Not every fairytale includes every plot point as listed below, but when they do, they tend to appear in order.
- Absentation: A family member leaves home. In modern children’s literature, you’ve got the home-away-home structure which is still really common. In the fairy tales as recorded by Grimm, there’s a fairytale culture in which young men go wandering in the world. They leave home for no other reason than to go wandering. The Three Little Pigs leave home because they’ve come of age and they need to (turfed out by their mother).
- Interdiction: The main character is given an ‘interdiction’ or warning. Little Red Riding Hood is warned not to talk to strangers. This part of the fairytale contributes to the ideology that as long as we do as we’re told we’ll be fine. This is a conservative, reassuring message (though wrong).
- Violation: The interdiction is violated. Little Red Riding Hood speaks to the wolf. Goldilocks was never explicitly told to avoid breaking and entering, but she knows and we know that this is a violation.
Well, umm… umm… Just before I left the house this afternoon I said to myself that the last thing you must do is forget your speech. And so sure enough, when…when I left the house… [Rowan idly pulls something from his pocket. It’s a pair of ladies’ knickers. He quickly replaces it. He says Woo in relief, thinking nobody noticed the incriminating evidence.] Um.. ah…. the last thing I did, yes you guessed it, was to forget my speech. So it’s all ad-libbed I’m afraid. Umm.. Umm.. ah….Rowan Atkinson Live, With Friends Like These (aka Wedding from Hell), 1992
Reconnaissance: The villain attempts to contact the main character and obtains information about them… In other words, the opponent has a plan even if the main character does not. (In melodramas, main characters don’t have plans. They react to extreme circumstance.)
Trickery: The victim is fooled… this causes harm or injury…
Complicity: …and unwittingly helps his/her enemy…
Villainy: …who causes harm or injury to a member of the family.
Lack: One family member of a family lacks something or desires something. In this way, lack and need are inextricably linked. When telling a story, don’t forget that. Modern storytellers use various terms to describe ‘lack’. You’ll hear ‘psychic wound’ and ‘ghost‘.
Mediation: Misfortune or lack is made known. This is the first stage of storytelling unmasking. The main character is approached with a request or command; he is allowed to go or he is dispatched. Joseph Campbell would probably call this the Call To Adventure. Something beckons to the main character and off they go on an escapade.
Counteraction: The seeker agrees/decides upon counteraction. In other words, villainous plans require counter-plans in order for there to be story-worthy conflict. You see this all the time in pretty much every Hollywood movie. The main character makes a plan, their opponent makes a counter plan.
Donor Tests The Main Character: The main character is tested, and receives a magical helper. Joseph Campbell would call it the mentor. This person is often a fairy godmother, or a talking animal/object who the hero has helped.
Main Character reacts by either passing or failing test.
Provision of Magical Aid. In Cinderella, a pumpkin is turned into a carriage and horses. Fairy godmothers and genies come in handy.
Transference to another kingdom. This might be from one real-life setting to another, for instance from a poor house to a ball in a lavish castle. It might be to a vault underground or into the forest, which is basically a symbol for the unconscious, where all your deepest fears are realised.
Battle: Main character and villain join in direct combat. In modern stories there is always a battle but it this battle takes all forms, including metaphorical. (I call it the big struggle.)
Branding: Main character is marked. In a fairytale, this is a visible marker that the main character has changed. (Or, the mark is made in lieu of real change.)
Victory: Main character defeats villain. In a fairytale, heroes are not defeated. Fairytales are not tragedies. Even when fairytales seem to end in tragedies, this is probably us putting our modern spin on it. For instance, The Little Match Girl dies but in Hans Christian Andersen’s day, the passage into Heaven to be reunited with a beloved grandmother was considered a genuinely happy outcome.
Initial Misfortune Remedied.
Return of Main Character. This is home-away-home structure
Pursuit of main character. Known as the chase sequence.
Rescue of main character. When the main character is female, the patriarchal Grimm brothers — and the equally patriarchal Charles Perrault — insert a big, strong man to save her. In “Bluebeard” — originally a tale told for women by women, the young bride’s army brothers come to her aid. The Grimm brothers preferred the version of Little Red Riding Hood in which Riding Hood is saved by the woodcutter, though other versions exist in which she saves herself.
Unrecognized return of main character (either to original home or to another kingdom). In the medieval period people were commonly required totake refuge by going into exile. Documentation tells us this was known as ‘Abjuring the realm‘.
Unfounded claims are presented by a false hero. The false hero is a stock character in fairy tales, and sometimes also in ballads. The character appears near the end of a story in order to claim to be the hero or heroine and is, therefore, usually of the same sex as the hero or heroine. The false hero presents some claim to the position. By testing, it is revealed that the claims are false, and the hero’s true. The false hero is usually punished, and the true hero put in his place. The false heroes in Cinderella are the ugly stepsisters. In modern romantic comedies there is often a guy who seems like he might be a good match for the heroine but it is later revealed he doesn’t match up. In Pride and Prejudice he is Wickham.
Difficult task is proposed to the main character.
Solution: task is resolved.
Recognition of main character. Rapunzel, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty all get to marry princes. The Frog Princess acquiesces to patriarchal demands to sleep with a frog and is awarded likewise with a handsome man to look after her. Puss In Boots gets to keep the ogre’s castle.
Transfiguration: The main character is given a new appearance. One option for the new situation. Puss In Boots now appears to be a nobleman and will live life as such. Cinderella will now live as nobility rather than a life of domestic drudgery. The Frog Prince is no longer a frog.
Punishment of villain. One option for the new situation.
Wedding: The main character marries and ascends the horse. This is one traditional option for the new situation, and pretty much the only reward for a female main character. The male main character gets back on his horse (literally and psychologically).
The above is Propp’s fairy-tale “ur-plot” with my own notes added.
For many examples of these functions in pop culture, see Propp’s Functions In Fairy-tales at TV Tropes.
Slap Happy Larry Stories
I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.