Sunday, April 21

Twelve Dancing Princesses and Too Many Girls

I first was going to address this exercise as three answers to one question, but each answer deserves its own essay. (Plus, we are experiencing technical difficulties here at the hidden hut...) So, for today, just the ladies...

If you attacked “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” from a girl's point-of-view, you face the immediate problem of “Which girl?” Eldest sister? Youngest? Since the eldest is the one who marries, she's the most likely candidate. We'll call her Donna.* Reading this as a youngster, I always identified more with the youngest sister, who gave warnings no one heeded. We'll call her Cassandra.** You could do either, but the objective is to keep the POV in just one head.

Hope you chose wisely. 

In writerly circles, much is made of a character's GMC. Sadly, this isn't a car. It's short for “Goals, Motivations, and Conflict.” The idea being that each character has goals (or needs them), is motivated by something (externally or internally), and struggles with a conflict (which must be resolved). I'm not crazy about using this from a writer's perspective, but it is useful from a reader's perspective. (Why don't I like it for writers? Because in my limited experience, it leads to cardboard characters. I like my people on the page to move freely, and that requires more than this checklist.) Whether you're seeing through Donna's eyes, or Cassandra, it should be clear in the writing what her goals, motivations, and conflict are.

For Cassandra, these are easier. She wants to have a good time (she exhibits considerably less rebellion than, say, Donna)—check, Goal. She is prodded by her sister to “get with the program” (external prodding, rather than her own internal compass)—check, Motivations. She tells her sisters the truth, and they don't believe her (the classic “I told you so” mantra)—check Conflict. This doesn't make her interesting, though. If you wrote from her perspective, I expect she had memories and relationships and personal desires that conflicted with her sisters' plans for a night out.

For Donna, your choices would take her down a different path. Since the end result of the story is her marriage to the soldier-of-fortune, it is tempting to make this more of a romance than a straight forward adventure. But to wind up “happily ever after” with someone she has been plotting to kill, this creates some conflict for the writer. Not for the reader—because, let's face it, she deserves to wind up with someone who can outsmart her. But from a writer's perspective, trying to get inside Donna's head, it is important to see the events of the story through her eyes. Without the benefits of foreknowledge or omniscience.

Donna's goals? To get out of the house! (Honestly, if you had eleven younger sisters, and none of you were married, the chafing to run your own home would be burning by now.) If she can't get married, she'll get jiggy with it.

Donna's motivations? Here, you must decide on rebellion, boredom, or anger. Each primary emotion would fuel a different line of thought, a difference course of action. If you chose another primary emotion, do make it real for the reader.

Donna's conflict? Whether tis nobler to stay a child in her father's house, or accept one of the fools who take up his offer to solve the riddle. Of all the princesses in this tale, she is the one with the power to end the shenanigans. And she never does. Up until the bitter end, she takes the girls out every night. Why? She clearly wasn't overly attached to any of the fellows she and her sisters partied with every night.

These questions and answers don't address every aspect of how to rewrite this story from a lone female POV. But, in addressing the chosen narrator's feelings, decisions, and actions with her GMC in mind, the story should take on a little more drama.

Shelley Duval's Faerie Tale Theatre took a condensed version of the story, available here:

Much more recently, Mattel's Barbie rewrote the story with affectionate sisters, a stepmother, and a legitimized reason for the dancing:

Next time, Daddy dearest will take center stage...

* Why Donna? “Prima Donna” is Italian for “first woman,” and is often used to either describe a principal character or a diva who demands a spotlight at all times.

**Why Cassandra? In Greek mythology, the god Apollo gave Cassandra foreknowledge in exchange for her favors. When she did not give him her love in return, he cursed her to never be believed when she prophesied.  

Monday, April 8

Twelve Dancing Princesses and...

Oh, my good Lord! Where are my manners? To talk about fairy tales and archetypes and various aspects of the writing craft—like plot or backstory—and then NOT mention point-of-view. What was I thinking?

So sorry. On to a proper story...

Part of the wonder of a fairy tale—whether it is oral or written—is in the perspective of the narrator. Rarely is the audience given the impression that a key member of the cast is the one telling the story. This allows the narrator to freely move from place to place, from character to character, without disrupting the framework of the tale. In “Snow White,” for example, we pay a few visits to the Evil Queen's private chambers to see her with the mirror, the huntsman, and the witchcraft—even though Snow White never stops being our protagonist.

