One of the wonderful aspects of fairy tales comes from their unexpectedness. When we refer to “fairy-tale endings” in the modern context, then we generally comment on how so many of the commonly known fairy tales end the same: Happily Ever After. That’s how we’ve come to understand fairy tales. It’s what we usually take away from the story. A simple, happy ending.
But in between “once upon a time...” and “...they all lived happily ever after” exists uncharted realms of possibilities. A castle, or a hovel? A prince, or a soldier? A good horse, or a bad dwarf? Forest, mountain, desert, sea? Until we start to read, we don’t know for certain.
Surely, we will find characters we know. Boys who want to grow up (or refuse to). Girls who need to be rescued. Good parents. Bad ones. Not every damsel in distress is a weak woman, and not every younger son has the sense the good lord gave him. And on very rare occasions, step-mothers are not all bad. The surprises come in the small details, it’s true, but they give us plenty to think about later.
Which is often the point.
If all the reader takes home from your story is the Happily Ever After, what do you need all the in-between stuff for?
A favorite fairy tale of mine was written as an original almost a hundred years ago. The author was twelve, though she grew up to write historical biographies and contemporary murder mysteries—and a couple historical novels for which she’s still reasonably famous. But The Ordinary Princess was her first, and extraordinarily well done. The fairies in the fairy tale don’t dominate it—they set in motion events that the characters must handle on their own. (As all good fairy tales ought.)
When Princess Amy finds herself in a chilly, lonely forest a long way from home, she summons up the fairy who blessed her with ordinariness and asks, “What shall I do for shelter?” The fairy gives the best sort of answer we can expect from a dear old curmudgeon: “Get a job, just like everybody else.”
Now, once Amy finds a job, she finds a home, and a friend, and eventually her own “fairy tale ending.” What she doesn’t find is an easy way out. That wouldn’t suit any sensible fairy. Neither is it the general intent of fairy tales. Amy isn’t saved from a life of drudgery or a wicked family—she is blessed to find someone who values her for what makes her unique. Her compassion. Her cheerfulness. Her courage. This fairy tale is less about escape and more about discovering how to live honestly.
Like Snow White (among others), Princess Amy doesn’t meet anyone worth following home until after she’s left her own home. So these fairy tale heroines have some things in common. But this time our girl interacts more with her “prince”—specifically about the small, unexpected details that make each other unique.
How many details are too many? What about unexpected twists? Is there a limit, or is it okay to have none at all?