The Evolution of Fairytales & Their Purpose

the evolution of fairytales their purpose what are fairytales forSome friends and I were discussing Disney movies, and one person mentioned that there are certain movies that she can’t stand to watch because of how Disney changed the original stories. Which made me think about the evolution of fairytales and how their purpose has changed over time.

Remember the awful things that used to happen in the old fairytales? The things that Disney left out? Why were those even there in the first place?

The Moral of the Story:
What Are Fairytales For?

If you’re like me, you grew up reading fairytales as well as watching them. You might’ve even known how they linked to fairies and superstitions, depending on which culture’s fairytales you were reading. Stories like “Snow White & Rose Red,” “The Little Match Girl,” or “Vasilisa the Beautiful.”

That’s not as common for younger generations. Many of the students in middle school or younger today don’t know any fairytales except the ones in Disney movies. And while I love Disney movies, the lessons taught are very different.

The Original Fairytales & Their Purpose

Looking back at those old fairytales, you see some common themes.

  • Horrible things happen to children who disobey the rules.
  • Good manners, beauty, and hard work are rewarded. Occasionally, brains are rewarded, too, but mostly for peasants (and it’s usually playing a trick on the aristocracy). Love is occasionally the answer, too, but not as often as modern fairytales would have you think.
  • If the main character is saved / saves the day, it’s because of bravery and the help of others (including magical creatures and tools). In fact, it’s often the result of previous behavior (the rewardable kind), which means that the main character doesn’t have to do much at the end to win. It’s got a kind of pre-ordained kind of feel.
  • The wicked are punished. And by wicked, I mean lazy people and people who betrayed their kings or duty.
  • Taboo behaviors by today’s standards are treated as normal and kind of glossed over. Like abandoning your kids in the woods and some horrible mistreatment of women. Read about one of the old versions of “Sleeping Beauty” like “Sun, Moon, and Talia” if you want a clearcut example of how values have changed.

Let me go back to the third one for a minute to say that that’s a big if. The main characters don’t always survive in the old tales. Mainly because the stories were meant to scare children into good behavior. Safe and socially acceptable behavior.

Don’t want your 5 year old wandering off in the woods and getting mauled by a boar? Tell the kid that a child-eating fairy/witch/monster lives in those woods and will steal any child wandering there alone. Want the child to stop lying? Tell him/her about the horrible creature that devours children who lie.

It’s amazing how many behaviors could be prevented by hungry monsters.

Telling lies, laziness, theft, disobedience, poverty – there were stories with morals for all of them. Whatever lesson(s) your child needed taught, there was a story for it. Or you could make one up. Because that’s what fairytales were for.

In the old days, that is.

Today’s Fairytales & Their Purpose

If you’re thinking of plopping your kids in front of a Disney movie to teach them not to do something, I would think again. Today’s versions of the old fairytales are a little different. Although they do have some common themes:

  • A child disobeys his/her parents or authority figures, and everything turns out ok. In fact, sometimes, the child’s disobedience is justified – usually because the parents were wrong (Moana for example).
  • Love, beauty, kindness, rule-breaking, cleverness, and extreme determination are rewarded. You can see how some of these grew out of the old values, which means you have to look closely sometimes to see the difference in emphasis (Is Cinderella rewarded for being obedient or being kind?).
  • The main character is saved / saves the day through bravery, cleverness, and the help of others (including magical creatures and tools).
  • The wicked are punished. Although, now, “wicked” generally means cruel and selfish as opposed to the old definition.
  • Taboo topics (of today) are taken out or glossed over. Either it’s not in there, or it’s added through innuendo for the adults.
  • Happy endings. There. I said it. It’s guaranteed. And, trust me, even the occasional bittersweet ending is happy compared to some of the original ones.

Yep. Everyone gets a happy ending, and you can do anything if you try hard enough or wish hard enough. Those are the new messages being sent. As well as the fact that parents can be wrong and that being kind is important.

Of these, I think the last one is best. The parents-can-be-wrong message is true but may not be the message parents want to send their kids (Disobey me if you think I’m wrong!), and the first two are only true in modern fairytales. In the real world, not necessarily.

