Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Why We Love Fairy Tales

Do you remember when you could fly? When you believed in magic? When any thing was possible?

Fairy Tales

Photo credit: Jeroen Kransen (Creative Commons)

There is a piece of all of us, a sliver of innocence left from our youth, lying dormant, that comes alive when we read a good story, watch a movie, or experience art. This is our truest selves, the part that still believes in fairy tales.

ABC recently came out with a new show called Once Upon a Time. Here is a summary:

Welcome to a world where fairy tales are real. Anna Swan is like any other 28 year old, until she discovers she’s a lost princess destined to save her world from darkness. Experience the passion project of executive producers/creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (Lost, Tron). Once Upon A Time is a thrilling twist of our most beloved stories.

I have to say: watching the trailer, I got pretty excited. I love tales of good versus evil, because they call out the hero in each of us. And this looks like a pretty good show.

My excitement caused me to wonder: Why do we love fairy tales — even as adults?

If you look around at recent movies and plays, many are reinventions of old epics and fairy tales or mere modern adaptations. In particular, I’m thinking of Red Riding Hood and Wicked, to name a couple creative revamps of old, familiar stories.

So, why we do adore these jaunts into fantasy?

I believe we love fairy tales because they are surprisingly relevant to real life. And in our deepest core, we know it. Here is how fairy tales speak to us in three acts:

Act 1: The Setup

We are thrown into the midst of a story we don’t fully understand. We understand that there is good and evil and we are caught somewhere in between those two forces. But that is about it.

We sense that there is conflict and hardship that must be overcome. We know that greatness is being demanded of us.

This is the setting for many fairy tales. Everything begins somewhat serenely, but soon you notice that all is not well.

There is a curse in the land that must be broken or an enemy force gathering strength — some underlying tension that you can sense in the story. And it is soon to emerge.

Act 2: The Complication

Life is full of surprises. It’s hard. And before it gets better, it often gets harder. This is what the second act is all about — struggle, defeat, failure.

It’s about learning perseverance through trial.

Screenwriters know that by the top of the second act, they must introduce “the complication” — some event that sends the adversary in motion. You see it in The Two Towers and Empire Strikes Back. It even appears in the Rocky movies.

The problem becomes bigger than you realized. It is a setup for the final act, when the hero’s courage will be tested and proven worthy.

This act is the one with which we can relate the most, because we are living in the midst of it.

Act 3: The Resolution

Life, as noted in Act 1, is full of tension begging to be resolved. There is conflict — pain, suffering, injustice. We all sense it.

We all know that some great rescue must be coming. And we haven’t yet seen it. Not yet. This is what the third act is all about: resolution.

But not only resolution — restoration and reconciliation, the renewing of all things. The hero returns home, with a renewed appreciation for what he once took for granted. He sees his loved ones again, and they celebrate life together.

We experience these three acts in our lives. Many of us are stirred by fairy tales, because we see those same scenes unfolding around us — tension, conflict, suspense. As we make sense of the overarching narrative, of what life is really about, we begin to make sense of our own lives. We begin to believe.

It doesn’t surprise me that ABC is picking up this show. I don’t think we’ll ever see the end of fairy tales — at least not until we experience that Act 3 resolution.

Until then, we’re all wondering: When will the hero emerge? But maybe — just maybe– it’s you.

Do you believe in fairy tales? Why? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • I think you’ve summed it up beautifully. Fairy tales resonate because of these unfulfilled desires that we have. Sounds like an interesting show.

    Have you read Madeleine L’Engle’s “Walking On Water”? A great book about imagination and art.

  • Of course!  Fairy tales give us what life could be if we believed in the whimsy of it.  I think we often do not see the magic in life because we’re too close.  If we were to hold life at arm’s length, we could appreciate our trials as epic complications and step in gallantly to overcome obstacles.  Instead we fume and become bitter and allow ourselves to be worn down.  But it seems to me that God is just giving us chances to become heroes in stories filled with real-life whimsy.

    • You’re right, Lizzie. We need perspective!

  • There’s a theory of Presidential speech writing that follows this principle  for speeches that deal with crisis management. I learned about it when I was (misguidedly) thinking about writing speeches for the Executive.
    Set the scene, create a dragon and slay him — it makes the President look more presidential and cool under pressure. If you don’t theoretically slay that dragon in the speech, people don’t believe you can do it in real life, even with all the might of the US military. I couldn’t help but think that theory taps into the same psyche you mention in this post.

    • Interesting! Sounds like a good concept slightly misused.

  •  I love fairy tales! I am definitely the princess in my own story. 🙂

  • MichaelDPerkins

     I do.  And I think it’s because deep down I want things to work out for everyone in the end.  Because fairy tails have happy endings that seem to come from nowhere.  And those endings really mean something to people.  I want to believe in those happy endings. 

  • MichaelDPerkins

     I do.  And I think it’s because deep down I want things to work out for everyone in the end.  Because fairy tails have happy endings that seem to come from nowhere.  And those endings really mean something to people.  I want to believe in those happy endings. 

  • I feel like I believe in fairy tales as an act of defiance. Because looking around at the world can make you pretty hopeless. I chose to believe that there will be restoration and redemption and renewal because if I don’t, despair seems like the most reasonable response. 

