Vladimir Propp counted 31 functions of a fairytale. Propp defines ‘function’ as an act of a character, understood from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action.
He used the word ‘narrateme’ to describe these plot points. We started ending words in ’eme’ in the late 1800s, starting with ‘phoneme’ (the smallest unit of sound). Linguistics also gives us ‘morpheme’ (the smallest unit of meaning). Fast forward to the 1950s and there are so many abstract concepts ending in ’eme’ that a guy called Kenneth Lee Pike starts us talking about ’emic units’. Anyway, the ‘narrateme’ is part of that whole family of concepts. A narrateme meaning, basically, in my own words: A small unit of story which has been broken down from a larger unit of story. People familiar with story intuitively understand these bits of story in the same way a native speaker has an intuitive understanding of the morphemes and phonemes of their own language.
Propp’s way of describing how humans break story down into smaller bits of story and putthem back together like jigsaw puzzles certainly has its critics but is currently the most widely known way of conceptualising the constituent elements of fairy tales.
Is it useful in your own writing? I suggest it could very well be useful in the revision process if you’ve created a story and it doesn’t quite work. It’s possibly more useful in the analysis of popular story, as one explanation as to why some stories really ‘stick’ in our culture, and others simply fade way, forgotten.
See: Propp, Vladimir . (1928) 1968. Morphology of the Folktale, translated by Laurence Scott . Austin: U Texas P.
Morphology will in all probability be regarded by future generations as one of the major theoretical breakthroughs in the field of folklore in the twentieth century.
— Alan Dundes.
Propp’s work is seminal…[and], now that it is available in a new edition, should be even more valuable to folklorists who are directing their attention to the form of the folktale, especially to those structural characteristics which are common to many entries coming from even different cultures.
Importantly, Propp clarified that not every fairytale includes every single plot point as listed below, but when they do, they tend to appear in the following order.
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).
Commonly, young chararcters in fairytales leave to ride or walk to visit someone as a guest (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood, who visits her grandmother), to go fishing, to gather berries, or maybe they’re simply going out for a stroll.
The person who leaves home might be a parent. In Beauty and the Beast, the father is a merchant and goes away on business.
In fairy and folk tales, parents commonly take off to work, to the forest, depart in order to trade (see above), leave for war, or for some other unspecified business.
The very absence of parents prepares the audience for inevitable misfortune.
In contemporary children’s literature, storytellers face the task of getting adults out of the way so children can have their own adventures and solves problems on their own. They use an increasingly varied toolbag of tricks to do this. (In the 20th century, especially in American children’s stories, child main characters were very often orphans.) In fairytale, too, many child characters are orphans.
The main character is given an ‘interdiction’ or warning.
- You dare not look in this pantry.
- Do not pick the apples. (Related to the Garden of Eden relgious stories.)
- Do not pick up the golden feather.
- Do not open the drawer.
- Do not open the box. (Pandora tales)
- Take care of your brother.
- Do not kiss the sisters.
- Do not venture forth from the courtyard.
- If Baba Yaga comes, say nothing and be silent.
The interdiction may be presented as direct dialogue, or it may be described in the narrative summary:
- Often did the prince try to persuade her and order her not to leave the high tower.
Speaking of towers, these structures are often used in fairytale in place of an interdiction. (If you lock your kid in a tower, you don’t really need to give them warnings; it’s not like you expect them to go anywhere.)
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).
But an interdiction isn’t always quite so forceful and obvious. It may simply be a request, or even just a bit of advice.
- You’re still a youngster.
- Take your brother with you to the woods.
There may even be a bit of trickery involved.
- Children, go out into the forest.
- Bring breakfast out into the field.
In storytelling terms, this (wrong advice) serves the same function of the interdiction, only it has been served by a trickster false-ally. (If you’re stuck inside a fairytale and someone tells you go to into the woods, DON’T GO.)
The interdiction is violated. Little Red Riding Hood speaks to the wolf.
Rule of fairytale: Interdictions are always broken.
Goldilocks was never explicitly told to avoid breaking and entering, but she knows and we know that this is a violation. Likewise, if someone is late in returning home, the interdiction “Don’t be late home” has simply been omitted.