So are the messages the main point today? Nope. It’s more the singing, the graphics, and the “feels” – AKA entertainment.

What Caused the Evolution of Fairytales?

Why did that happen? What made the stories change from moral lessons to entertainment? What brought on the happy endings and the value changes?

I think the value changes are easiest to explain – society’s values changed, so the values of the stories changed. Pretty simple.

As far as happy endings and the change to a purer form of entertainment, I’m guessing those had to do with the new medium (movies and animation) and with the time period they began to develop.

Like Restoration England gave Shakespearian plays happy endings in reaction to the hard times they’d just survived, the society surrounding early animation was still recovering from WWI, the Great Depression, and the wildness of Prohibition resistance. The result? The Hay’s Production Code, forbidding immoral language or behavior, and stating that explicit violence could not be shown on screen.

Well, there goes half of the endings of the traditional fairytales.

Of course, there’s more to it. Social values began to emphasize sheltering children from taboo behaviors and situations. So the more society began to see animation as a “children’s genre” in the U.S. (which it in no way is in other countries), the more this kind of white washing happened. Fairytales were censored to protect children from their “adult” content.

Ironic, right?

How could the stories keep their original purpose if the taboo behaviors they’re supposed to discourage can’t be shown or discussed? If they’re not allowed to scare or scar children? It’s simply not possible.

So the old fairytales were made more and more distant from reality, not through their magic, which changed the least, but through ideas like “happily every after” and “love conquers all.”

What Should Fairytales Be For?

What’s the moral to this story? Should we scare our children? Should we keep them entertained as we shelter them from reality? Should we read them old fairytales and discuss the moral issues involved in between watching Disney movies and pointing out the unrealistic expectations? Or should we give up on fairytales altogether?

Is there a right answer? What do you think?


5 Ways to Use Inspirational Speeches in Your Story

ways to use inspirational speeches in your storyPersuasive speeches are such a strong, traditional way to motivate people that they show up not only in life but also in books, movies, musicals, and more. Here are a handful of examples of ways to use inspirational speeches in your story.

How Persuasive Speeches Affect Plots

It may seem like an inspirational or persuasive speech has an obvious purpose, and from the speaker’s viewpoint, that may be true (Persuade so-in-so of x). Within the arc of a larger story, however, things can be a bit more complicated.

Sustaining Suspension of Disbelief

The perfect example for this use is William Shakespeare’s Henry V. Henry’s army is hungry, tired, and likely suffering from malnutrition issues like dysentery. They’re faced with overwhelming odds of better armed, better trained, and better fed/rested soldiers. They’d have to be complete and utter idiots to willingly go into that battle when faced with another option.

Yet from history, we know that they not only went into battle, they won.

As a reader or viewer, there’s a very strong question of “Why?” in that situation. And there needs to be an equally strong answer, or the fact that they stayed to fight (and die) becomes unbelievable. So you see, for Henry, the purpose of the speech may be to convince his men to fight, but for the bigger picture, the purpose of the speech is to make us believe that they would stay. That he successfully convinced them.

Either way, it has to be a phenomenal speech. Luckily, Shakespeare was up to the task.

Sustain & Entertain

A weaker version of the first option happens when the answer to “Why?” doesn’t need to be as strong. Then, the speech is only partly showing the audience that, yes, the leader convinced the rest to do x, y, or z. The other part? Well, the other part is for form – it’s there to entertain.

Parody, Comedy, & Commentary

In stories that are especially trying to be funny or that are trying to bring attention to a specific problem, the main purpose of the speech may be its similarity to another speech.

In a comedy, the similarities combine with the plot to add different levels of humor. In a commentary, the reactions to the speech and the resulting plot paint a picture of either the world the author wants or the world the author fears.

And, of course, speeches can be used in both ways at the same time.


Not to say that the others don’t include this reason, but there are times when the main purpose of the speech is characterization. Or to give Dean Martin a chance to sing. Take your pick.


