This week I read Kate Bernheimer‘s essay, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale.” As you can tell from the title, Bernheimer argues that writers can learn about form by examining the structure of the classic fairy tales they already know. The essay was an interesting read, largely because it never occurred to me to look to fairy tales during my writing process. As Bernheimer points out, fairy tales are enduring stories. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the story of Rumpelstiltskin or Little Red Riding Hood. In the US at least, I think of fairy tales as universal knowledge. After all, the ABC show “Once Upon a Time” wouldn’t exist if the general public wasn’t compelled by the ways their classic fairy tales can be twisted and made new again. I have no illusions about my writing existing as long as some fairy tales, but a girl can dream.
In her essay, Bernheimer names and explains the role of form and the four elements of a fairy tale: flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic. I won’t regale you with the definitions here (read the essay!), but I think pondering the form of fairy tales is especially useful for minimalist writers. If you ever venture into magical realism (à la Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” or Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” or Harry Potter or Kafka or LoTR…), then this essay is worth reading.
A few years back I wrote a few short stories incorporating magical realism, and my biggest trouble was defining the rules of a universe where magical events are regarded as normal. I also tended to get hung up on the magic and lose the drive I had to finish the story – I could never figure out what direction the story was taking, so I’d give up and end it. I went back and read one of those stories recently and it moves along very well until the last couple pages, where the story loses all form and dies with a pitiful whimper. Yes, Reader, I need to work on my endings.
Do you see the benefit of fairy tale form applied to your own writing?