Writing Fairy Tales

I’ve been thinking a lot about fairy tales recently. Sometime during the writing of A Gift of Time, I realized that what I was writing was a fairy tale. A modern one. A weird one. Not at all traditional. But a fairy tale nonetheless. It gave me, at the time, the clarity about the ending that I needed to keep going and it’s been a thought in the back of my head ever since.

My latest story–not yet in its final version–is also a fairy tale. But I’m not sure why I believe that. I suppose it would be easy to argue that almost all romance novels are fairy tales — the princess gets her prince and they live happily ever after, right? But that doesn’t feel right to me. A certain type of story is a fairy tale. Not all romances. Maybe a fairy tale requires magic? Enchantment?

The question lead me to tvtropes.org, which was awesome as always. I so love that site. And I can definitely see how I’ve used some of the fairy tale tropes in my work. (Back from the Dead, anyone?) It also amused me enormously to see how many of them I’ve already used in A Gift of Grace, which is only about 25% done. And it gave me some fun ideas for new stories–which, quite honestly, I did not need. I can’t keep up with the ideas I have! But I will be adding a couple of these to my story notes file, because they would be fun, fun, fun.

Moving on, though — here’s the thing about fairy tales. Yes, at the end, the princess gets her prince. But she gets a lot more than that, too. The princess — think Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty — gets to be queen. She gets the gorgeous dress, she gets the big castle, she gets power. On the surface, yes, a lot of fairy tales (not all of them) are stories about a girl in need of a boy to rescue her. But when she’s rescued, it’s not into a life of boredom or drudgery. It’s a rescue into a world of magic and beauty and love. Cinderella doesn’t wind up working 9-7 and coming home to piles of laundry and dirty dishes.

But fairy tales also have their dark undercurrents. In the originals, of course, they were sometimes incredibly grim and graphically violent. But even in the less dark versions, there is a threat of some sort — the evil witch, the wicked stepmother. And that threat carries with it a sense of impending doom, of … well, creepiness, for lack of a better word. Plenty of romances have some threat in them that creates conflict but doesn’t inspire anxiety. Those don’t feel like fairy tales to me.

I’m still thinking about this, obviously. But for me, it’s a good framework for thinking about what I want to accomplish in a story. Is it magic? Does the princess win ALL the things? Does the threat cause real unease?

Back when I decided to indie publish, my goal was to write a million words that I was willing to share with other people and then decide if I wanted to be a writer. If I was good enough to be a writer, really. I’ve probably got another 300,000 to go (and I might be being generous to myself by counting words that I never really did share with that number). Anyway, I can’t objectively judge my writing, of course, but I’m definitely noticing that I’m thinking about it differently again.

For a while — maybe 400K into my goal — I was obsessed with mechanics. Avoiding repetitions, tightening, stronger verbs, better mannerisms. Now, though, I seem to be goal focused. A beta reader suggested I delete a paragraph and I ruled out the suggestion immediately. When I took a step back, I realized it was because I know exactly why that paragraph is there. I know what my goal is with it, how I’m using it to build character, why it’s important in the overall story, what it does. Now maybe it’s not doing it successfully, which is why the reader might not see its purpose, but I’ve gone from writing entirely on intuition to … well, writing on intuition, but still being able to break it down afterwards in a different way.

Which brings me back to fairy tales. Tomorrow (or perhaps tonight) I will start working on A Gift of Grace again, and I’m going to be thinking about fairy tales every step of the way. Instead of discovering at the end that I’m writing a fairy tale, I’m going to plan it as a fairy tale. I think it’s going to be fun. Fun to write and, I hope, someday fun to read.

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