Where did this come from?


A few days ago, looking for a piece of scratch paper, I picked up a 5″ x 8″ spiral notebook from a desk in the back room. I flipped it open to some curious notes on fairytales – and I cannot remember where they came from. Not from any book I possess, nor from any lecture I remember. Did they come from a blog post? And if so, why did I take the time to jot down two pages of notes without bookmarking the post?

The words were those of a writer who said, “I am eager to show what fairytale techniques have done for my writing and what they can do for yours.”  This is curious, because most of what followed – the “four elements of traditional fairytales” that he or she discussed violate the usual advice given in writing books and seminars.  Here the four elements as I recorded them.

1) Flatness – flat characters (no psychological depth), which allows depth in the reader’s response. Eg., the child who escapes monsters does not grow up to be a neurotic adult. Also, few fairytale characters are named.

2) Abstract –  Few details given. Fairytales tell, they seldom show.

3) Intuitive logic –  “nonsensical sense”  This happened then that. Causality not shown. Events may not be connected except by narrative proximity. But inside that disconnect resides a story that enters and haunts you deeply. Details of fairytales exist apart from “plot” and are a “violation of the rule that things must make sense.” Dreamlike.

4) Normalized magic:  breaks the notion that the more realistic a story element, the more valuable.

All four of these points are accurate statements of fairytale characteristics. The idea that they hook the listener’s imagination to “fill in the blanks” may help explain why fairytales make far better oral narratives than literary fiction.

At the same time, I can’t think of any published fiction that follows such a structure, least of all modern fairytale retellings. For one thing, since the 19th century, psychologizing has been a favorite pastime for almost all lovers of folklore.

The unknown author of these notes made a few more statements I wrote down:

“Every since I was a child, I have been happiest living in the sphere of story.”  ( me too!!!)

“Trickery is the instinct to know when something is wrong.”

“I will end by saying that story is what makes us human.”

Whoever the unknown author is, you have my thanks (a second time) for your most stimulating thoughts on a genre I love!

8 thoughts on “Where did this come from?

    • I have lots of notebooks – some devoted to personal things, others to writing, etc. They are dated and more or less linear, so I can see, for instance, what I was concerned with the year my dad moved up here.

      This notebook and others like it are more like grab and go things, when I’m off to a CWC presentation for instance. There are pages from various places and times, not otherwise connected. The strange thing though, is that I usually date those and note the name of the presenter. Here, apparently, I didn’t bother to, thinking i wouldn’t forget…

      Actually, the forgetfulness will probably make it even better fodder for writing and imagination!


  1. Thanks for sharing these notes and thoughts, Morgan, so useful to have what we may instinctively know about fairytales enumerated and summarised so concisely. Aren’t these points what we like about many kids classics and classic fantasy? The unexplained magic and apparently unconnected incidents of a Sendak, for instance, that might or might not be a daydream or night dream; the talking animals whose ‘simple’ philosophising appeals so much in a Pooh story; the nightmarish antagonists in a Gaiman fantasy like “Neverwhere” whom the protagonist has to counter with contorted logic and Magical Helpers; all these tell us as much if not more about the human spirit and experience than many a ‘realistic’ or psychological novel. Thanks again for this post, Morgan, and thank you, Anonymous Commentator.


    • I like all the writers you mention for getting to places beyond convention. The difficulty is learning one’s craft and then forgetting it when appropriate.

      I remember an article in the online Wall Street journal in which ten popular authors from the past year outlined their working methods. I was intrigued by one who went out of his way to get beyond his conventional thinking. He’d rise around 4:00am and work for several hours at a computer with the type set to black but the screen set to middle gray so he couldn’t see the details of what he was doing. Then he’d send the days pages to the printer, go back for a couple more hours of sleep, and get some coffee and edit what he had written.

      Always good to remember that are conventions are just conventions and not the “only” right way!


    • Thank you & sorry I didn’t see and reply to this earlier. Clearly those points come from a common source. This is a fascinating blog I am not following. I really appreciate you digging up and sharing this link!


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