Whether you’re an old-fashioned traditionalist or an ultra-modernist, if you try your hand at nonfiction narrative, you can’t go wrong by examining classic fairy tales to learn what constitutes a good story.
Look, for example, at “Cinderella,” first published in 1697 in Paris by Charles Perrault. Though its origins date back to the mid-ninth century, Perrault’s version is the one that most of us grew up with. He introduced us to an unforgettable child, a waif kicked to the curb…or hearthstone…by her heartless stepfamily.
Perrault had several options here with this basic premise. Did he choose to provide us with a polemic about how society should remedy Cindy’s plight? Did he rant and rave about how somebody should do something about her situation? Did he ruminate on what would be fitting punishments for her tormentors? Or did he shed tears, and throw up his hands, and simply conclude that life can be unfair?
No. Instead he gave us a story with setting, characters, a sequence, conflict, climax, and a resolution. He told it economically. Cinderella unfolds chronologically, as do most fairy tales. It’s easy to follow. He began at the beginning, gave us a meaty middle, and came up with a fulfilling resolution.
He developed the story in scenes. We sympathize with Cindy in her tatters by the fireside. We shake our heads as we watch her stepsisters preening as they prepare for the ball. We’re dazzled when her fairy godmother magically appears. Perrault plunged us right into the action with vivid drama and dialogue. We’re there, breathless with hope for our heroine, rooting for her triumph.
When I write or edit a story, I ask myself:
- Can I envision the setting?
- Does anything appeal to the senses?
- Does the main character…and in nonfiction narratives this should be the narrator… reveal personal feelings, fears, or fantasies?
It’s the revelation of the latter, your personal beliefs, that provide your story with a theme. Cinderella wouldn’t agree that the theme of her story is, as one middle school girl I know suggested, that only beautiful girls who own fashionable clothes will ever find love. Nope…that’s not quite it. Universally, “Cinderella” has been understood to celebrate how good triumphs over evil. In this case, Cindy won out, with help from an unusually gifted friend, and her own willingness to take risks.
Perrault clearly shows how his heroine addresses conflict. A more cautious young woman might have declined an invitation to climb into a chariot converted from a pumpkin. As far as Cindy knew, it hadn’t been road-tested. She additionally might have shied from trusting steeds that mere seconds before had roamed the roads as rodents…she must have heard, after all, about three blind mice. Certainly, nobody could criticize her for gingerly hesitation about stepping into slippers cobbled from glass that possibly might shatter and pierce her feet with shards. But time after time plucky Cindy took her chances.
Every engaging protagonist must have a goal. Something must be desired. What did Cinderella want? She wanted to go to the ball. It’s not enough to merely paint a portrait…you can do that in a poem, an essay, or a blog, but, in a non-fiction narrative, like in fairy tales, there’s got to be some action. “Cinderella” presents conflict, climax, and resolution.
When I compiled the travel anthology, Not Your Mother’s Book…On Travel, I was drawn to stories that addressed issues of perspective. I liked stories that answered the general question of why we long to explore faraway places with strange-sounding names. But I also wanted tales that told about unexpected outcomes, of adjusted perspectives, of finding wonder in surrendering to new experiences as they unfold, be it facing off against a pending tropical storm, an intrusive skunk or manatee, or emergency room personnel who don’t quite speak your language.
Travelers…and writers…share some qualities with Cinderella. They wait for opportunities to transform what might be just another drab day into a wondrous adventure. When I board a jet plane, or a bus, or even a motorcycle, I remember that I’m taking a journey. If I later write about that trek, I want the reader to take that journey with me…to find out with me if good triumphs over adversity, if I managed to make lemonade from lemons, and if my dream somehow came true.
Quick tips on writing your own real-life fairy tale:
- Come out swinging. Grab ‘em at the get-go. Get to the precipitating incident right away, not five paragraphs into your story. Time’s a wasting in such a short form as a true-life narrative, usually between 500 and 2500 words.
- Don’t lull readers with uncertainty. Avoid phrases such as “I don’t really remember all the details of what happened next, but…” or “I won’t bore you with everything that happened after that, but I think…” and my pet peeve, “If memory serves me right…”.
- Funny’s always welcome. Most anthologists love a light touch. But they don’t seek snarky, snide snippets meant to injure others. It’s OK to poke fun at somebody, preferably ourselves, but a vicious nasty barb’s not our thing. If your story’s mean-spirited, it’s not likely to be selected. If it’s libelous, it’s certain not to make the book.
- Be specific in time, place, and person. Don’t tackle too many incidents or feature a cast of thousands. And keep the focus on the narrator! You’re the star of your story.
- Conclude with a bit of “so what.” Why does what happened to you matter? Why should anybody care? Did you learn something surprising, something memorable? Will your reader want to read this story again? Children plead to hear or see “Cinderella” one more time to witness the transformation of the ragamuffin into a princess, and to get to the “happily ever after.” Avoid preachy moralizing, but end with a zinger, a riveting summation of the impact that the incident you’ve recounted had on you.
Whether you’re Cinderella or Cinderfella, celebrate the magic in your life…go for it. Have you submitted your story to a publication yet? Midnight’s fast approaching.