Most of the time, inspiring speeches happen towards the end – right before or even during the climax. On rare occasions, however, it comes close to the start of the story. For example, it could be

  • said by a small faction who play a very small role in the plot (like a group of crazies that everyone pretty much ignores). In this case, it’s usually a speech about something that no one else really cares about that happens to provide details on the setting and social situation.
  • given by the losing side of a conflict that happens before this particular story starts (like the first episode of Firefly, for example)
  • spoken by a side character, but the focus is on the main character’s reaction to it

And so on.

Here’s an example that not only provides exposition but also works as a part of the inciting incident – both through it’s delivery system and message.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go watch Star Wars Episodes IV-VI again. Have fun using inspirational speeches in stories!

Should Lyrics Be Universal or Specific?

should lyrics be universal lyrics specific lyricsHave you seen Moana? Several of my family members have, and we ended up discussing a contradiction we encountered with the music – the music is catchy, but the lyrics aren’t or aren’t as catchy as the music. Mostly because they’re so specific to the story. But is that really a problem? When should lyrics be universal or specific?

The Pros & Cons of Story-specific Lyrics

Like many of my random, babble-analysis, I’m gonna have to define a few things. Not because you don’t know what they are but because my definition might be different and cause mad confusion. Or because I’m anal retentive. Take your pick.

Specific Lyrics v. Universal Lyrics

When I talk about specific lyrics versus universal lyrics, I’m talking about how well the song stands up taken outside the story. For example, many of Stephen Sondheim’s songs can be taken entirely out of context and still be beautiful songs. In fact, many of them are more beautiful separated from the story because the story is rather dark, and without it, the songs have a new, less disturbing meanings.

Here are some lyrics from “Unworthy of Your Love.”

I am nothing.
You are wind and water and sky,
Jodie. Tell me, Jodie, how I
Can earn your love.

The melody is sweetly lyrical. Put the music and lyrics together, and you have a sweet, pretty love song. You hear it and know that Charles and Jodie are singing about their unrequited love for each other. Bittersweet but beautiful.

That is, until you realize that it’s about two people who tried to assassinate different presidents singing their separate loves to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson (It’s from Assassins.). Not so sweet and pretty in that context, is it?

In that song, the only two words that are specific to its context and story are “Jodie” and “Charlie.” The rest are metaphorical, figurative expressions of love and feelings of unworthiness, which is what makes the song work outside of that context.

On the other hand, Sondheim’s “The Worst Pies in London” can’t really be taken out of context. It tells that it’s about a pie maker in London who makes awful pies because of a meat shortage. That’s what I mean by story-specific lyrics.

Think of it as explicit versus implicit. Story-specific lyrics are explicit: the story is stated clearly in the song. Universal lyrics are implicit: the story is implied in the song through more big-idea words and imagery.

Why Pick Universal over Specific Lyrics?

Because you can sell it to more people. There. I said it.

Ok, ok. Greedy capitalism aside, universal lyrics do have the potential to appeal to more people simply because they make sense out of context with the story. If you’re trying to spread a message or simply share your art with as many people as possible, universal lyrics might be more your cup of tea.

Why Pick Specific over Universal Lyrics?

If your main goal is advancing the story, vague details may not cut it. Especially if the character is having a major epiphany or making an important decision in the song. You can try to portray that through universal lyrics, but if you can’t, are you going to sacrifice the strength of the story for a single song? I’m guessing not. (I hope not.)

Which Lyric Style Is Best?

Assuming that you’re using the song in a story, the best option (IMHO) is to do a nice mix. If you can make it a little stronger on the universal side without sacrificing any plot strength, then, that’s great.

Compare Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go” to Frozen‘s “Let It Go.” “How Far I’ll Go” weaves from specific to universal and back again. Sections of it are very compelling and can be taken outside the story. Other sections don’t make a lot of sense outside of the story. And the universal ones tend to be catchier (so meter and rhyme might be involved, too).

“Let It Go,” on the other hand, uses lyrics that support the story but can also stand on their own out of context. To me, that makes its lyrics more impressive. Don’t get me wrong – “How Far I’ll Go” is a catchy song, but the island-specific imagery and language aren’t as catchy as the melody. At least, that’s the best reasoning I can think of.