Now, not all fairy tales bounce between the good guys and the bad guys. “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is one of many stories that follow the fairy tale recipe of opening with the problem, then following the hero (or heroine) as he (or she) solves the problem. In modern story-telling, this technique is frowned upon, because writers are encouraged to be consistent in their point-of-view. (Unless they have a well-established fan base, as many a beginning author may complain.) To begin with a clear, consistent pattern of following the actions and thoughts of one (or a select few) character. Omniscient point-of-view has fallen very much by the wayside these days.

Not always a bad thing. But sometimes limiting, especially for fairy tales.

To pick apart point-of-view, there are any number of stories we could be using. What works about “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in this case is how the story teller keeps secrets from the reader. We uncover the mystery and see its resolution in time with the soldier of fortune hero. Not in time with the angry princesses' reactions, or the king's desperation. And, we have the added bonus of seeing the characters' actions, not their thoughts.

Before I delve into point-of-view, its uses, its powers, and its limitations, you might take a little time to examine this story. How might you tell the story differently if you could only choose one point-of-view? Try once through the soldier of fortune's eyes, once through at least one of the princesses', and once through the king's. A different perspective might force you to restructure the story, so don't be afraid to move events around or create extra ones as needed. A different point-of-view, after all, means working with a different set of information. What's in the omniscient point-of-view is only one version of the truth...

Best of luck! 

Tuesday, October 16

The Devil, Three Golden Hairs, and Some Just Desserts

The great question, when writing one of these, is how much do I assume you've read of the story in question? If I assume none, then I have to rehash the plot. Which bores some people (like me). If I assume all, then I completely skip the plot and trust you to zip ahead with me. Which frustrates some people (who need the structure of the plot). Here's to hoping for a happy medium...

As I mentioned in the last post, the ending of this story is astonishingly satisfying. To get there, however, we do have to trudge the path of the plot's build-up and resolution. Why? Because we, the readers, are in on the dramatic irony of the story. (This means that the reader has more information than the characters.) Often used in omniscient storytelling, dramatic irony gives the reader insight or feelings that the characters themselves lack. In this case, we build up a particular set of feelings towards the king. 

As the antagonist of the story, it is hardly surprising that the king inserts himself early in the story. And tried to kill a helpless baby. Honestly, who's going to love the king after that? In an astonishing show of grace (or fate), the babe survives and grows up to be an admirable young man. Fun, hard-working, lovable, and outgoing, our hero is destined for great things. (Thanks to dramatic irony, we knows of the midwife's prophecy about the child, which only one other character knows about.) 

When the king returns and sets up the hero to be executed, we're already primed to hate the king for this. It is no hardship to cheer the boy and his unexpected friends and helpers along the way, but the king's long shadow hovers over the story. Whatever will become of a good boy who is hunted by such a ruthless jerk? 

The boy then goes on his adventure through the forest, once again propelled by the king who wants to kill him. On the one hand, shouldn't the king get the message that this boy cannot be murdered by indirect means? On the other, however, is our hero going to have to arrange for his own father-in-law's death? Let's hope not...

In the end, however, it is the surprising twist of how the hero handles the king that we find so satisfying. We like that he doesn't stoop to killing the king. We like that he is never faced with the truth of how many times the king tried to do away with him. We like that the king, instead, is punished by his own actions. The boy has only to make good use of the king's greed. 

Parts of this story are found in a lot of modern stories. Especially ones written with boys in mind for an audience. The appeal of outsmarting a devious opponent is universal. Jeffery Archer does it in books like A Matter of Honor or Honor Among Thieves, surprising his readers continually with good, loyal characters who beat the bad buys at their own games. Some modern authors beat the bad guys by destroying the game. Break the rules so badly that the game can never be played again, or kill the one character who makes the game work. (Hunger Games, Matrix trilogy, need I go on?) But as a good writer, how can you get your character out of this bad situation with some good character still intact? Killing a wicked character can feel good, but it's fleeting when compared to a story where good didn't just survive. Good triumphed. 

But that's a story for another day...

Wednesday, May 9

The Devil, Three Golden Hairs, and...

Twice this week I’ve written the same entry on "Jack and the Beanstalk", only to have my computer eat it before I could save it. It will write itself again. Mentioning devils who still live with their mothers last week kind of behooves me to dig into that story this week.
“The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs” is another fairy-tale-less-traveled that I love. The rhythm lends itself to telling aloud—preferably around a smoky fire with a bunch of snickering friends—and the plot takes some nice, unexpected turns. The archetypes in this one are different from what is usually found in fairy tales. This is almost another “soldier of fortune” fairy tale—but the youth of our hero fudges that line. There are actually several similar Russian fairy tales (a culture, like the Celts, with murky ties to age), but the German one is the most appropriate for this week.
Unlikely though it might seem if you’ve never read this story before, many of the motifs are common denominators in modern fiction. Aside from it being an entirely likeable story with easily drawn characters, the story has certain values that are universal.
Given your background, you might find rooting for the underdog the most familiar. Or the rags-to-riches aspect. What I’ll be focusing on this week is why most readers find the ending so satisfying.
What do you think…?