In a fairytale, this plot point corresponds to the emergence of the opponent. This villain will disturb the peace and will cause misfortune or harm. Typical fairytale villains:
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
The villain attempts to contact the main character and obtains information about them.
- Where do the children live?
- The location of precious objects
- “Who will tell me what has become of the king’s children?” (A bear)
- “Where do you get these precious stones?” (An employee )
- “How were you able to make such a quick recovery?” (A priest)
- “Tell me, Ivan, the merchant’s son, wherein does your wisdom lie?” (A princess)
In some versions of Rumpelstiltskin, the Queen who sends out her messenger to find the dwarf in the woods, giving the female character more agency by turning her into a trickster who is a worthy opponent for the villain.
Sometimes the villain asks the intended victim a question which has a menacing vibe to it:
- “What a swift steed you have! Might you not get another somewhere that could outrun yours?”
Occasionally the reconnaisance part of a fairytale doesn’t involve the villain.
This is the part where the villain receives information about the intended victim. This information may come from an unexpected source, e.g. from a normally inanimate object that busts out talking.
- “Take me out into the courtyard and throw me down upon the ground; there where I stick into the ground will you also find the hive.” (A chisel to a bear)
In Snow White, the Evil Stepmother has a dialogue with a mirror. The stepmother doesn’t question Snow White directly but doesn’t need to; she has a magic mirror which will give her the information she needs. (The mirror tells her that Snow White is living in the forest and more beautiful than she is.)
There’s often carelessness involved at this part of a fairytale.
- A mother calls her won home in a loud voice and betrays his presence to a witch.
- An old man receives a marvellous bag and gives the godmother a treat from it. This gives away the secret of his talisman to her.
The victim fools the victim. This deception allows the villain to take possession of the victim and their belongings.
Typically, the villain assumes a disguise. This might involve transmogrification.
- A dragon turns into a golden goat.
- A priest dresses in a goat’s hide. (Goat skins are a good one — goats are associated with Satan.)
- A witch pretends to be a sweet old lady and imitates the voice of the victim’s mother.
- A bad man might appear to be a handsome youth.
- A thief pretends to be a beggar.
In fairytales, villains might try charm and persuasion, or they might go straight for magical means of deception.
- A stepmother gives a sleeping potion to her stepchild, or poisons an apple.
- A villain sticks a magic pin into the victim’s clothing.
Villains might use other means of coercion and deception.
- Place knives and spikes around a window so no one can fly through it
- Rearrange wood shavings which are supposed to show a girl the way to her brothers.
The victim is successfully deceived and unwittingly helps the villain.
They might simply agree to go along with whatever the villain suggests.
- They take the ring.
- They go for a nice steam bath.
Rule of fairytale: Deceitful proposals are always accepted and fulfilled.
Main characters might become mechanical at this point, succumbing to the magic, e.g. falling asleep via the magic potion.
Bear in mind that the mechanical behaviour of the main character may not even require a villain e.g. a character might fall asleep of their own accord.
On the other hand, there’s often a good reason why a victim succumbs to villainy, to do with life circumstances. A victim might give in to money because their family is very poor.
There may be no way out of acquiescing because they’ve been given a contradictory or impossible task.
- “Give away that which you do not know you have in your house.”
At this point the villain causes harm or injury to a member of the family. Everything that has happened previously has been building up to this moment. The first seven functions of a fairytale lead to this eighth one.
There is much variation in how villains cause harm to their victims including:
- abduction and kidnapping (a step-mother lulls her stepson to sleep and his bride disappears forever, a wife flies away from her husband on a magical carpet)
- incarceration (a princess imprisons Ivan in a dungeon etc.)
- theft of a magical item (the fire bird steals the golden apples
- maiming (a servant girl cuts out the eyes of her mistress, a princess chops off someone’s legs, someone steals the heart out of another person’s breast)
- murder (a stepmother orders a killing, an employee orders the slaying of a magic duck or chicken)
- the plundering or spoiling of crops (a mare eats up a haystack, a bear steals oats, a crane steals peas)
- cannibalism (or the threat of it) is common (for many reasons).
