Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fairy tale structure and your List

Grimms3 This week I got a truly excellent request: for a list of books that would illustrate some of these things I’ve been talking about. I'll have to start compiling it.

But this is why I really stress, and I should continue to stress, the importance of creating your OWN master list in your own genre, in that story notebook I talked about.

Anyone who’s developing a new story, or is even remotely thinking about it, who hasn't done this yet should do it RIGHT NOW: make a list of ten books and movies in the genre that you're writing in: books and films that you love, that you think are structured similarly to the story that you're telling, or even that are not in your genre but are your favorite books and movies of all time.

Because what works structurally for me is not necessarily going to do it for YOU.

For me, I am constantly looking at SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (book and movie), A WRINKLE IN TIME (book), THE WIZARD OF OZ (film), THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (book and ORIGINAL film), anything by Ira Levin, especially ROSEMARY'S BABY (book and film), THE EXORCIST (book and film), JAWS (film, but I need to go back and compare the book), PET SEMATERY (book, obviously), THE SHINING (book and film), IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

That's off the top of my head, just to illustrate the point I'm about to make – and not necessarily specific to the book I’m writing right now.

All of those examples are what I would call perfectly structured stories. But that list is not necessarily going to be much help for someone who's writing, you know, romantic comedy. (Although the rom coms of George Cukor, Preston Sturges, and Jane Austen, and Shakespeare, are some of my favorite stories on the planet, and my master list for a different story might well have some of those stories on it).

You need to create YOUR list, and break those stories down to see why those stories have such an impact on you - because that's the kind of impact that you want to have on your readers. My list isn't going to do that for you. Our tastes and writing and themes and turn-ons are too different - even if they're very similar.

I will start using more examples of each thing I'm talking about. I'll go back at some point and revise these posts with more content, too. But in the meantime, I will keep begging for everyone’s examples so we can have a more eclectic and genre-inclusive discussion and so I can learn something, too.

I just taught a story structure workshop last week and it was as always fantastic to hear people’s lists, one after another, because it gives you such an insight into the particular uniqueness of the stories each of those writers is working toward telling. Make your list. Think of the story you are writing right now and list ten books and films that are like it – without thinking about it too much. There will always be some complete surprises on there, and those stories are sometimes the most useful for you to analyze structurally. What you are really listing are your secret thematic preferences. You can learn volumes from these lists if you are willing to go deep.

Always trust something that pops into your head as belonging on your list. The list tells you who you are as a writer.

Bluebeardskey One thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that my favorite stories of all are fairy tales and myths – which are often interchangeable, although Christopher Vogler and John Truby make good arguments that stories with mythic structure and stories with fairy tale structure have their own rules and formulas.

When I respond deeply to a movie or book, no matter how realistic and modern it seems on the surface, chances are it’s going to have a fairy tale structure.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, RED DRAGON, THE EXORCIST, THE GODFATHER, A WRINKLE IN TIME, STAR WARS, THE TREATMENT (Mo Hayder) – every single one of them is a fairy tale. And fairy tales have their own structural rules that just work for me.

This week I finally saw PAN’S LABYRINTH (I know, I’m WAY late on that one, and Del Toro is one of my favorite directors. It’s wonderful, heartbreaking.)

That movie has a blatant fairy tale structure, and as in so many fairy tales, the heroine is told by her mentor and ally the faun that she must perform three tasks to save the underworld kingdom and reclaim her place as the princess of that world (and thus escape her horrifying reality in 1944 Spain.)

The three-task structure is SO useful and successful because it tells the audience exactly what they’re in for. Audiences (and readers – but especially audiences) need to know that things will come to an end eventually, otherwise they get restless and worried that they will never get out of that theater. I’m not kidding. And a reader, particularly a promiscuous reader like me, will bail on a book if it doesn’t seem to be escalating and progressing at a good clip. But with a three-task structure, the audience is, at least subconsciously, mentally ticking off each task as it is completed, and that gives a satisfying sense of progress toward a resolution. 2006_pans_labyrinth_wallpaper_002_2 Plus once you’ve set a three-task structure, you can then play with expectation, as Del Toro did in PAN’S LABYRINTH, and have the heroine FAIL at one of the tasks, say, the second task, and provide a great moment of defeat, a huge reversal and surprise, that in this case was completely emotionally wrenching because of the heroine’s very dire real-life situation.

Another classic fairy tale structure is the three-brother or three-sister structure. You know, as in The White Cat, or The Boy Who Had to Learn Fear, or Cinderella. In this structure there is one task that is the goal, and we watch all three siblings attempt it, but it’s always the youngest and ostensibly weakest sibling that gets it right.