  • I agree.  I love fairy tales and I love stories about good vs. evil.  I just love the message of hope that many of these movies offer us.  Hope, overcoming, perseverance…who doesn’t like those messages?!

    • Right, Eileen. They remind us of deeper truths. I do have s problem sometimes with when they turn to cliche.

  •  that looks soooo cool!

  • Yes, fairy tales can be fun indeed!
    In particular, there is the Princess Bride, a bright, shining example of the fairy tale form converted successfully to a film.
    I hope the ABC series goes well. Handsomely summed up there, Jeff!

    Peter

    • Thanks, Peter. I’m a fan of the Princess Bride, but it had to grow on me.

  •  The Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods is another take on the fairy tale genre that brings many traditional characters (Cinderella, the Baker, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and more) into the same story, with unexpected and often devastating consequences. If you like sharp comedy and great music, you should check it out.

    I have always enjoyed fairy tales because they address the many tragic flaws inherent in being human (or supernatural!), and provide a  resolution. Storytelling at its best.

  • #1.  I really love Ginnifer Goodwin as an actress.
    #2.  I’m a sucker for a fairy tale, especially ones with happy endings.
    #3. Thank you for sharing the link to the trailer with us.  I’ll definitely have to check it out.
    #4. Especially since it’s from the creators of LOST.  Hello…

    • hello, indeed. 🙂 (secret: I’ve never watched LOST.)

      • Okay.

        I’m going to try really, really hard not to be one of “those” people who tell you that you simply *MUST* watch LOST or your life will never be complete.

        Except…

        You really should watch LOST.  You can have a complete life without it, but why?  Why not just go ahead and have the icing with the cake?  Really?

        I held out the entire six years it was on television.  When we got Netflix, Mike and I decided to go ahead and give it a shot.  We watched all six seasons in a matter of a few weeks.  (No joke.)

        You really should watch LOST.  And also?  I’m telling Bryan Allain that you’ve never watched LOST.  He’s gonna go bonkers.

  • I’d like to offer a *slightly* different perspective.

    I’ve been writing recently about how I am recovering from what I call “fairy tale thinking.” In fact, I started watching the show specifically because I was fascinated with the stark contrast between the fairy tale world and the real world.

    As a woman, I see how much fairy tale thinking has negatively influenced the way I view life and love. I have spent years trapped in the vortex of waiting for the ONE great rescue–where all the problems in the plot of my life get quickly resolved. But what has been perhaps more dangerous is the idea that some knight in shining armor will come bearing the answers and be the the courier of the rescue plan.

    While there have been resolutions to some of the Act 2 conflicts in my life, I believe that I delayed their arrival when I was married to it looking a certain way–namely, the way of the fairy tale. No fairy godmother came and turned my pumpkins into carriages. No princes came and kissed me out of slumber. Freedom came when I hunkered down and accepted that real life Act 3’s (this side of heaven) are so much more complicated than what we’ve been conditioned to think through the lens of the fairy tale.

    So while I agree that we all love a good story, I’m not always sure that the underlying message in the fairy tale is a healthy one.

  • I love fairy tales because it resonates truths with limitless imagination. 

    Incidentally, just discovered your blog Jeff, just read the e-book, just wanted to thank you for all of it.

  • I was reading a post by horror writer Tobin Elliott the other day, and serendipitously, my comment there applies here, too. He’d written that horror readers love it for the suspense, dread and wonder. I responded: I’ve had enough suspense and dread from the corporate carnival and the newsroom these last 20 years, and wonder is all that matters now. I am on a mad mission to find it under my nose and between my ears, and bring it to the fore on my blog for those whose lives are missing it.

    And that’s why fairy tales appeal to me…they remind me that beauty coexists with ugliness, and I can choose to spotlight beauty.

  • I’ve always believed in faerie tales. It gets confusing for people because I don’t profess to a belief in God. It’s not that I don’t think there’s something out there, I just don’t like God. It’s much more rewarding to believe in faerie tales. 

  • You kind of got the protangist’s name wrong. Her name is Emma Swan, not Anna Swan. 

  • hey jeff goins. u r a useless piece of crap….

  • Faggot Haters

    All of you faggot haters can go to hell, get a life(and a childhood). You heartless pricks

  • Pat

    Lovely text! Yes it is true, when we were young it was like that. Piaget wrote that children until the age of 14 are animists (believe that everything has a soul). The problem is that I still believe that and I am 53!

  • eureka

    I love fairy tales because after I read one or watch one of Disney movies, it makes me feel good about my life; that like the protagonist or make in the story I can over come whatever life may throw on me. I like it so much, that always associate myself to the main character, specially the Disney princesses. I think that when I started to like creating stories, to make me feel better and tell stories tat will make people feel That’s the challenge why I took this blogging course, to create stories and record my life experiences that could help people to do better in life and learn from my own life stories. Thank you for a feel good article!

  • I love fairy tales. I love stories where we have a problem, work on a solution and come to a good ending. There is so much to learn in a fairy tale. I used to watch Disney every Sunday night – and the best part was the imagination times – pixie dust, good vs evil, working together. It’s all great. Thanks for great post.