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From Once Upon a Time to Happily Ever After
The Story Magic of Traditional Plots

Copyright © 2012 by Deborah M. Hale

Ever since the first group of cave women huddled around a cook fire sharing stories, certain plots have had an enduring and universal appeal. Many of these plots speak to women's aspirations. The Cinderella story for example, is about transformation, elevation and the power of hard work and kindness. It offers the promise that we can change our circumstances and that dreams can come true. Is it any wonder there are Cinderella folk tales in nearly every culture on the planet? After thousands of years, Cinderella is still going strong, powering the success of makeover reality shows and popular films like "Pretty Woman."

Girls in Glass Slippers

After having used every other traditional plot except Cinderella , I finally embraced it with a passion to write a series of inspirational Regencies for Love Inspired Historical called 'Glass Slipper Brides'. My Cinderellas are a group of governesses who suffered a deprived childhood at a harsh charity school like Jane Eyre's Lowood. In these books, each governess eventually wins the heart of a man of man of wealth and/or title.

What kept me from trying this most popular of traditional plots for so long? The fact that in the original story Cinderella has very little interaction with Prince Charming until late in the story. I needed to find a way to bring the hero and heroine together much sooner. By pairing this traditional plot with the popular governess/nanny story situation, I was finally able to overcome that difficulty.

Tale As Old As Time

The Beauty and the Beast plot is at least as old as the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. The enduring power of this story lies in its affirmation of the transformative, healing power of love. Who doesn't want to believe in that? It also tells women that even a very powerful, fearsome man may need them... desperately. The Beast's repellent aspect does not always need to be physical. Any scars that make most people run from him, including those of the heart or mind, can work. The heroine proves her worth by her ability to see his true beauty and goodness and eventually make it possible for him to believe in it too.

The challenges for an author to spin a winning romance from this plot include finding a very strong, believable situation to keep the heroine interacting with the beast until she gets a glimpse of the compelling hero behind his unappealing facade. It can also be tricky for the author to make the Beast an attractive figure to the heroine and the reader while giving him a dark tortured side. But in the hands of a skilled author this can make for a very compelling love story.

My Fair Lover

The Pygmalion plot is another that traces its roots to ancient Greece . Like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast , it taps into a deep human need to believe we can reinvent ourselves for the better. In this story, love blossoms between the teacher and the pupil who work together to accomplish the transformation. The Pygmalion plot has strong dramatic potential because it has a built-in story situation which forces the hero and heroine together with a common goal, while sowing the seeds for potential conflict.

The pupil may resent the power of the teacher while the teacher may feel the pupil is not trying hard enough. “Just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins,” indeed! The Pygmalion plot works best when the successful transformation threatens to part the hero and heroine -- for instance if he is tutoring her to be the kind of woman who will attract another man.

From Different Worlds

A plot that dates back for centuries is the conflict of lifestyles or other outward circumstances. One of the greatest, albeit most tragic, love stories of all time -- Romeo and Juliet -- follows this plot. The power of Different Worlds lies in its testament that love can overcome all other obstacles to prevail. Its dramatic potential rests in its strong built-in conflict.

This plot works best when paired with a story situation to give the characters a chance to fall in love and be willing to sacrifice important things for one another. A recent example of this plot is a thread of the mini-series Downton Abbey where the earl's daughter falls in love with the family chauffer. A challenge for the author is to make the stakes very clear -- why it won't be easy for the hero and heroine to abandon the things that keep them apart. The author also needs to be careful that any sacrifice is not entirely one-sided and that readers can believe the couple's differences won't return to spoil their happily ever after.

He Versus She

A plot that dates back at least to Shakespeare is Equal versus Equal . Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing are two strong characters with opposing goals. This plot is empowering to women because it tells us we can compete against men without losing their respect and love. Its dramatic potential lies in its strong built-in conflict. The challenge for the author is to find a fair, satisfying compromise and to make sure the conflict does not degenerate into constant quarrelling punctuated by hot hate sex. Though, in the right story, a certain amount of that can be entertaining!

The Rivals

The Love Triangle traces its roots back to Jane Austen, A Midsummer Night's Dream and the tales of Camelot. It is still going strong hundreds of years later in the phenomenally popular Twilight and Hunger Games series . This premise presents a very strong conflict. How can the hero and heroine find happiness together if one believes they love someone else or is torn between two suitors? The challenge for the author is to provide a satisfying resolution to the story by presenting the hero as the clearly better choice without portraying the romantic rival as a cliché villain, which can make the heroine look foolish for caring about him.

Given the strong dramatic potential of these traditional plots, is it any wonder that fairy tales for grownups are finding an enthusiastic audience in two recent Snow White films and the popular television series, Once Upon A Time ? By understanding their appeal and being aware of the pitfalls to avoid, I hope some of their magic will rub off on the tales you spin!


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