. You don’t have to be specific. You could set it in the future.
  • Where? Again, traditional tales are set in places where there are forests, castles, cottages and wells, because that’s where and how the people who made up the first stories lived.
  • Who? Your central character. Girl? Boy? Poor? Rich? Beautiful? Youngest? In many stories, the central character is the youngest of three siblings, or is the seventh son of a seventh son. (Three and seven are magic numbers.)
  • Who else? Who will the central character relate to? Often there’s a kind but foolish father (Beauty and the Beast). The bad person/villain. One is enough. Sometimes there’s a helper, often animals. Often there are animals in the story. Magical animals are hares, fish, birds. Reward. That’s often the handsome prince, who is a symbol of love, security and happiness.
  • What? What happens? Anything can happen. It’s your story. There’ll be a bad time, and then things will change. Usually, if the central character is poor, she or he will end up rich. That doesn’t have to be money rich! Rich in love. Rich in happiness.
  • How? By being good, dutiful, and honest. If there’s a moral in a fairy story, that’s it!
  • And by Magic. That could be a magical animal, a person or object. It could be a transformation or shape-changing. (The frog becomes a prince.)
How to write a fairy tale: line drawing of frog by Kasia
Drawing: Kasia

How to shape your fairy story

Begin by breaking down or retelling a story that’s familiar to you. Can you write it in 6 sentences?

An evil fairy puts a wicked spell on a princess. When the princess is 15, she will prick her finger and die. A good fairy changes the spell, so the princess will sleep for a hundred years. A hundred years later, a prince wakens her with a kiss.

It’s very bare, but it sets your imagination going!

Well, I did it in four there, and then I told exactly that story (The Sleeping Beauty) in my book of Classic Fairy Tales and used well over a thousand words. What did I add? What would you add?

So – you try. Think of any fairy story, and tell it in 4 to 6 bare sentences.

Then write it as a full story, making sure the ideas in those 4–6 sentences are all included.

A few wise don’ts

  • You needn’t name the character. Famous names are Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Gerda and Kay, Rumpelstiltskin – but more often than not fairy tale characters have names that are symbols, like beauty, the stepmother, the king, the youngest son, Little Red Riding Hood.
  • Don’t clutter the story with too many people. You want your reader to identify with the main character. You need one main character, one evil character, one magical character. Who else might you need?
  • Don’t ty to explain things. It’s just is the way it is.
  • Don’t use flashbacks. The story is about the present moment – all you need to say is ‘Her mother was dead’, ‘The king had married again.’ The action of the story is all happening as the story is told.
  • Don’t use subplots.
  • Don’t carry the story on after its natural conclusion. We just need a satisfying ending; a return to normal, happy, better life.
  • Moral? Does every fairy story have a moral? Think about it. Mainly, yes, and this is it: Good prevails over evil. Hard work is rewarded.

Now, time to let go, and write! Your imagination is a wonderful thing. Fly with it.

Ideas for writing your fairy tale

Once there was a king (man, farmer, carpenter …) who had no son. Have a think about that. Does he want a son? Why? Because he has too many daughters? Because a son will carry on his work? Think of more reasons.

How does he set about finding a son? Advertise? Search the world, the mountains and the oceans? Offer a reward? Set three tasks? Off you go, and write it!

Once upon a time there was a spellwriter. Ooh, what could you do with that idea? Boy or girl, old person, wizard, dreamer … Who uses the spells? Do they work? Are they good or bad?

The girl who couldn’t walk. The setting is a farm cottage.

The characters are the girl who can’t walk, her parents, and an old woman who comes to the door. She offers them all a wish.

Of course, all the mother wants is for her daughter to walk, but she says it out loud, and wastes it!

What does the father wish? He wastes it too!

However, the girl’s wish is different. What could it be?

Can you finish the story?

Daughter of the sea. A baby is fished out of the sea by a fisherman. He and his wife decide to keep her. They invite all the islanders to her christening party, except for one. She appears at the end of the party and curses the baby.

What does she say?

Who is she?

What happens?

Write a story about it.

Some famous writers suggest ingredients for writing a good fairy tale

James Carter

Poet James Carter recommends ‘repetitions, even rhymes, so it makes it “tell-out-loudable”’.

Adèle Geras

Adèle Geras says:

  1. Triumph of courage (often from an underdog) and lesson for life.
  2. Plainness of language mixed in with poetic/mysterious/supernatural elements.
  3. Nature as character.

Jo Tregenza

Jo Tregenza, vice president of the UKLA (UK Literacy Association):

‘Characters a child might dream to be. Jeopardy. A happy ending’.

Hilary McKay

Hilary McKay quotes Tolkien ‘the turn’, which is the moment of resolution when the plot becomes whole.

‘I think it’s the illusion becoming the reality, with no backward glances. There’s an acknowledgement of complete good and evil cf. of real life. Beauty (equals goodness). The evil stepmother. The wolf.’

Ross Montgomery

Ross Montgomery says: ‘The thing that always appeals to me is the surety of language – there’s a certain way fairytales are written that feels like putting on old shoes when you’re reading or writing them.’

How to write a fairy tale: line drawing of shoes by Janna Doherty
Illustration: Janna Doherty

Peter Bunzl

Peter Bunzl says: ‘If you can write it with the quality of someone telling you the story I think that adds to it. When I was writing Magicborn, I tried to think of Henson’s/John Hurt’s The Storyteller, which Anthony Minghella wrote brilliant scripts for.’

Marina Warner

In her brilliant book, From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner says: ‘Fairy tales often claim the moral ground, but their spellbinding power lies with the enchantress and giants, the magic, the wonders, the mishaps and the good fortune they relate.’

Hints from some children about their favourite fairy tales

  • ‘It’s best when they’re funny stories, like The Emperor’s New Clothes.’
  • ‘I always remember the really gruesome ones like Straw Peter.’
  • ‘They have to have a really wicked villain.’
  • ‘Must have a happy ending.’
  • ‘The main character is lonely or on their own, like Rapunzel.’
  • ‘I like it when it takes place in a magical setting, like a forest or castle or maybe underwater.’
  • ’It’s best when they have a moral.’

You may also be interested in my posts on writing haikus and ghost stories.

Over to you

What is your favourite favourite fairy tale, and why? Let me know in the comments below!

Photos/illustrations: Main photo Cezary Piwowarski, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Illustrations from Classic Fairy Tales by Jane Ray, with thanks for her kind permission to use them here. Castle, candle, loom, toadstools and shoes: Janna Doherty. Frog: Kasia.

Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her brand new novel for adults, Rose Doran Dreams, is out now. Her forthcoming novel The Haunted Hills will be published later in 2022. See the About me page for more information.

This post has 2 comments

  1. I’d go so far as to call this one a “can’t-miss” piece of writing! Great work. I adore it, and the advice is quite helpful.

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