Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, and far, far away, there lived an author. We all recognize the classic beginning of a fairy tale. As children, fairy tales are often our favorite stories. As an author, having an understanding of the elements of a fairy tale will help you craft a delightful tale full of wonder.
Fairy tales and short stories. Most fairy tales are also short stories. There are exceptions, of course. Who can forget the beginning of the Star Wars trilogy with the roll of script receding into the distant stars “Once upon a time in a galaxy far away…”? If your goal is to write a fairy tale for reading at bedtime to young children, then use the more usual short story form. A short story by definition is a short, complete account of a particular event. Usually there is a very limited set of characters, a focused plot line, and minimal descriptive material.
Fairy tales are a subset of short stories. While having all the features of a short story, fairy tales also tend to include mystical and/or magical events and characters. There is typically an antagonist of great evil and a protagonist who is often portrayed as a child or at least a sort of innocent. There are often animal sidekicks or a diminutive person who supports one or the other of the main characters. The plot line is usually about how the innocent one overcomes the evil one or how someone is transformed. Evil is vanquished and the main character lives happily ever after. It is important to remember that fairy tales are not downers.
Elements of Fairy Tales. Fairy tales often use some combination of the following structural elements:
1. a great quest or task
2. a series of tests
3. repeating word sequences to reinforce the progress of the story
4. animals that can speak, do magic, or perform human activities
5. a “good” helper(s) to assist the main character
6. a setting in time/spatial periods “long ago and far away”
7. a moral lesson (like love conquers all, good overcomes evil, etc)
Characters. A typical set of characters for a fairy tale includes a sweet princess, a noble prince, a wicked stepmother or witch, a fairy godmother, and a set of diminutive helpers (the mice in Cinderella, the dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Due to the brevity of the story, the characters are only minimally developed and rely on the archetype to provide the reader with a fundamental understanding of the character. Your story does not need to have this exact delineation of characters, but use the general pattern and number in order to fit the fairy tale format.
Settings. If you are trying for the classic fairy tale, then you need castles and hovels, pristine, beautiful landscapes and dark, forbidding ones. If you are writing a “modern” fairy tale, use modern buildings but remember to apply the mold of dramatic contrasts. Fairy tales are about polar opposites and this is carried through in all the story elements.
Apply these concepts while you write your fairy tale, watch the magic happen, and when the royalties start rolling in, you can live happily ever after.