Though the crimes are varied and numerous, most of them relate to some kind of theft.
In a few categories of fairytale, the hero effects the disappearace themself. Or a king might demand a son leave his house. A stepmother might drive her daughter out. A priest might expel his grandson.
Turning the victim into an animal first is pretty common e.g. a stepmother turns her stepdaughter into a lynx before casting her out of the home. In fact, substitution is another common form of fairytale villainy. For instance, a nursemaid might change a bride into a duckling and replaces the bride with her own daughter. Or a maid might blind the king’s bride and then pretend to be the bride herself.
Ordering someone is thrown into the sea is also a pretty common one.
An intensified form of explusion: the villain orders the murder of their victim e.g. a stepmother orders a servant to kill her stepdaughter while she’s out walking. It is common that the heart or liver be requested as evidence that the victim is dead.
Villains often cause multiple harms at once. (Two or three.) So for example, a princess might steal her husband’s magic shirt (theft) and then murders him. Older brothers might kill a younger brother (murder) and then steal his bride (theft).
Modern storytellers use various terms to describe ‘lack’. You’ll hear ‘psychic wound’ and ‘ghost‘.
However, in fairytales, the lack or insufficiency is an external thing. For example, the main character lacks/needs a magical sabre or steed or something like that. In any case, this lack will provoke the quest.
In fairytales as in any good contemporary story, a lack is created externally but realised internally. The lack of an object in the outside world maps onto the internal need/deficiency in the character’s psychology.
In fairytales as in contemporary stories more generally, the lack/shortcoming/need isn’t necessarily on the page, but left for the audience to understand via empathy.
Typical lacks in fairytales:
- a bride (romantic love and companionship)
- a friend (loneliness)
This part of the fairytale may happen right at the start, and in contemporary stories, that’s where you’ll typically find it. Over the years, this part of a plot has shifted up.
In fairytales, the main character is either approached with a request and is now aware of the lack, or goes out to remedy the lack of their own accord.
Misfortune or lack is made known to the main character (who is either a Seeker or a Victim-hero).
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 call this the Call To Adventure. Something beckons to the main character and off they go on an escapade. In fairytale, a call often comes from the King and comes with promises. (You can marry my beautiful youngest daughter etc.) There might be threats as well as (or instead of) promises.
These guys (mostly masculo-coded) are called Seekers. Parents give their blessing to sons who go out into the world. Sometimes the story doesn’t explain to its audience why this guy has left the house. Or sometimes he says he’s going out for a walk and ends up in this life-changing fight (meaning to find a fight all along).
Sometimes the son sets out because he feels the need to set something right in the world. Contemporary middle grade books showcase a number of similar children, who know something’s wrong with their family (perhaps a family member is ill) so they set out on a journey in the hope of making everything better. (Two Weeks With The Queen is a good middle grade Australian example.)
The folktale hero may be one of two types. I’ve been talking about Seekers; the other type of character who leaves the house is the Victim-hero.
Whereas a Seeker goes off to rescue someone else who is passive within the story (e.g. a damsel in distress), a Victim-hero is the star of their own fairytale.
There is no seeker in a story which centers the Victim-hero. (The two types of hero are mutually exclusive, though modern fairytales may subvert this expectation, possibly because they’re subverting gender roles.)
The main character might be banished from home for some reason. An interesting group of fairytales are those in which a parent leads their child into the forest e.g. in Hansel and Gretel. Why don’t these children take themselves into the forest? (There are many ways of sending children out into the world; this one seems unreasonably callous.) These parents who take their children into the wilderness and leave them there are known as Parent-senders.
Sometimes a main (Victim-hero) character has been condemned to death and is secretly freed, perhaps by a low-status character such as a cook, or by the person (archer, huntsman) whose job it was to do the actual killing.
In any case, the main character has to leave home for some reason, whether the reason is on-the-page or not.
At this part of the fairytale there may be a lament sung for the departed main character. A lament is sung if the family thinks the main character has been murdered, bewitched or banished, or replaced by a different person.
In a fairytale starring a Seeker, this Seeker-hero decides upon counteraction. In other words, villainous plans require counterplans 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 counterplan. This happens three or however many times until one of them triumphs.
