Believing in Fairy Tales

By Virginia Parker Staat

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” ~ Neil Gaiman

I suppose some may consider it an odd place for a nonfiction writer to begin, but for me, the fairy tale structure is the one I use most frequently. Fairy tales use a narrative structure, which lends itself well to nonfiction. I’m not talking about fairy tale formula. I can’t recall a single piece of nonfiction that includes magic beans or a pumpkin turning into a carriage. Rather, a fairy tale narrative structure uses specific building blocks to tell a story. This narrative structure determines how our plot is unveiled to our readers. 

The fairy tale narrative structure encompasses three distinct parts. Fairy tales begin with a confrontation, some problem that must be resolved, or some violation that leads to a fall. In literary terms, this is called an inciting incident. 

The inciting incident is the most critical aspect in the fairy tale’s narrative structure. We can each recall our favorite fairy tale and its inciting incident. The Ugly Duckling’s inciting incident begins when his egg rolls into a duck’s nest. Pinocchio’s begins when a toymaker creates a wooden puppet and wishes it to life. Snow White’s begins when her beauty surpasses that of her wicked stepmother. These inciting incidents quickly thrust our protagonist into the main action of the story. They provide a sense of urgency and make the story interesting. They hook our readers.

The need to hook our readers is also applicable in nonfiction. J.S. Lenore writes, “A story that goes nowhere is pretty dull. Even simple fairy tales like The Three Little Pigs or Little Red Ridinghood [sic] move forward in a predictable, understandable way. Complex stories follow this same progression, with Shakespearean plays serving as a good example. This narrative structure is critical to understanding how and why stories work, and how to improve your own storytelling skills.” She continues, “By understanding structure and conflict, you can get the bones of your story together.”

Creative nonfiction writer Lee Gutkind explains the importance of the inciting incident when writing personal memoirs. In his book, You Can’t Make this Stuff Up, he writes, “The stronger the scene and the faster you involve readers in the scene, the more successful you’ll be. So when writing a scene, think about thrusting your reader into the heat of the action as quickly as possible. Action comes before place and characters.” 

Examples of inciting incidents in nonfiction writing abound. Sy Montgomery begins his biography of Temple Grandin with an inciting incident describing her autism. Rebecca Skoot’s essay on the growing need for pet-fish veterinarians begins Fixing Nemo with surgery on a goldfish. A history book may begin with a spy’s betrayal; a scientific discovery article may begin with a child’s battle with a deadly disease; an essay about the dangers of pesticides may begin with an endangered animal’s plight. These inciting incidents provide the trajectory that ties our readers to the core value of our story.

The second or middle portion of the fairy tale’s narrative structure weaves the reader through trials and lessons or the changes and transformation the protagonist must endure in order to overcome the inciting incident. The focus of this middle section of the fairy tale structure is to create the tension necessary to resolve the issue and lead readers to the story’s climax. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim writes that the most important idea in fairy tales is that we see ourselves in their pages. They educate us, support, and help us sort through emotions. These are the driving goals for the middle portion of our nonfiction stories also. In essence we want our readers to see themselves within the pages and lead them to a greater understanding of our subject matter.

The conclusion of a fairy tale’s narrative structure contains the story’s resolution, usually with the protagonist achieving or surmounting the goal introduced in the inciting incident. The story rises to a climax, most often with a single defining choice or challenge that determines the outcome. The ending focuses on the protagonist and his or her transformation or redemption. Fairy tales are known to hit a crescendo and resolve quickly: The ugly duckling discovers he is a swan. Pinocchio turns into a real boy. The wicked witch is dead. End of story. They live happily ever after.

Offering readers a sense of transformation is also compelling in nonfiction. Jill Swenson writes, “Plot is the sequence of events. Story is the consequence. One thing should lead to another. A memoir is more than a string of vignettes. History is more than a chronicle of chronological events. Scientific inquiry is not merely a series of loosely related experiments. Across the vertical access of fictio time, from the first page to the last, the reader should feel movement, change, transformation; at least in comprehension of the subject matter.”Our job as writers is to find the components that build upon our story’s plot. We begin our narrative with an inciting incident that ties our readers to the core value of our story. We weave our readers through trials and lessons. We rise to a climax for the challenge at hand that leads to resolution. This, in essence, is the fairy tale narrative structure. It hooks our readers, leads them to discovery, and ultimately transforms their thinking. Isn’t that any writer’s goal?