What do you think? Am I totally off-base? Should lyrics be universal? Or should they be specific? Does it matter at all?

Blogs versus Books: A Battle of Motivation

BLOG: Have you finished the posts for this week yet?
WRITER: Ummm, no. I was just going to-
BLOG:-Then, you better get on that. We have a strict posting schedule to keep up.
BOOK: [Coughs] Excuse me. I believe I was guaranteed at least an hour of undivided attention each day.
WRITER: Yes. That is-
BLOG: What are you talking about? We got people waiting for these articles.
BOOK: Yes, but your whole purpose is to suppliment me. You can’t possibly think you take priority.
BLOG: Will anyone but us know he skipped a day with you? No. You want people to keep coming to a site, you need new stuff. You can have your turn once he’s finished a week of posts.
BOOK: Do those people pay for those posts? No. If he wants to make this a business, he needs something sellable. You’re nothing but a false high. Good for a 24 hour’s worth of likes and gone the next day.
BLOG: [Simultaneously] Listen, buddy-
BOOK: [Simultaneously] Tell this cretin-
WRITER: -Enough! You’re both right. But I just… I don’t…
[The writer collapses into the fetal position, rocking and muttering about needing more hours in the day. Blog and Book exchange incredulous glances, then, resume their argument over the shaking writer as the scene fades to black.]

Ok. Yes, that’s a bit overly dramatic. But there’s a lot of truth to it. The more projects you start as a writer, the more decisions you have to make about workload and which project gets priority (*cough* time management *cough*). If some of those projects are blogs, and some are books (or other not-yet-published works), then those decisions can be harder.

Blogs projects can be seductive because they have something that unpublished works don’t: feedback. People comment. People like your work. You can see instantly if someone visits your page or clicks on an article. That’s addictive! Someone likes it! Someone’s reading! I should post more to that and get more attention! It feeds the pleasure center of the brain and makes us want more of those responses.

Unless you’re posting them on your blog, books don’t have that. The only feedback you get from books is your own and that of any writing circle you take it to (maybe friends or family if you ask). For the most part, writing a book is a solo task, and it requires a ton of self-motivation. There are no clicks or likes to keep you going. The most you’ll probably get is progress, a feeling of accomplishment, or pleasure in how the story is taking shape.

Next to the excitement of blog feedback, that’s a bit weak. It lacks immediacy. With blogs, there is an impression of needing to do it on that schedule. Needing to post and keep up with it because there are other people besides yourself waiting for those words. Unless you have a publisher’s deadline, that’s not true of a book.

The only problem with that is that unless you’re making money off the blog, progress on the book is actually more important. And missing a blog post is less important than it seems. Is anyone really going to notice if you miss one? Probably not. As long as you’re keeping up with it fairly regularly, it won’t really affect your traffic either – again, unless you make your living off the blog.

But guess what? If you make your living off the blog, it’d be a higher priority than the book anyway, right? (If you think about it…)

So, as addictive as that blog interaction is, be wary of letting it seduce you into throwing aside all your priorities. You can check your stats every few hours instead of every few minutes. You can even work on the book first before writing your blog posts for the week.

(Just don’t tell Blog I said that, ok?)

Why Authors Should Think Twice About Voicing Their Own Audio Books

Not everyone listens to audio books, so not everyone realizes how important it is to have a good voice actor or actress to do the recording. I will be the first to admit that I am pretty picky when it comes to voice acting in general (don’t get me started on bad dubbing); however, audio books don’t have animation to make the audience forgive the voice acting. They don’t have cool props, fancy effects, or a big cast of actors. All the audience gets is one reader’s voice (maybe a little background music when chapters switch). That’s why the audio book reader is at least as important as the story – maybe more so.

If you thought hooking a reader with the first paragraph was hard, think about how hard it is when someone else is reading that first paragraph to them. I have seen audio books rejected that quickly – and that is the unadorned truth. Many people I know only listen to audio books when driving. Before a long drive, they’ll get 5-10 audio books out of the library that they haven’t heard. Some of those books don’t last more than a few sentences before they’re rejected and tossed into the back seat. Because there is little worse than sitting locked in a vehicle with bad acting.