Another Rule Of Three fairy tale structure deals with the three magical allies. THE WIZARD OF OZ has this – Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion; the animated classic SLEEPING BEAUTY – fairy godmothers Flora, Fauna and Merriwether; A WRINKLE IN TIME – the “witches”: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, Mrs Which; and STAR WARS – R2D2, C3P0, Han Solo (Okay, there’s four, Chewbacca, but he’s so joined at the hip to Han that they’re really one entity.). Magical allies give gifts, and they provide substructure for stories by each having their moment or moments of aiding the hero/ine.

I must point out that you DO NOT have to be writing a fantasy to use any of these structural techniques. They all can work just as well in the most grittily realistic story. Just look at THE GODFATHER, the most classic modern example I know of the three-brother structure. There’s the old king, the Godfather; the two older brothers, Sonny, with his lethal temper, and Fredo, with his weak womanizing; and the youngest brother, Michael, who is the outsider in the family: college-educated, Americanized, kept apart from the family business, and thought of as the weakest. And throughout the story we see this unlikely younger brother ascend to his father’s throne (even though it’s about the last thing we want.)

You can see the three-brother structure working loosely in MYSTIC RIVER, with the three friends who are all cursed by a horrific childhood event that inextricably binds their fates together. Lehane even uses a fairy tale analogy in the tale: “The Boy Who Was Captured By Wolves,” and the fairy-tale resonances in that book and film contribute to its haunting power.

THE DEERHUNTER is another three-brother structure, that opens with another huge fairy tale story element: a curse. The whole first sequence is a wedding, complete with unwanted guest (the Green Beret who won't talk to the three friends about Vietnam), and at the height of the merrymaking the bride and groom drink from the same cup and spill wine on the bride’s gown, thus bringing on the curse for all three friends.

THE DEERHUNTER also utilizes another classic structure technique, also common in fairy tales: The Promise. In the first act, when the friends are on the mountain, hunting, on their last day before three of them are shipped off to Vietnam, Nick asks Michael to make sure that he doesn't leave him over in Vietnam. Even if he dies, he wants to return home. "Promise me, Mike," he says. "You gotta promise me you won't leave me over there."

You KNOW when you get a promise scene that the story is going to be about that friend keeping the promise. It's an anchor to the action of the story - one of those spell-it-out moments that lets an audience subconsciously relax, because they understand what the story is going to be about - and they know the WRITER knows what the story is about, too. That's a comfortable feeling. You have to let your audience/reader know that you know what your story is about.

So wrapping this all up, the point is, if you really look closely at stories on your list, you might just find a similar meta-structure at work that will help you shape your own story. Try it!

And please do give us all some examples today – your own master list, or books and films with fairy tale elements or structure.


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

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Anonymous said...

I never thought about the "3" concept. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking TO THE POWER OF THREE by Laura Lippman.

I'm going to have to spend some time working on my list this weekend.

I'm also looking forward to your discussion about the rest of Act Three, as I'm thinking about the end of my story now and how all these concepts I've been working on will come together.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kristine, now that the concept is in your head, you will start seeing patterns of three everywhere - just like seeing pregnant women.

That's a lot of pressure about Act 3, you know. I've been putting it off for a reason!

Carole McDonnell said...

wow, great article! It definitely helps me focus on how to work on my novel. Maybe I'll make a list to see what my list is. -C

Anonymous said...

The pattern of three also reminds me about the old saying about death. When you hear that someone has died, there's usually two more deaths to follow. It's freaky but usually true.

About Act Three...I know what you're saying. I'm being patient. :-)

Anonymous said...

Carole, do the list! You won't regret it.

Kristine, patience is a virtue... they say.

Gayle Carline said...

Wow, I've been thinking about this all weekend. One thing I've decided is that this little block will not hold all my comments, so I'll end up blogging about it myself when I get more clarity ( Here's what I do know:
1. I naturally write in "threes". Lists, story lines, all very Goldilocks (the 3rd one is just right). A reader told me to stop it, but when I try, I feel like I'm writing "atonally" if that makes sense.
2. The stories that I love to read and the stories that I love to view have different structures. I love A Prayer for Owen Meany, but it has a very loose structure (I think) that I marvel at. I still like to watch Murder, She Wrote because the puzzle is solved with clues that are in front of me and there's always a red herring to mislead me.
3. I often joke that I like my stories dry with a twist. A straight-arrow plot is boring to me; I must have that surprise element (the Sixth Sense and the Crying Game both come to mind), or a highly convoluted plot (The Big Sleep, Three Days of the Condor) to keep my imagination.
Thank you, Alex, for giving me so much to think about. See there? Even this comment was in a list of three!

Anonymous said...

I'm a late-comer here but your posts and discussions are really thought-provoking. Today I made my list and this week I'll be considering what the hell it means and what brings these stories together.

