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Forty-Sentence Fairy Tale

When faced with a difficult outlining assignment, novelist Vida Penezic reignites her passion for fairy tales to develop a narrative arc for her work in progress.

By Vida Penezic

June 20, 2024

I was raised on stories. Adults read to me even before I could speak. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Arabian Nights (aka, One Thousand and One Nights), and other tales and legends from all corners of the world were an important part of my early life. Storytellers were my heroes. I particularly admired my great-aunt who would tell stories she invented on the spot, never telling the same one twice. To me, there was no greater superpower than being able to pull stories out of thin air. No greater pleasure either.

I started emulating her when I was six or seven. I would round up a group of children at a party or another gathering and begin: There once was a little boy/girl/old woman who … ” The stories were fairytale-like in structure although they often incorporated real situations and real issues because I sensed that “my audience” liked that. Later, I told stories to my four-year-old stepson and still later to my students at the elementary school where I was teaching. But by then my focus had long shifted to writing, while children looked for stories in cartoons and video games. After I retired, I didn’t expect to need this particular skill again.

And then, one day, I signed up for the Novel Incubator.

A few weeks before we reached the halfway point, we were assigned Matt Bell’s 40-sentence outline exercise. Bell promises that if you write your novel following this outline, turning each sentence into a chapter, you’ll pretty much have your book. Which sounded wonderful and also too good to be true. Not that it mattered if it was true or not. For the life of me I couldn’t write the required 40 sentences. Every time I tried, my mind went blank. “I don’t know if this helps with writing a novel,” I thought resentfully, “but it seems like a sure way to develop writer’s block.”

And yet I couldn’t skip this step. It was part of the Novel Incubator program I was committed to following. However, my story stubbornly resisted any kind of narrative arc. I had a theme, some descriptions of places, situations, characters and their feelings, and even a few scenes, each potentially a short story in its own right. But no overall narrative. No hero’s journey. I desperately needed to make my story move.

I kept rereading the directions. I took notes. I highlighted the key points. But whenever I started writing, I either got stuck at the beginning by taking too many detours into details and explanations and everyone’s backstory—or nothing came to mind.

Finally, I organized the directions into a set of simple prompts.

At the top of the sheet I wrote, “The hero’s starting position” and described where my character would begin her journey. Next I wrote, “The hero’s ending position, the position earned by hero’s journey” and specified where I wanted her to end. Now all I needed to do was get her from the beginning (sentence 1) to the end (sentence 40), using the remaining 38 sentences as a map.

I carefully outlined the steps in this journey. 1: the character’s name and starting position; 2: the inciting incident that poses a problem; 3-10: a series of sentences where the hero either acts or makes a choice; and so on, until I reached sentence 40: the new status quo for the protagonist.

Suddenly, a lightbulb went off: I was looking at the structure of a fairytale! Now, this was something I knew how to tell. Over the course of my life, thousands of fairy tales left breadcrumbs in my mind, creating a path easy to follow. Plus, the narrative elements found in fairy tales (settings, such as remote castles and enchanted forests, characters, such as evil stepmothers, and beautiful maidens, obstacles, such as spells and dragons) have rich and almost universally understood connotations that require little description or explanation.

In other words, all I needed to do was tell my story and record the telling. Which is what I did. Literally. I first said each sentence out loud, in the fairy tale format, as if I was telling it to someone (and yes, this did make me feel a little silly, but, well, the things we do for art), then I translated the sentence into the contemporary world of my novel (again saying it out loud), and then I recorded it. (I tried writing it down without saying it first, but that made all ideas disappear.)

I started with, “There once was a princess named Mary, whose kingdom was stolen by her evil stepmother, so she was forced to work at the office of an evil wizard to survive. One day, a bloodied white dove flew into Mary’s office and collapsed at her feet. On the penalty of death, she was supposed to surrender the dove to the company security (the company’s business was supplying white doves to be eaten by the evil queen’s pet dragons), but Mary decided to hide him and nurse him to health instead.”

This became, “There once was a young woman who worked for a company she despised, but she didn’t dare quit or say anything to anyone, fearing the company’s vicious security force and its powerful lawyers. One day, a bloodied young man stumbled into her office. Instead of calling security, as she was supposed to do, she decided to smuggle him out of the building and nurse him to health.”

From there, the story told itself. When I got stuck (when the story didn’t know how to go on), dragons, witches, or good fairies appeared. I immediately turned them into blood-thirsty security guards, cheating boyfriends, dangerous bosses, or loyal friends and allies. Nuance to be added later.

Among my characters, I selected one best suited to make the hero’s journey and used her to carry the narrative. Even if I scrambled her arc, I decided, the story would still have the time dimension. The point is, in the fairytale mode it was easy to tell a complete story. I simply let my hero travel the road outlined by the 40 sentences, tackling the obstacles in her way as they arose, until she reached the final “happily ever after.”

Even though my novel is not a romance and the “ever after” refers to something totally different from living happily, the principle is the same. The ending brings a resolution and the satisfying feeling the story has been told and the hero’s journey is complete.

Vida Penezic

Vida Penezic writes short stories, novels, and essays. Originally from the former Yugoslavia, she is particularly interested in the tension between awareness and the cultural frameworks that structure our cognition. Vida is currently putting finishing touches on one novel and preparing to start writing another.

Vida Penezic writes short stories, novels, and essays. Originally from the former Yugoslavia, she is particularly interested in the tension between awareness and the cultural frameworks that structure our cognition. Vida is currently putting finishing touches on one novel and preparing to start writing another.