What are the elements of a Perfect Fairy Tale?

Let’s see. I’ve been writing a manuscript about an especially clandestine fairy tail taking place in modern day New Enlgand. I just gave the script to my wife to read and she was a little thrown by the decidedly unfairy-tail-like theme the story took on.

So my question is this. What are the elements of a good fairy tale?

Should there be mystical places, magic, oddly intreguing charactors, dragons, monsters, spells, witches?

What really goes into a good fairy tale?

How do you separate from sci-fi when in a fairy tale, or fantasy? Are Fantasies fairy tales?

Plot line, should there be a damsel sleeping in a high-up tower awaiting a prince?

Hmm, a perfect fairy tale has to have a wicked nemesis that is somehow related, either through blood or simply by raising the character, to either the main character (if a girl) or be related to the girl whom the main character is trying to save (if a boy). This is assuming it is an adventure fairy tale. This is referenced by Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel (the witch who raised her keeps her in a tower), etc.

Witches are always a good bet. Magic also takes a pretty big part in most fairy tales. It takes all sorts of effects, not simply sleeping. If it isn’t magic then it is something that is so unreal that it may as well be magical (like Rapunzel’s hair…unearthly swordplay, etc).

I don’t think there should be a sleeping damsel in a tower awaiting the prince, not only is it cliche it sounds almost exactly like the plot of Super Mario Brothers, especially if you find out the real princess is not in this castle.

In some classic fairy tales, there is a moral principle which has been violated, and the rest of the tale revolves around the “payback,” or the story is used to illustrate a common saying.

The purpose of these stories was to warn children of what could happen to them if they didn’t behave. I’ve read a couple of books on the subject. Some claim that “Little Red Riding Hood” was a warning for young girls to stay close to home and to guard their virginity closely from male “wolves.” The Three Bears, as another example, is a morality tale. Good little children don’t get lost in the woods, because they stay close to home. Good children also don’t enter houses and steal food, or they run the risk of being eaten alive. Stepmothers are by no means to be trusted. In Cinderella, the stepmother is so evil and determined to see one of her daughters marry the prince that she chops off their toes and heels so the shoe will fit. (The plot is discovered when the prince’s servants notice the blood seeping from the shoe.)

Remember, too, that most fairy tales as we know them today are much different from the original. For example, Sleeping Beauty was a tale in which the girl falls asleep under enchantment, and is abandoned in the castle. A prince happens upon her, and rapes the unconcious girl. She awakes to find twin babies at her breast. The prince’s wife is understandably pissed, but decides to extract a horrible revenge. She invites Sleeping Beauty and the kids to dinner, and tells her chef to cook the kids.

She waits until the guests have finished their delicious dinner before revealing her secret. But, the twist is that the chef cooked * her * children instead (for which he is rewarded.) The evil wife is slain and Sleeping Beauty takes her place. The moral to the story is that “good things happen to good people-- even when they’re sleeping.” Quite a bit different than what we’re used to reading.

Do you have an example? Princess Bride Maybe?

My fairy tale revolves around a type of vigilantism. With a young man, an evil set of parents and a damsel.

happy 2000th post to me :):slight_smile:

Congrats on 2000!!

Fairy tales need:
-hero(ine) who is trapped and must be saved (frog prince, snow white etc)
-them that does the saving
-comeuppance to them that did the trapping
-and happily ever after.

I would say the main elements are threefold:

the hero, who is normally a child or a young adult, generally someone meek and weak and without any great talents.

the villain, who generally represents a parent (giant, witch, wicked stepmother). It is common to have a child initially be rejected by a parent, but then reunited at the end after overcoming the villain.

the hero running away from but finally facing and overcoming some obstacle through perseverance or cunning (rather than by strength). For instance, the princess who refuses to marry the frog who gets her ball, but eventually accepts him and he turns into a prince. The obstacle must be something threatening, preferably with a dark psychological significance, although it may threaten revulsion rather than threaten death. Commonly the journey and growth to overcome the obstacle represents a stage in the child-hero’s development (independence, discovering sexuality, etc.)

There are other common motifs, such as things happening in threes, quests, children leaving home (and other signs of growing up). I would say a dragon is very rare in fairytales, although talking animals are certainly common, particularly in helping the hero. The more everyday elements the better: the name “fairy tale” is a misnomer since there is no need for supernatural elements, and when they exist, they are more likely to be something minor like talking animals or talking mirrors (which are things children can easily accept) than something major like elves or alternative universes.

All the above may seem mundane. In stylistic terms, I would say that psychology should be externalised revealed by symbols, never described by the narrator; that language should be simple; good and evil should be clearly distinguished (although the hero can do wrong and then do right, this should be separated, and villains should be unambiguous).

A book I definitely recommend, and have mentioned here before, is The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim. It takes a predominantly Freudian approach to fairytales, relating them to the child’s psychological development, but also has a vast amount of discussion of the aesthetic and moral significance of different elements. Alternatively, read the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson (although he’s a little more dainty), but avoid Charles Perrault.

One common element in fairy tales is this – the protagonist goes on a journey, throughout which s/he meets usually 3 people along the way and is kind and generous to them (shares his/her food with them, answers their questions kindly, helps them out of some trouble, etc), and these people reward the protagonist either with a magical item or their help or good advice. The protagonist sometimes has a older or step-sibling who also walks the same path and meets the same people, but the sibling is unkind to the 3 people and gets cursed for being so wretched.

Goodness of heart is always rewarded in fairy tales.

Ahh thank you refusal et al. Very helpful. I do enjoy reading the brother’s grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen. I collected for a while, some well known Brother’s Grimm tales, older antiquated editions. They are now resting in the library my wife and I built in our Den. To be taken out when we have kids, or when we want to sit and lol around on a lazy rainy day… tomorrow perhaps.

I’m excited because my tale incorporates much of what you are saying refusal. As I am formally schooled in psychology, my writing takes on a somewhat mental pose throughout the journey of this young man. If you’ve ever read Richard Bach, I have a similar writing style, some people tell me.

Good golly, that’s a loaded question I couldn’t answer fully in a year’s worth of heavy folktale study. :slight_smile:

If you’re really serious about it, you can check out The Hero With a Thousand Faces, as long as you can gloss over the rather 1940s view of the world that Joseph Campbell has. :smiley:

There’s also a really spiff book by…ah hell, I can’t remember his name. Vladimir something. Er, the book’s red and white. It has an equation system with which you can diagram Russian folktales/fairytales. It gets mighty specific.

One big thing to remember when reading fairytales is that some of them are specifically constructed, while others are “folktales”, in that they’ve evolved more than anything else. The line can be wobbly.

Tolkien wrote an essay titled “On Fairy-Stories” which gives his perspective. It’s very interesting and well worth reading.