Fairy tales and crime fiction

Crime writers are rarely in the business of delivering happy endings, but our books may have more in common with fairy tales than we think.

Reading some classic children’s stories to my young nephew I was struck by how much criminality lay between the pages of these seemingly innocent bedtime yarns.

Next time you’re stuck for a plot, you could do worse than peruse your children’s bookshelves for inspiration.

BURGLARY AND TRESPASS – GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS

Is it any surprise that the three bears are angry when they come back from their walk not only to discover someone has broken into their property, but also eaten their food and slept in their beds?

In one of the original endings to this tale, the bears throw Goldilocks onto the fire in retribution. The 21st century version is much tamer – Goldilocks runs away. Let’s hope she didn’t leave any fingerprints…

KIDNAP – HANSEL & GRETEL

The Witch lures Hansel and Gretel into her house with the promise of gingerbread. Once there she captures her young victims and puts her cauldron on the stove, intending to eat them.

Kidnap with a threat of cannibalism – and we read these stories to children?

POISON – SNOW WHITE

Toxic relationships are a common theme in both fairy tales and crime fiction. As the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family!

Snow White’s jealous stepmother puts her to sleep with a poisoned apple. Modern day equivalents might be Rohypnol or GHB.

INTIMIDATION – THE THREE LITTLE PIGS

‘Let me in, let me in, or I’ll blow your house down!’ cries the wolf outside the little pig’s door. Intimidation is one of the building blocks of a good thriller.

GASLIGHTING – THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES

The Emperor loves his clothes – so much so that he is easily tricked into believing in a special cloth that only wise men can see. Everyone around him keeps quiet as the naked Emperor parades around the town in his birthday suit. A lesson in vanity or a pitiable victim of fraud?

These days you are perhaps more likely to fall foul of cyber fraud – online retailers selling you something that doesn’t exist. Or how about creating a rich, influential character that no one dare stand up to?

Some plot devices found in fairy tales will feel very familiar to crime writers:

THE UNINVITED GUEST – SLEEPING BEAUTY

The doors are closed, the party has begun, but is there a killer among the guests? The premise of the closed-door mystery has a lot in common with the opening to Sleeping Beauty.

THE TICKING CLOCK – CINDERELLA

If Cinderella hadn’t had to leave the ball by midnight, there would be no tension in the story. She could have danced with the Prince all night, left her number and lived happily ever after. That midnight deadline is what makes all the difference. No time to stop and pick up your shoe, Cinders, get out of there before disaster strikes!

AN OFFER YOU CAN’T RESIST – PINOCHHIO

Pinocchio is all set to go to school like a real boy when he encounters the fox and the cat who tempt him to go to the fair instead. Things go badly wrong and get even worse when Pinocchio tries to lie his way out of his predicament. The only thing that can save him is listening to his conscience and telling the truth. Good job our characters don’t feel the same way, otherwise there wouldn’t be much mystery!

THE QUEST – THE BRAVE LITTLE TIN SOLDIER

In many fairy tales the heroes are put to the test before they can achieve their goal. Similarly, detectives have to overcome a series of obstacles before they can unmask the killer.

Spare a thought for The Brave Little Tin Soldier. He falls out of a window, nearly drowns, is swallowed by a fish, thrown into a stove, and set alight before he wins his true love.  

All writers know the importance of an atmospheric setting in our fiction, and fairy tales are no exception.  

INTO THE WOODS – LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD

Some of the best fairy tales are set in woodland for a very good reason. Darkness, shadows, plenty of places to hide. The forest serves as a departure from the safety of home and a threshold to adventure.

Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Goldilocks are all tales of disobedience and straying too far off the path. In the modern era, it’s also a good way of losing your 4G…

CASTLES – THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA

The castles in fairy tales are often occupied by people of great power and privilege. To gain entry, peasants have to be very clever or very beautiful. The contrast between rich and poor, and the abuse of power and privilege, is fertile ground for crime fiction writers.

TOWERS AND LOCKED ROOMS – BEAUTY AND THE BEAST / RAPUNZEL

Always check your exit! The creepy castle or mansion house is a stalwart of crime fiction for good reason. Once you’ve entered, it’s not always that simple to escape. Rapunzel grows her hair to evade her capture while Beauty wins over the Beast. Modern day criminals might not be quite so easy to win round.

At the heart of every fairy story is a morality tale. Perhaps crime fiction is the contemporary equivalent?

This article was first published in Red Herrings, the magazine for members of The Crime Writers Association.

Photo by Cederic Vandenberghe on Unsplash

What I learned about writing from watching The Hunger Games

Studying films is an excellent way for writers to learn about story structure.

None of us want our books to be formulaic, but the argument goes that we are hard-wired to expect and enjoy a certain trajectory. Books like Save the Cat and Stealing Hollywood are advocates of studying film to understand how Hollywood does it (and let’s face it, they know a thing or two about telling stories there).

The Hunger Games follows the classic three-act structure.  

Act One

  • Introduction to main character and her ‘ordinary world’ (District 12).
  • Inciting incident – something happens which changes everything and drives the character into action (Katniss volunteers as tribute).
  • Meeting the Mentor (Hamish).
  • Crossing the Threshold to a new world – Katniss and Peeta arrive at The Capitol.

Act Two (part one)

  • A series of trials in which Katniss acquires the skills she needs to compete in The Hunger Games.   
  • The Tributes Parade is a key scene at exactly the 25% mark of the film – this is where Katniss and Peeta stand out from the other contenders and Katniss acquires her nickname ‘the Girl on Fire’ (fire is an important symbol of power in the book) and we get our first glimpse of the antagonist, President Snow. (Contrast: fire/snow)
  • Development of the relationship between Katniss and Peeta – notably their different desires (Katniss wants to survive, Peeta wants to preserve his integrity).
  • The mid-point – The Hunger Games start.