Wednesday, May 2

On Returning and Indexing...

Oh, I give up! Weeks I spend, wrestling with this fascinating, nascent concept offered by Hansel and Gretel—because it’s been hovering over my head for a good two months—and it won’t come. The $*&# thing refuses to be written. I have notes I’ll come back to, but I’ve had more than enough of that.
We’ll resume regularly scheduled fairy tales next week. Before we go further, I’d like to cover the Aarne-Thompson system with you a little. It’s a helpful tool, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be confusing.
Of all the folk tales in all the world, some of them are very similar. Some have nothing in common, but the whole point of labeling something a “fairy tale” (see the Genres page for additional context) is that it connects to the human soul. A fairy tale (or folk tale) contains clues about the values and character traits of a culture. Not necessarily religious beliefs—as some fairy tales incorporate culturally “lost” elements, such as fairy godmothers or devils who still live with their mothers. (Yes, really. One of my favorites. Coming soon...)
People will often complain that “all fairy tales are alike.” It’s where we get phrases like “fairy-tale endings” and “happily ever after.” But these stories aren’t all the same. We’ve seen stories about very young people, and very old people. Characters who change and characters who don’t. Or won’t. And while Red Riding Hood has very little in common with Cinderella, but readers all know a “damsel in distress” when they come across one in stories.
These things in common are called “motifs”—meaning patterns. In folk tales, motifs are events or actions by a particular character that make a recognizable design. All of the parts of a fairy tale don’t have to be the same, but when certain scripts show up, labels are easy to apply.
Cinderella is an unbelievably popular tale, but Snow White is a more interesting example here. A couple variations are stashed in the Summaries page. In both the German Snow White and the Scottish Silver-Tree, there is a “mother figure” out to kill our heroine, an escape to a place where the princess is loved, a glass box in which the “dead girl” is hidden, and a miraculous recovery facilitated by a third-party woman. Oh, and a prince whose love for our girl knows neither time nor reason. There are even a couple Italian versions I have not included, all with the same motifs. (The two Italian versions, one is very complicated and the other is very distressing. The latter also has certain motifs in common with “The Goose Girl.”)
Antti Aarne, and later Stith Thompson, developed this index which tracks the patterns of a story. Their studies focused primarily on Northern European and Western Asian stories, but not exclusively. In recent years, a scholar named Hans-Jörg Uther has adapted the indexing system so it can be expanded to include new material, but this has not taken universal hold.
The Aarne-Thompson classification system is designed a little like the Dewey Decimal System in American libraries. Big categories are grouped by the hundreds, then more detailed motifs are subdivided in each category until each story has its own unique number. The Persecuted Heroine, for example, is labeled “510A”—this story is also known as the Cinderella archetype. Supernatural helpers, like fairy godmothers or magic sticks (from “Katie Wooden-cloak”), are the 500 category, and a girl who needs supernatural help is the 10 of 510. “A” and “B” are further subdivisions—510B is a category of stories where good girls are escaping from abnormal circumstances. Animals stories have their own category. So do ogres.
Like any indexing system, it’s not perfect. But it’s still a very useful tool when exploring how to study or think about a fairy tale.
What are some “modern fairy tales” that have motifs from older fairy tales? Can you think of recent stories where the pattern of a particular fairy tale was disrupted to make the story different? How effective were the changes?