Have you ever heard someone butcher a great story by telling it so badly that no one laughed? (If you’ve seen Firefly, Simon telling a story comes to mind.) Delivery, timing, inflection, character diversity, and believability – voice acting is more than reading words out loud.

It’s one of those things that looks easy until you try it, and unfortunately, listening to mediocre voice acting is like being stuck in a movie theatre watching a film that used all its good moments in the trailer. That’s why I would be very cautious about doing the voice work for your own audio books. For the love of Pete, at least do a chapter sample first and get a couple unbiased opinions. The last thing you want to do is ruin someone’s impression of your story (a story you worked really hard on) just to save some money on voice acting.

Believe me, a good voice actor or actress is worth the price. A good voice actress can make a mediocre book enjoyable. A bad voice actress can make a great book torturous. I know people who browse audio books by the reader rather than the authors: they’re more likely to try a new book if it’s by a reader they’ve heard and liked. If you can’t find one that good, at least make sure that the voice acting isn’t so bad it’ll chase readers away – even if that means you don’t read it yourself.

How Doubling Can Add Irony & Change Meaning

I wasn’t going to talk about the other use for doubling (it’s even less about playwriting and more about interpretation – and the fierceness of some of the online arguments is kind of scary), but I think the idea of the technique is interesting.

Sometimes, doubling is used to change the meaning of a play, or it can be written into the play deliberately to affect the meaning. This can be used to add dramatic irony to scenes (for example, if Character A makes fun of Character B, it’s ironic if Sue plays both roles, and audience knows.). It can also emphasize similarities/differences between characters, and, especially in more serious works, it can change nuances of motivation and character interaction.

The most intriguing example of the change in meaning that I have seen is double-casting King Hamlet and Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Apparently, this has been done fairly regularly over the years, but the first time I saw it was in Gregory Doran’s version of Hamlet with Patrick Stewart and David Tennant. In this production, Patrick Stewart played both King Hamlet (the Ghost) and King Claudius (his murderous brother).

(At this point, I ask that you set aside your feelings about whether that particular interpretation of Shakespeare is justified so that we can consider it as a writing technique. If you want to argue about it, I suggest you try another site like the Shakespeare Geek.)

Now, take that doubling choice, and think about the level of complication that simple act of doubling adds to the play. Look at the nuances of characterization through relationships and motivation. In many ways, it complicates an already complex situation and makes foul deeds somehow more twisted and sick.

By having the same actor play both parts, you make them identical twins. That means that not only did Claudius kill his brother, he killed his twin. Not only did Gertrude marry her brother-in-law, she married her husband’s twin. Not only was Hamlet supposed to kill his uncle, he was supposed to kill a man who looked exactly like his father. The subtleties of lines shift. Character motivation changes. Scenes can have a totally different feel.

All because of 1 doubling choice.

Regardless of whether you’re in favor of this particular example or not, the technique clearly has the power to influence meaning. As a director, it might be interesting to look at different plays and consider how doubling could change them. But what about as a playwright?

To be perfectly frank, writing that sort of opportunity in deliberately could be very hard. It’s easier to design doubling with meaning in comedies (because it’s more about timing and irony than depth). It’s definitely easier to find doubling opportunities in something that’s already written. But I’m still throwing the idea out there because the result could be extraordinary if you succeeded. If one of you out there can write in that depth of doubling, I want to see it.

Anyone up for a challenge?

Double Your Character List with Doubling

Technically, I suppose that doubling (or double-casting) isn’t a playwriting technique: it’s more a casting/directing technique. On the other hand, if your story requires a decent number of characters (especially bit parts), it can sure help to keep doubling in mind when you’re writing the play.

Doubling: when the same actor or actress plays multiple parts in the same performance

For the most part, doubling is used for background characters (waitresses, clerks, people walking by, etc.). Legally Blonde: The Musical is an extremely good example of this kind of doubling. If you watch closely, you can follow specific actresses and actors through a variety of roles (most background characters play at least three roles, and even the actress who plays Vivian has a smaller role before that character is introduced).