Act Two (part two)

  • Katniss faces another series of trials in which she has to survive. She has to rely on her friends (Rue and Peeta) and her actions in the first part of the film pay off in the second.
  • The lowest point – Katniss’s actions inadvertently lead to the death of Rue. She finds Peeta but he is dying.

Act Three

  • The final act starts when the rules change, and two people are allowed to win the Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta work together to fight the final contestant, Cato, in a dramatic battle scene.
  • But the bad guys haven’t lost. They change the rules again. Katniss and Peeta work out a solution (a suicide pact) and the Capitol has to back down. This turns out to be a false victory as we move into the second film, but for the time being, they have defeated their enemy.
  • The film ends as Katniss and Peeta return to their ordinary world, irrevocably changed through their experiences.

It is worth noting that the film does not follow the exact structure of the book – for example the Hunger Games start at the midpoint of the film, but the midpoint of the book is when Katniss escapes the alliance.

However, there are other things to learn from watching The Hunger Games:

Introducing a character in action

Our first introduction to Katniss is when we see her comforting her sister when she wakes from a nightmare. Katniss is maternal, reassuring, protective. Her character has edge when she threatens to boil the cat, and we then see her in her natural environment, the woods, where she is prepared to kill to survive. Within a few minutes, we are told everything we need to know about Katniss, her skills and the journey ahead of her.

Mirroring scenes

I have seen this film numerous times but only recently realised that the scene where Katniss shoots the arrow into the apple placed in the pig’s mouth mirrors another key scene when she shoots the arrow and dislodges a bag of apples to set off the explosives at the cornucopia.

Once you start looking, you see many scenes in the film that reflect each other, reinforcing key symbols and messages. The relationship Katniss has with Prim and Rue for example. There are two scenes when Katniss sings the same song to both girls. The first is to get Prim back to sleep; the second is to comfort Rue when she is dying.

The scene at the start of the film when Katniss is preparing for The Reaping by scrubbing herself in the bath and wearing a clean dress is mirrored when she undergoes a professional make-over before the Tributes Parade. Clothing and appearance is very important in the Hunger Games as it indicates power.

In all of the above cases the stakes are much higher in the second scene.

Symbols acquire meaning

The mockingjay pin is one of the most powerful symbols in the film. It first appears in the market when Katniss notices it. The trader gives it to her, and I think it is important that it is a gift. The mockingjay pin at this point doesn’t really mean anything but when Katniss gives it to her sister, she tells her it will protect her.

Prim gives her the pin back and Katniss makes a promise that she will fight to win. It reappears when Cinna attaches it to her outfit – a secret act of rebellion. The mockingjay thus acquires meaning as the film progresses, becoming, along with the hand gesture, a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol.

In contrast, President Snow is symbolised by a white rose. He cultivates these himself, controlling nature, shaping his own messages and power.

Other symbols in the film are more obvious. The stark contrast between the affluence of the Capitol against the poverty of District 12 for example, is beautifully illustrated at The Reaping when Effie’s garish purple outfit stands out against the bland clothes worn by the residents of District 12.

Katniss is the ‘girl on fire’ and her antagonist is President Snow. Snow/fire.

Food plays an important role in the story – not enough in District 12, far too much in The Capitol. Food is something you need to kill for (hunting) and search for (in The Hunger Games). Katniss frequently rejects the Capitol’s food. The poisonous berries save their lives and deliver retribution to the game maker.

The power of the understatement

Conflict can be subtle. In one of the early scenes of the movie, Gale and Katniss discuss their future. Gale wants to run away but Katniss wants to stay and protect her family. The tension is presented in a very loving way – both have valid arguments, they disagree but this is not a heated argument, it’s an impossible dilemma that they can’t resolve. This conversation is repeated in the second film, when the characters have changed their positions. Gale wants to stay and fight with the rebellion; Katniss wants to run away with her family and keep them safe.

The berries in the bowl. There is a beautiful karma in the scene where the game maker enters the room in President’s Snow palace expecting a reprimand and is presented with a crystal bowl of berries. There are no words and no explanation. We know precisely what this means.

The mockingjay pin – the mockingjay becomes a powerful symbol of rebellion in the film but in the early scenes, it is a small gesture from the stylist Cinna. He tucks the pin in her jacket, close to her heart, to remind Katniss of her home and her values.

Introducing minor characters

There are 24 contenders in The Hunger Games. Far too many to keep track of, so we only get to know the ones that will play a part in the action to come.

The first tribute we see is Cato, one of the career tributes. He’s also the one we see last as he is Katniss and Peeta’s final adversary. In many ways, he is a two-dimensional character representing strength and brutality, but he plays a symbolic role.

Next comes Rue. We first see her hiding on the ceiling having tricked one of the other competitors – we realise that while she is small and vulnerable, she is clever and good at climbing. Her role is similar to Prim’s – a reminder to Katniss about her values.

Glimmer we see being interviewed – she is pretty and girlish and good at winning allies. Another two-dimensional character.

The rest are barely mentioned, and many are pictured but not named. They certainly don’t have distinct personalities. Contrast this with the second film when the tributes play a much larger role in the action and are much more developed characters.

Next time you are watching a film, see if you can spot the key elements of the three-act structure!

Photo by Felipe Bustillo on Unsplash