Expansion Pack: Fairytales

Hi Gang, Craig with you again. We’ve spent some time talking about character arc in the past year. My last three posts were about The Hero’s Journey, also known as the Writing Monomyth. I’m not quite ready to drop that yet.

In the video game world, sometimes the developers offer expansion packs. These provide an extra setting or adventure you can take advantage of. I’m going to try the same thing with story structure.

None of these expansion packs are paramount to your story. You can produce a perfectly good yarn without using them. However, there are times when you might find them pretty useful. Our first one is Fairytale Structure. It’s the most expansion pack-like of the bunch, because it does not involve steps like A, B, C. It’s just a collection of things you can use to fine tune your story.

Getting onboard with Fairytale Structure involves a leap of faith. It speaks to part of our brains that people often deny. Concepts like how we relate to specific numbers, predictions, or the power of promises. Rolling my 20-sided dice and… Numbers it is:

Numbers:

Certain numbers have meaning. We don’t understand it, but it is deep in our psyche. The most important one of these is three. We love three for some reason. It makes for good artwork, like when three people are in a graphic, or three flowers in a photo, and it can make for good stories too. Use it everywhere.

Something is going down in your story, why not have it happen on the third floor? Make game three of a series the important one. Third lap, third hand at poker, maybe winning that hand with three threes.

It’s typical to have three siblings in a fairytale. In this case, the youngest and weakest is always the main character. Think about The Godfather. We have Sonny, Fredo, and Michael. Which one went on to greatness? How many Angels did Charlie have? How many dragons in Game of Thrones?

How many friends formed a team in the Harry Potter stories? It’s also useful on occasion to have three fairy godmothers. When this happens, the third one is your comic relief. Think about it, Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid.

You can come up with dozens of these things. How many Stygian witches were there, etc.

Your main character will commonly face three tasks. If you’re going to do this, they typically fail at the middle one. It plays right into the Monomyth we just delved into. After the failure you go right into your dark night of the soul, then forge ahead to the big victory. In Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back was the failure story.

Other numbers don’t quite reach this level, but there are a couple. Five, Seven, and Eleven. There were Seven Dwarves, Seven Samurai, the Magnificent Seven. After the Fellowship of the ring failed there were five moving forward, and it easily became three when Merry and Pippin were taken.

Orphans and Foundlings:

Consider using this situation in your story. Harry Potter fits this mold, so does John Snow. It has to do with a deep emotional reaction we have to people in this situation. Adoption can work too. Think about how many characters have this background. Will Turner, Black Widow, Batman, and on and on.

Like all writing advice, take what works for you and leave the rest. It’s an expansion pack.

Predictions, Prophesies, and Warnings:

Old people are always great sources of wisdom, and should be the ones delivering these messages. “Don’t feed them after midnight.” An old man points a bony finger and utters a single word, “Thinner.”

These need to come early in the story. That way you can build tension around it. “Wow, I’ve lost ten pounds. Looking good.” It usually comes about the same time as the introduction of the main character. “Look at that nasty lightning-shaped scar.”

Promises:

I made these separate, because they mean more than the last part. Promises are stick-pins in your plot. If someone makes a promise, it becomes part of your character arc. The story also usually ends when the resolution comes about. It doesn’t matter whether the promise is kept or broken, it should be paramount to your characters.

Inigo Montoya promised his father he would avenge him. That promise drove his whole life from that point on. Reflect back upon the Hero’s Journey. Inigo was a character with potential. He got defeated by the six-fingered man, then the true hero rose from the ashes. “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

We’ve seen it a million times. “We aren’t going to get caught.” “There are no such things as monsters.” “Everything is going to be alright.” Use it to your advantage. It can build a ton of tension and tension sells books.

Magical Gifts:

Back in the Hero’s Journey we talked about the reward phase. I mentioned those were earned rewards and not simply gifts from friends. In this structure they are gifts from friends and are usually unearned. They tend to appear early in the stories. Note: This doesn’t prevent you from using the reward phase later in your story.

Usually these gifts are from mentors, but not always. Light sabers, invisibility cloaks, the Star of Eärendil. It happened off-screen, but Captain Sparrow’s compass fits this bill.

While they weren’t technically from mentors, everything Perseus had was a gift from the gods. Except for Pegasus. He had to acquire Pegasus himself. In the monomyth, Medusa’s head was the earned reward.

Don’t just make them cute. Make them helpful along the hero’s path somehow.

In a real world story, the gifts can’t be magical. They should at least be personal and have meaning. Miyagi gave Daniel a bonsai tree. This wasn’t particularly helpful, but the drum from the second film was. The car he gave him was useful too.

Parallels:

Parallels are huge in fairytales. Put them in your stories and milk them like prized dairy cows.

Luke could easily be Darth Vader. Harry could easily be Voldemort. Dudley picked on young Harry, just like Voldemort will later on. Athos is very religious, but so is Cardinal Richelieu. Holmes and Moriarty are both geniuses.

Think about super-patriots on opposing sides of a conflict. Find the parallels and manipulate them to your advantage.


None of these steps are mutually exclusive to fairytales. There is no step-by-step recipe to include these situations, but you can see how some have to be used earlier than others.

Using one of these steps won’t necessarily make your story a fairy tale. On the other hand if your story starts off with an elderly person giving a gift to her third grandson and saying, “Promise me you’ll only use it for good,” you might be writing a fairytale.

Own it, there is no shame in it. Fairytales are the stories that have stuck around the longest and many predate the printing press. The fact that we still remember them must mean something.

Fairytale structure isn’t exclusive to the realm of speculative fiction either. It fits right into romance, western, spy stories, and more.

How about it, gang. Would you ever consider turning your story into a fairytale? Talk to me in the comments. I love that part.

38 thoughts on “Expansion Pack: Fairytales

  1. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  2. You are absolutely right about numbers. Three is the number of the Trinity and has been used for ages by spiritualists, witches and astrologists. For me personally, it’s #4 that I resonate with. That is the Angel number and I was born in the 8th month, a derivative of 4. So, yes, Numbers are awesome to work into our stories! I would not hesitate to turn a story into a fairy tale. In fact, as an adult, I still love fairy tales. Great post, Craig!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love fairytales and loved this post.

    You’re so right about numbers. Odds are preferable to evens, and three does seem like the magic number. Taking your Godfather point further (although I’d argue Fredo was the weak one, not Michael), there were originally five children: three sons, a daughter, and an adopted son. To further refine it, you can then focus on the three biological brothers, or you can eliminate the ones who died (okay, it’s The Godfather… the ones who were killed) and still have three left: the son, the daughter, and the adopted son.

    I kind of want to play with this in a novel now, but I can’t because it doesn’t fit into my WIP. But this was a great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love fairytales! And I love all the devices that make them work. I really enjoyed this post. You have a way of pulling things out that I take for granted and making them solid writing devices. Once you point them out, they’re so practical. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve always been fascinated by fairy tales from the time I was a kid. Curing the years I wrote epic fantasy, I used a lot of these “add ons.”

    My favorite has always been the promise. Even today, I use that as a plot device. My romantic suspense novel, Eclipse Lake, is driven by a promise my main character makes to his deceased wife. He has to return to the town he left fifteen years earlier and make peace with his estranged brother.

    Myth and Magic is driven by a promise the lead character, Caith, makes to himself. His son will never suffer the tragedy he did as a child. His actions throughout the book are driven by that promise.

    Prophecies and warnings are another good one. I had fun with those in my Point Pleasant series. As you said, fairy tale structure and devices can be used in multiple forms of fiction.

    Excellent post today, Craig!

    Liked by 1 person

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