How Fairy Tales Break All The Rules

posted by Tim Carmody Feb 03, 2023

Fairy tales are fun to read not least because they violate every rule of what makes "good" literary fiction:

Instead of "show don't tell," fairy tales prioritize telling over showing. Instead of demanding "round characters," fairy tales embrace flat ones. Instead of logical "worldbuilding," fairy tales operate with a surreal dream logic in abstract settings. Instead of starting "in media res," they start "once upon a time." Instead of "telling the story only you can tell," fairy tales ask you to retell stories that have been told for centuries. So on and so forth.

In The Writer's Notebook, Kate Bernheimer identifies four key structural qualities of fairytale storytelling:

Flatness—specifically flatness of character. Fairy tales don't delve into the psychology or interiority of characters, and typically limit them to one or two adjectives. The beautiful princess. The evil king. Etc. Similarly, fairy tales don't have traditional character arcs or worry about "dynamic characters." The evil witch at the start is probably going to be an evil witch at the end.

Abstraction—a general minimalism of description. Only a few colors are used and details are abstracted. "A young woman lived in a small house by the dark woods," rather than a detailed layout of the house and a catalogue of the the types of trees in the forest.

Intuitive logic—essentially a dream logic or poetic logic, not far removed from what we would call "surrealism" or "magical realism" in a contemporary story.

Normalized magic—probably self-explanatory: magic is normalized. Characters are unsurprised if a cat begins to talk or a mermaid swims by. There is no SFF worldbuilding to explain or rationalize the fantastic elements.

Lincoln Michel, who wrote this summary, adds two more:

Open artifice—fairy tales eschew the standard methods of hiding fictional artifice and instead present themselves as pure story. As yarn, joke, fable. Fairy tale narrators often interject commentary or address the reader. And the classic fairy tale frame tells us we're entering and then leaving pure story. These days, the classic frame has been reduced to "Once upon a time..." and "...happily ever after." In traditional fairy tales, the openings and closings were even more overt in telling you "this isn't real": "Once there was, there never was" to start, say, and something absurd like the following to close: "I was also there in my red trousers and ate a lentil on a spit and if that lentil fits on the spit then you also have to believe my tale."

A non-setting—fairy tales typically take place in a vague non-setting, in which we are never pinned down in specific time periods or locations. "Once upon a time a beautiful princess lived in a golden castle" instead of "In the 12th century, the heir to the Hapsburg dynasty lived in a castle by the Aar river" or what not. Specific names, dates, and locations—whether real or invented—deflate the fairy tale mode.

All of this again is contrary to the rulebound advice writers get for modern storytelling, making fairytales (in Michel's formulation) "a kind of MFA antidote." Stories seem to work when they have rules; it doesn't always seem to matter what those rules are.