Once upon a time, there was a writer who wanted to craft the best fairy tale they could. But when they sat down to write, they realized that they didn't know what exactly made a fairy tale different from, say, a fantasy novel.
Unsure of the genre conventions, they sought help from the internet. And stumbled upon a helpful article on how to write a fairy tale where all the writer's questions would be answered in short order.
If that’s not a happy ending, I don’t know what is! 😉
- The anatomy of a fairy tale.
- Examples of fairy tales and modern retellings to inspire you.
- Tips for writing your fairy tale.
Table of contents
- What is a Fairy Tale?
- Fairy Tale Examples
- Tips on Writing a Fairy Tale
- How to Write a Fairy Tale: Happily Ever After
What is a Fairy Tale?
If you're like me, the things that come to mind when you think of fairy tales are Disney movies about princesses and magical creatures. And while these are indeed fairy tale retellings, they aren't the epitome of traditional fairy tales. But since they're such a cultural touchstone, they're perhaps more recognizable than the much older stories on which they're based.
If you've ever picked up a copy of collected fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, you'll know that some of the stories aren't exactly child-friendly. They can actually be quite . . . grim.
On the other hand, original fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen are much closer in tone and style to the fairy tales that came to the silver screen starting with Snow White back in 1937.
This leaves us with the problem of defining fairy tales. And since most of us think of fairy tales in the Disney sense, we'll go with that for the purposes of this article.
So, a fairy tale is a story written for children featuring magical creatures, a limited cast of characters, a simple narrative with a moral message, and a happily-ever-after ending.
We'll get into more detail as we go through this article, but that's a good starting point for understanding the fairy tale genre as it is today.
Fairy Tale or Folk Tale?
It can be easy to confuse fairy tales and folktales, so let's take a moment to discuss their differences. This will also help further define the fairy tale genre.
The fairy tales we know today started as folk tales, which were stories passed down over the years through oral storytelling. Since there was no written record of these, folk tales changed depending on the teller and had no attributed author.
Then came the 1700s, when scholars think the first folk tales were written down. And since they were written down, they had an attributable author.
It wasn't long after this that the two types of stories started to take on distinct attributes. In essence, the fairy tale became a written subgenre of folk tale.
In folk tales, the stories are more centered in the real world, usually without talking animals or creatures with magical powers. They are told with a moral lesson in mind and do not always feature a happy ending.
In fairy tales, the setting is often otherworldly, featuring magical elements and creatures. Sometimes, the characters are anthropomorphic animals. Other times they're humans with supernatural powers. And while fairy tales also generally have a simple-to-understand moral lesson, they've become more of a form of feel-good escapism in our modern era.
Fairy Tale Examples
Whether you want to write a “traditional” fairy tale—meaning one with a happy ending—or you want to write a dark retelling of your favorite tale, you'll need to know the genre well. And the best way to do this is by reading other fairy tales.
Traditional Fairy Tale Examples
Versions of most of these stories can be found for free online. For some, you may need to purchase a collection to read them.
- Little Red Riding Hood collected by the Brothers Grimm
- The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen
- The Frog Prince collected by the Brothers Grimm
- Hansel and Gretel collected by the Brothers Grimm
- Beauty and the Beast by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve
- The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen
- Sleeping Beauty collected by the Brothers Grimm
Modern Fairy Tale Retellings
The following are stories based on fairy tales. Not all of them are appropriate for children.
- Cinder by Marissa Meyer (YA novel inspired by Cinderella)
- Thief of Cahraman by Lucy Tempest (YA novel inspired by Aladdin)
- The Princess Companion by Melanie Cellier (YA Romance inspired by The Princess and the Pea)
- Gretel by Christopher Coleman (Horror thriller inspired by Hansel and Gretel)
- Black Heart, Ivory Bones edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (Featuring tales by Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates)
Tips on Writing a Fairy Tale
The following tips can help you write your fairy tale no matter what style you're going for!
Research Your Genre First
Since fairy tales and their retellings are so ubiquitous, you'll really want to nail down your genre. And in order to do that, you'll need to research what genres and subgenres you'll be targeting when you publish.
This will allow you to make sure the fairy tale you want to write is one that will fit well in that subgenre. And if it doesn't, you can either find a subgenre it will fit well in or make tweaks to your story in order to appeal to readers.
Of course, if sales aren't on your list of priorities, then I encourage you to simply write the novel or story you want.
But if you do want to make some money from your fairy tale, I recommend using Publisher Rocket to research Amazon categories. This tool can help you find the right categories for your novel or short story collection without spending hours combing through Amazon. It can also help you research customer search terms (for use when you publish on Amazon) and also how much competition you'll be facing in a given category or genre.