* The Thorn Birds
* Wuthering Heights
* The Demon Princes
* Mary Stewarts Arthurian trilogy
* Little Women
* The Poisonwood Bible
* Sophie's Choice
* The Handmaid's Tale
* The Bell Jar
* Sybil

(I'm not sure about Sybil, I was struggling to come up with 10. But true to your instructions, I've left it)

The obvious common ground here is that these are all very much about people. In fact, all about imperfect or even broken people. Many of them do not have a happy ending. None of them tie up neatly into resolutions with the exception of Little Women.

I might have to reread all of these now.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Whoa, Sylvia, those are some really intense stories on your list.

About half of the stories are VERY disquieting, if not outright horror. Very complex, too. My kind of girl!

I am VERY interested to see what you come up with as common themes for you, given that list. I hope you'll report back!

I'm going to do another post on meta-structures when I get back from traveling, this weekend or next week.

Anonymous said...

I've done some thinking as to what the common thread is binds these books to the novel I am trying to write.

In general:

They are sagas. They include romance. That romance tends to be unhealthy or failed. The story covers/affects more than one generation. They are better than anything I have ever written (or even could hope to write). Seemingly unimportant actions have far reaching consequences. They end on a note of realism - no fairy tales nor neatly wrapped up happy endings.

I'm going through my draft (or at least, I should be) and I've been very worried about ruining what I've got. I have a tendency towards overthinking and my proof readers have often shouted at me for cutting scenes that are pertinent to the over all storyline. Having this in front of me I think will help a lot in terms of reminding me what I'm aiming for.

anitaDK said...

Hello Alexandra - Anita in Denmark here - I am reading your blog in the early morning hours here about two years after you started the thread - thought it fun to make a list anyway, so here it goes (and I am a little confused just by looking at it, so your comments will be most welcome and tomorrow I will try to figure out "which goes where" and where I am going myself:

*movie -The seven Samurais - Kurosawa
*movie - The Magnolias w. Sally Fields ao
*book - Pillars of the Earth - Follet
* Movie/book - Birdie
* Movie - Breaking the Waves - von
*book - The Little house on the
* movie - Some like it Hot
*book - Neverending story - Michael Ende
*book - The Last Samurai - Helen Dewitt
*book - Oscar and Lucinda - Peter Carey
* movie - Ninotchka - Garbo
* book - Hotel New Hampshire - Irving

Thanks for a super interesting blog,
best wishes, Anita

Jan Morrison said...

three years later...I came upon your site awhile back and Miriam Forrester teased me back with your structure cheat sheet. I've been using it to write a synopsis for my manuscript, True. I have found it incrediably helpful, and so, in the way of doing things backwards, I am going over all your posts on writing a novel or screenplay. I found an old notebook - would love to have bought a new one but we are having a 'storm day' in Nova Scotia, thus, I got to stay home and work on my query package. I assembled a master list:
Great Village - Mary Rose Donnelly
State of Wonder - Ann Patchet
The Waterfall- Margaret Drabble
Remains of the Day -Kazuo Ishiguro
The Diviners - Margaret Lawrence
February - Lisa Moore
Wreath for an Enemy - Pamela Frankau
What They Wanted - Donna Morrisey
Five Easy Pieces - Carole Eastman
Wizard of Oz - Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf (among others)

I'm going to think why I chose them and then look in greater detail at the structure of each to help me in my final revision. Yep, I thought I'd finished but your cheat sheet pulled me back into the revision. Thank you!

El Raymundo said...

Another latecomer to the blog - but I'm reading as much as I can get my hands on and learning, learning, learning. You, Alexandra, are a godsend. :)

Here are the first ten books that came to mind. I have no idea what they all have in common, mainly for two reasons: 1) I haven't pondered the list yet and 2) I suck at that sort of thing.

The good news is that I have nowhere to go but up.

1. Lord of the Rings
2. For Whom The Bell Tolls
3. To Kill A Mockingbird
4. Catch-22
5. Invisible Man
6. War And Peace
7. The Power Of One
8. Slaughterhouse-Five
9. On The Road
10. Middlesex

All comment welcome. :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jan, I don't know whether to apologize or say, "You're welcome", but with a list like that I have no doubt that any revisions you do will be literary and stellar! Good luck!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

El Raymundo, welcome to the blog! This one is up to you. Only you can say what the stories on that list have in common for you - but this exercise is really key to discovering your own themes and tastes in writing, so I really hope you'll do it!

El Raymundo said...

Thanks for the warm welcome, Alexandra. I do plan to work through my list and see what exactly those books have in common. I also bought your two workbooks and am excited to dig into them this weekend. I have to do something different than what I have been doing, because currently nothing is getting done! I'm sure we've all been there. :)

BTW, the "Elements of Act Three, Part 2" link is broken on the "Screenwriting Tricks For Authors: Table of Contents" page ( Just thought I'd do you a solid and let you know. :)

Thanks for being awesome.