If you want a big character list on a tight budget, doubling can help. In fact, as far back as Shakespearian times (possibly earlier), small troupes have used doubling to perform plays with more characters than they had actors – or more actors than they could afford.

Can’t afford another actor? No problem! Have Bob play two parts.

Think about it: yes, you still need two costumes, but you only have to pay 1 actor. That makes your play easier to perform, which makes people more likely to perform it. As a playwright, all you have to do is to make sure that certain characters aren’t written into the same scenes. If two characters are onstage at the same time, those roles can’t be doubled (unless you have a really creative director… The Flying Karamazov Brothers did manage it).

In any case, doubling is an opportunity that’s easily overlooked when you’re writing (that’s the director’s problem, right?). You may not always want to use it. You may use it all the time – it’s hard to say.

But if doubling really works for the play, wouldn’t you rather think of it as you’re writing instead of having to go back to make it work later?

Breaking the Fourth Wall on Page, Stage, & Screen

The term “breaking the 4th wall” started with theatre and the concept that the stage was a room with an invisible wall that the audience peeked through to see into the characters’ lives. A character could break the 4th wall by talking to the audience directly, making eye contact with them, or otherwise mentioning that he or she was part of a play.

Despite its origin on the stage, the 4th wall can be used and broken in just about any format of a story (Warning: spoilers).

On Page

The book's better. Just sayin'.

The book’s better. Just sayin’.

Yes, books can break the 4th wall, especially books with narrators (after all, that’s the narrator’s job). For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit breaks the 4th wall when the narrator talks directly to the audience – for example, right after Bilbo eavesdrops on the trolls: “Yes, I am afraid trolls do behave like that.” This is a commentary to the audience directly, which breaks the 4th wall. In fact, there is a period of literature where this style of narrative conversation is extremely common (including authors such as C.S. Lewis and E. Nesbit).

Charles Dickens often used s similar device. A Christmas Carol starts by breaking this wall to explain that Dickens doesn’t really understand the simile “dead as a doornail,” but he’s going to use it anyway.

“Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

Stephen King uses this device blatantly in his Dark Tower series with a kind of authorial narrator. This series also has a graphic novel version, which seems appropriate since graphic novels and comics often use this technique. Most often, the narrator does it, but Deadpool’s pretty famous for doing this himself.

Can't ya read?

Srsly, dude? Just google it.

Books without narrators can also have a character make a comment about being fictional, being in a book, being watched, etc. Terry Pratchett and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, are somewhat known for this, but it can happen in any style of book. In fact, even children’s books are known to break the 4th wall. A perfect example of this is The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone (a personal favorite). Continue reading

Video Recommendation: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

While I’m on a Shakespeare kick, if any of you haven’t seen The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), it is well worth watching if you enjoy Vaudevillian humor. The three men of the Reduced Shakespeare Company perform all the works of Shakespeare in a single performance. That calls for some witty re-writes that are enjoyable for the less-knowledgable and have plenty of inside jokes for people familiar with a broader range of plays. In the more extended pieces, they do actually use many of the most famous lines, as well.

From a writing perspective, it is interesting to study how they took classic plays and reworked them together into a completely new piece. The buildup of the jokes and the layers of meaning make for interesting models for how a modern live performance can employ older subjects and styles.

And, of course, it’s nicely silly and extremely ridiculous if you like that sort of thing.

The Drama of Dialogue

When it comes to dramas, it’s all about dialogue. Seriously. The script of the play is a long series of conversations. That’s it. So if you’re not good at writing dialogue, then you have a choice: don’t write plays, or get better at writing dialogue.*

If you want to get better at writing dialogue, I wish I could tell you that there’s a quick and easy solution. There isn’t – especially for plays.

Even beyond making dialogue sound realistic, building characterization through it, adding to the plot, or helping the pacing, a play’s dialogue has to add all the vital information you’d normally put in the non-spoken text. At the very least, it has to contain all the details that you decide have to be in the story (see “The Drama of Playwriting” for more on that).

So how do you learn to put all that in the dialogue without screwing up everything else the dialogue is already doing?

My best recommendation is a 3-step process:

Continue reading