Thursday, April 5

The White Snake and Some Personal History

Where last we left our heroine, we hadn’t met her yet. We were marching to the beat of a different drummer, walking beside a man we’d all met before. He was capable, resourceful, and looking for a place to lay his loyalty. This man can be found in a wide range of genres, appealing to almost every demographic. Except, perhaps, young children.
You have to learn a little bit about loyalty and its value before you can read about its loss.
A soldier of fortune could also be called a mercenary, but this has negative connotations. When you say “merc”, people think of pirates and Hessians and lots of sadly failed coups across the world. Rightly so. But a soldier of fortune has left that business. For whatever wonderful reason, the human mind is more forgiving of and receptive to someone who is looking for a new start in life.
Point number one in favor of “The White Snake”—it’s about a former servant. Servant, farmer, soldier—the man who wants his new life has already had one. Unlike fairy tales about younger sons (a topic for another story, surely), soldier of fortune stories are about men with pasts. Grown-ups. They may not mature or change on the page, but their previous experience tempers their reactions to the fairy tale’s adventures.
Point number two is that this IS a new life. This story isn’t a young prince looking for a new kingdom to take over. Instead, we read about someone whose old life doesn’t necessarily fit with his new ambitions. Some of his old skill set may apply—attention to detail, responsibility, his well-honed ability to delegate—but new aptitudes and talents must be uncovered. Or our hero will die.
Nice and melodramatic, that.
Point number three is this soldier of fortune’s commitment to his new quest. While he comes with a past, it isn’t a past that ties him down. Having served faithfully before, he is now free to commit himself wholeheartedly and with full knowledge of what he’s doing. He might not have every answer for every situation, but he isn’t a man who will abandon his honor.
When we take a look at other soldier of fortune stories, there will be other aspects to ponder. These three from “The White Snake” are relevant because of how often we see echoes of them in modern stories. Heroes, looking for homes. Champions, in search of a cause. And (to paraphrase the immortal Jane Austen) husbands, in want of wives.
These soldiers of fortune are men with pasts, but these pasts fuel their drive to find a future.
As writers, we can get so wrapped around a character’s backstory that it takes up more of the tale than the actual adventure. In “The White Snake,” the servant’s quest to become a king and a husband is the latter third of the tale. Not the bulk of it. One of the side benefits of oral stories—plenty of time to soften the audience’s sympathies toward a favorite character.
The problem of backstory, illustrated with this fairy tale, is one of determining your goal for the story. Because the servant’s history before the kingdom contest is so much of the story, all the author has room for is the conclusion of the quest. We’ll see other soldier of fortune stories where backstory is not provided, and as such the reader can devote much more emotional energy to the “happily ever after” of the characters. Countless how-to books will tell young authors when and how much backstory should be applied, but you must consider the weight of it. If there is so much of it and it is so essential, as in this case, perhaps the story should be more about the backstory than the final quest.
M.M. Kaye, who I mentioned in an earlier post, grew up to write a few other novels. One of which (a personal favorite) starts with five chapters of backstory on one character. Then anywhere between a paragraph and three pages of backstory for each character she introduces. Small wonder The Shadow of the Moon weighs so much. And yes, she does have soldiers of fortune in her stories. Margaret Mitchell, who wrote in a similar vein a generation prior, didn’t dwell as much on the character’s backstory in Gone With the Wind, but she does provide copious historical backstory all throughout the plot.
It’s a style that’s discouraged today, but the problem never goes away for writers. To tell, or not to tell—and how much.
But that’s a question for another day...

Monday, April 2

The White Snake and...

“Once upon a time...” there lived a fair maid. Or a pampered princess. Or an out-of-step girl. To date, every story we’ve discussed all have one thing in common: female protagonists. According to the world population—and the most likely candidate to tell a nursery story—we should not be surprised. If more than half the world’s population is female, and the author of a story MUST choose a central character, then it follows that the majority of fairy tales should star females.
Happily, they don’t always.
Some of the most interesting fairy tales are “soldier of fortune” stories. The main character is generally male, often poor or footloose, and looking for adventure. Or whatever comes his way, to quote an old 70’s song. “The White Snake” is one such tale.
Some stories, when read in their entirety (instead of the chopped-off summaries I provide), are meant to be told aloud. Again, this should make sense. Many old stories were passed down orally, by people who had neither time nor education to learn to read. To help the teller’s memory and the audience’s participation, these stories frequently have a trademark rhythm. Events, or speeches, happen repeatedly in cycles that are easy to remember and mimic.
Now, The White Snake would be memorable even without the rhythm of questions and offers. Even without any names in the story, this is a tale you could pick out of any line-up in any suspicious editor’s office. The frame of the story is not so amazingly unique that it could never be mistaken for anything else. Why, then, could the reader always identify it?
There are specific elements of the story that make it unique—if only for the order in which they happen—but more on that next time. Ponder some stories you know that feature boys (or men) who are strong, smart, and in search of a home. Can you think of a lot, or only a few? Especially in certain genres, these male characters may not be the central protagonist, though they often appear as heroes in certain female fantasy genres.
If we don’t read a lot of this kind of fairy tale, then why do we find so many soldiers of fortune in our modern stories?