Deep Dive into Description: Fairytale-Style Narrative

Fairytale has such a childish connotation, but bear with me on this. You don’t have to be an author of children’s books to get something from this post. 

I find that the best way to get better at something is to learn from the masters. I would love to sit down with any of these authors and learn all their secrets, but I doubt they would agree to meet with me. Even if they did, they cannot impart their years of toil upon me in a quick interview. That is best done by study. 

When I was in a creative writing class, the professor had us copy a short story by an author whose writing style we admired. At the time I was on a Marion Zimmer Bradley kick, so I wrote out a short story she had published. This helped us absorb and notice word choice and the writer’s rhythm.  Next, we were to write a short story using what we noticed, trying to mimic their style.  

There is a style of writing that I absolutely go nuts over. Everytime I read these kinds of stories, I think to myself, “One day, I’m going to be able to write that well.” It is seriously magic on the page. Not unexpectedly, most of these are Newbery Award winners or nominees. 

One thing they all seem to have in common is that they are all told in 3rd person with a strong narrator voice–like someone is sitting in a rocking chair telling you a fairytale.

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These are the books and authors I’ve thought this about

  •  The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DeCamillo
  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Let’s look at some excerpts and see what it is they do…at the mechanical level. 

The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Very intriguing title! This book makes it to my top 10 list of favorite books. Although I might have more than 10 books that make that list. It is so hard to choose. But for real, this book has dragons, so amazing!!

Excerpt from The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

There was a knock at the door. 
“Enter,” Grand Elder Gherland mumbled as he adjusted the drape of his robe. 
It was Antain. His nephew. An Elder-in-Training, but only because Gherland, in a moment of weakness, promised the ridiculous boy’s more ridiculous mother

[I love this use of repetition because it establishes voice for this character! ]

But that was unkind. Antain was a nice enough young man, only thirteen. He was a hard worker and a quick study. He was good with numbers and clever with his hands and could build a comfortable bench for a tired Elder as quick as breathing. And despite himself, Gherland found himself developing an inexplicable, and growing, fondness for the boy. But. Antain had big ideas. Grand notions. And questions. 

[I’m not sure why I like this sentence. Is it the word “inexplicable”? Maybe. Maybe I can relate to this complicated emotion. I have students that misbehave but I can’t help but like them for some reason I can’t explain.]

Gherland furrowed his brow. Antain was–how could he put it?– overly keen. If this kept up, he’d have to be dealt with, blood or no.
“Uncle Gherland!” Antain nearly bowled his uncle over with his insufferable enthusiasm.

“Calm yourself, boy!” the Elder snapped. “This is a solemn occasion!”  

The boy calmed visibly, his doglike face tilted toward the ground. 

Gherland resisted the urge to pat him gently on the head. 

“I have been sent,” Antain continued in a soft voice, “to tell you that the other Elders are ready. And all the populace waits along the route. Everyone is accounted for.” 

“Each one? There are no shirkers?” 

“After last year, I doubt there ever will be shirkers again,” Antain said with a shudder. 

“Pity.” Gherland checked his mirror again, touching up his rouge. He rather enjoyed teaching the occasional lesson to the citizens of the Protectorate. It clarified things. He tapped the sagging folds under his chin and frowned. 

“Well, nephew,” he said, with an artful swish of his robes, one that took him over a decade to perfect. “Let us be off. That baby isn’t going to sacrifice itself, after all.” And he flowed into the street with Antain stumbling at his heels, a perplexed expression drawn across his mouth. 

[This is so preposterous! It is ridiculous and gives the story a lightness that sets the whole mood for the story–very serious topic but not stuffy and pompous.] 

NORMALLY, the Day of Sacrifice came and went with all the pomp and gravity that it ought. The children were given over without protest. Their numb families mourned in silence, with pots of stew and nourishing foods heaped into their kitchens and the comforting arms of neighbors circled around them to ease their bereavement. Normally, no one broke the rules. But not this time. 

[Now I wonder what is different about this time. Each sentence leads me forward to read on.]

If you want to read the full book review click here.

Excerpt from The Tale of Despereaux
by Kate DiCamillo

THIS STORY BEGINS within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. A small mouse. The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive.

[I love this opening line. The narrator states the setting  and introduces us to something remarkable right from the get go.] 

“Where are my babies?” said the exhausted mother when the ordeal was through. “Show to me my babies.”

The father mouse held the one small mouse up high.

[The words are simple. Any second grader could write a sentence like this, but in context that simplicity has power and all the emotion.]

“There is only this one,” he said. “The others are dead.”

“Mon Dieu, just the one mouse baby?”

“Just the one. Will you name him?”

“All of that work for nothing,” said the mother. She sighed. “It is so sad. It is such the disappointment.” She was a French mouse who had arrived at the castle long ago in the luggage of a visiting French diplomat. “Disappointment” was one of her favorite words. She used it often.

“Will you name him?” repeated the father.

“Will I name him? Will I name him? Of course, I will name him, but he will only die like the others. Oh, so sad. Oh, such the tragedy.”

The mouse mother held a handkerchief to her nose and then waved it in front of her face. She sniffed. “I will name him. Yes. I will name this mouse Despereaux, for all the sadness, for the many despairs in this place. Now, where is my mirror?”

Her husband handed her a small shard of mirror. The mouse mother, whose name was Antoinette, looked at her reflection and gasped aloud. “Toulèse,” she said to one of her sons, “get for me my makeup bag. My eyes are a fright.

[Again ridiculous. All her babies died except one and she is worried about her makeup?]

While Antoinette touched up her eye makeup, the mouse father put Despereaux down on a bed made of blanket scraps. The April sun, weak but determined, shone through a castle window and from there squeezed itself through a small hole in the wall and placed one golden finger on the little mouse.

[Personification! All these authors use such excellent personification.] 

Excerpt from The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. 

[A disembodied hand. This definitely got my attention and makes me want to read on to learn more about this hand.] 

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately. 
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet. 

[Look at this personification! First a disembodied hand. Now a knife doing all the work. This build up is great!]

The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door. 

[more personification with really vivid action verbs.]

The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done.

He flexed his fingers. The man Jack was, above all things, a professional, or so he told himself, and he would not allow himself to smile until the job was completed.

Again we have the juxtaposition of a serious topic (murder) and ridiculousness (professionals don’t smile).

So what have these writers been doing that we can learn from?

Description Fairy tale style narrative

If you wish to write this kind of story these are some ideas to play with to mimic the masters of description: 

  • 3rd person omniscient
  • Use personification heavily 
  • Simple words and phrases are elegant and clean
  • Creatively draw readers in with your first sentence. Actually, each sentence thereafter continues to draw the reader onward. 
  • Juxtaposition a sweet story with really morbid turns of phrase like, “Babies won’t sacrifice themselves.”
  • Horrible characters–“her babies died yet worried about makeup” This is really a hyperbole of bad people. 

I could go on and on, but it is Friday and I need to get this posted. Maybe one day I’ll do a part 2 post. I have Katherine Arden’s book Small Spaces sitting on my nightstand. That book made the Lone Start List for 2020, so I’m sure it will be amazing!


If you like this style, give it a try. Write a page, 3rd person omniscient. Pick another 2 or three elements to mimic.

(Book Review on Bear and the Nightingale click here.)

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