Check out Publisher Rocket here.
You can also read how to manually research potential categories on Amazon in this article.
Choose a Moral
One thing all fairy tales have in common is a moral lesson. How you deliver this moral lesson will depend highly on your intended audience (which is why the tip above is important).
If you're writing a children's book, the lesson should be very clear and easy to understand. If you're writing a young adult novel, it can be a bit more nuanced. Or maybe you're writing a horror retelling of a classic fairy tale, in which case your moral lesson can be even more subtle.
Either way, it's important to let your moral message influence the theme of your fairy tale. But keep in mind that readers don't want to be preached to. Most people read fairy tales for escape, not to be reminded of the injustices of the real world.
Here are some common moral messages found in fairy tales to get you started:
- Preparation takes effort but provides benefits in the long run. (Three Little Pigs)
- When you have everything, even the smallest things seem like great inconveniences—if you let them. (The Princess and the Pea)
- Look beneath the surface to really get to know people. (Little Red Riding Hood)
- Creative thinking can help us solve seemingly unsolvable problems. (Rapunzel)
Create Your Characters
When you think of your average fairy tale characters, you may think of a princess and a prince charming or a fairy godmother and an evil witch. You may also conjure images of characters with magical powers. If so, then you're on the right track.
Although you don't have to have a princess or a fairy godmother in your fairy tale, there's nothing wrong with sticking to these tried-and-true characters. In fact, you generally want to stick fairly close to these types of characters if you're doing a more traditional telling.
If you're doing a modern twist, then you'll have a little more room to get creative with your character development.
No matter what kind of fairy tale you're writing (or what kind of story, for that matter), the protagonist needs to be relatable. Even if your main character lives in a place where the flowers sing and the animals talk, they need to have traits that will make readers like and identify with them.
On the other side of the spectrum, every good fairy tale has a good villain. Think about the evil fairy tale character who will be in direct conflict with the protagonist. This could be a witch or a wizard, but it could also be a magical monster or some other fantasy creature (i.e. the Big Bad Wolf).
No matter the form they take, they should be a blatantly evil character, just as the protagonist is a clearly good character.
Pro Tip: The younger your audience, the simpler your characters should be. There's no need for complex character development in a short story meant for children. A couple of primary character traits will work fine for each of your main characters.
Craft Compelling Conflict
Fairy tales are known for their clear and compelling conflicts. In Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf wants to eat the pigs. In Snow White, the wicked queen wants to kill Snow White. In Cinderella, the cruel stepmother is determined to keep Cinderella as an abused servant who will never be happy or have a life beyond the service she provides to her stepmother and stepsisters.
So when you're coming up with your story idea, think about the primary conflict that will drive your story. This is almost always external conflict. But if you're writing for a more mature audience, you can also add texture to your story by giving your hero or heroine internal conflict as well.
Make Your Magic with Care
One of the nice things about fairy tales is the endless variations possible. After all, when you have magic involved, you can get really creative. But this can also backfire if you're not careful. Inconsistent rules in your magical world can stretch credulity and leave readers feeling a little cheated.
This is why it's important to establish the rules of your world clearly and fairly early on in your story. But in doing this, you want to avoid any sort of info-dumps. Drip-feed the rules of your magical realm to the reader as they need them, and then stick to them for the rest of the story!
Write It Down!
Once you have your characters, setting, conflict, and moral message in mind, it's time to start writing. Most fairy tales are written in the objective or omniscient third person. Unless you see that many other best selling indie books in your subgenre are using the first person, you'll probably want to stick to a third person narrator.
They are also written in the past tense. Considering that most fairy tales start with the words “Once upon a time . . .” this makes sense. Although books written in the present tense are more common these days, it's still rare to see a fairy tale in this tense.
Publish With Confidence
When your fairy tale is written, edited, and ready for readers, you'll still need to make sure it is packaged professionally. This means formatting your manuscript for eBook and paperback at a minimum.
There are a couple of different ways to do this, but they can be time-intensive (DIY) or expensive (hiring someone). This is why I recommend using the all-in-one writing and formatting tool, Atticus.
My team and I designed Atticus to help indie authors easily write and format their books for publishing. It has over a dozen pre-made formatting options that you can apply to your story in just a few clicks. You can also customize and add images to make an original design to go with your original story.
There are a ton of other great features that come with Atticus, which is available for a one-time price (no subscription!). Check out Atticus here.
How to Write a Fairy Tale: Happily Ever After
Whether you're writing a retelling of a traditional tale or creating a scary story with fairy tale characters, it's important to know what tropes readers expect in the various fairy tale subgenres. When you know what makes fairy tales great, you can create your own great tale. And I hope the tips in this article will help you do just that.