Monday, April 4, 2011

What Can Writers Learn from Three Puerile Porkers and Lupus Magnus Malus?

We repeatedly urge beginning writers to read, read, read the types of books they want to write. This study never ends. Studying the masters should include traditional folk and fairy tales. These stories continue to exist and be read for one reason: they work.

What sorts of things occur in these stories that should also be happening in your stories? Start with a simple tale: The Three Little Pigs. The first written version of TTLP appeared in the early 1800s. For nearly 200 years we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to variations of it in book and cartoon and movie form.

Here are a few things I think we can learn from it:

Simplicity is key. One should be able to summarize a story’s universal theme in one sentence. “A mother sends her three sons out into the world to make their fortune— knowing the dangers that lurk there.

Names matter. The protagonists are Little Pigs, not just pigs. They are young and na├»ve. They are children. Their antagonist is Big and Bad. No confusion there. A comic book hero named Mediocreboy (as opposed to Superman) just wouldn’t work. J.K. Rowling’s “Severus Snape” gives readers a chill just by saying his name. Sssseverussss Ssssnape. Nice name for a bad guy. Sounds kinda Bronx Zoo cobra-ish, doesn’t it?

Show don’t tell. “The first little pig built a house of straw.” What do the last three words explain about the character? Straw is plentiful, light-weight, and easy to maneuver. The first little pig is impatient, doesn’t plan for the long-term, and lazy. He does what he is supposed to do but only haphazardly. An entire character has been described in one sentence that shows us how he behaves.

Triads Rule. The rule of three works like this: 2 failures and a success. Two failures add tension. They’re the reason we turn the page. The success allows the reader to breathe and cheer for the hero. More than three tries and we lose patience with the story.

Repetition is Emphasis. And, often, joyful as young readers participate:

“I’ll HUFF! And I’ll PUFF! And I’ll BLOOOOOWWWW your house in!” C’mon, admit it. You can’t read that sentence without pizzazz.

The Child Protagonist solves his Own Problem. Once Mom Pig sends the three piglets out the door, she’s never mentioned again. No helicopter moms in fairy tales. Empower the protagonist, empower the reader.

Your turn. Pick a successful story. What makes it work?


Barbara said...

Excellent post, Mur. 'Simple' stories are often not as simple as they seem.

I'm Jet . . . said...


Andy said...

Scratch the surface of one of those tried and true old stories and you'll find universal truths like you read about.

Fantastic post, Mur!

Karin Huxman - Romance Author said...

Great post,Mur. You nailed it.