12. Donor Tests The Main Character
Who is the ‘donor’? Vladamir Propp means the ‘provider’.
The main character has been tested, and now receives a magical helper. Joseph Campbell talks about mentors. The difference is, donors can be fake allies as well as genuine helpers.
This person is often a fairy godmother, or a talking animal/object who the main character has helped.
If you’re after a donor, you’re most likely to find them wandering through the forest, but you won’t actually find one by looking: You’ll happen upon your donor by accident. The donor might teach you some magic or give you a magical item or teach you some magic words. Notice this doesn’t happen too early in the story. The hero has to have been tested first, without the aid of magic.
But now the main character is tested again. Donors don’t just give out tips and tricks to any old character they meet in the forest! First the hero has to prove they are worthy of such benefits.
- A witch gives a girl a whole lot of household tasks
- Forest knights tell a hero to serve them for three years as a merchant or ferryman, without pay
- The hero must listen to the playing of the gusla (a stringed musical instrument of the Balkans) without nodding off to sleep
- A witch asks the hero to guard a herd of mares
Heroes are rewarded for answering politely and punished for answering rudely.
Sometimes the donor is in their death throes and wants one last wish carried out.
Or the donor might be a prisoner requesting freedom and asks the hero to set them free.
Or a jug fished out of the water begs to be broken. (In old tales, containers should be opened with caution — they inevitably contain magic or evils or an imprisoned spirit.)
A donor may be begging the hero for mercy e.g. they’re an animal with their paw caught in a trap. Perhaps the hero has caught the animal themself and now the animal starts talking and begs to be let go in return for a big favour.
Sometimes the donor hasn’t so much as asked; the hero suggests some sort of deal themself. Or perhaps the hero simply sees an opportunity to offer assistance to someone in need. This can be considered a test.
The test may not actually involve a donor. In Hansel and Gretel the witch has fattened the children up, sure, and saved their lives in time of famine, but she can hardly be said to be a donor as such. She only meant to eat the children herself. She does function as a (twisted) donor in the story, however.
Sometimes the ‘donor’ is an out-and-out baddie and no exchange has been attempted.
- A host tries to feed his guests rats at night
- A magician tries to exhaust the hero by leaving him alone on a mountain
In some stories this hostile creature (not a donor, per se) joins in combat with the hero. In a sense they’re acting for the hero’s benefit. There are many fairytales involving combat (mostly brawls) in a forest hut involving various members of the forest.
The donor might be a villain who offers a tool of the trade in exchange for something else. A robber might try to trade his cudgel. An old man might try to trade his sword.
13. Main Character reacts
The main character either passes or fails the test.
The main character is mostly very black and white in their response: They’re either very clearly not okay with the turn of events or very clearly fine with it. This section of fairytales features binaries:
- The main character either sustains or does not sustain an order.
- The main character either answers or does not answer a greeting.
- The main character either performs a favour or does not perform a favour for a dead person.
- The hero vanquishes or does not vanquish the opponent.
Rules of fairytale: Heroes free captives, show mercy to supplicants and settle disputes.
14. Provision of Magical Aid
The hero has a magical agent, typically such as the following:
- animals (horses, eagles etc.)
- objects which can contain helpers (containers but also rings or anything, really)
- weapons such as cudgels and swords
- musical instruments such as gusla and horns
- In Cinderella, a pumpkin is turned into a carriage and horses.
And what are the various ways the hero gets their hands on these magical agents? We’ve already seen that a donor may have given it to them.
- An old man might present a horse as a gift.
- Animals of the forest offer up their offspring.
Another common way to get yourself a magical animal: Obtain the power of an animal by turning yourself into that animal.
But some folktales end with a reward of innate value and is not magical.
Does the main character of the folktale want the magical aid? If they don’t, they’d better watch out — they will generally be heavily punished for failing to accept help when help is given. Types of punishment include:
- Being easten
- Getting frozen
- Getting injured
- Thrown under a stone
At this point the magical agent may become known to the main character.
- An old woman shows the main character an oak tree which has a flying ship lying under it.
- An old man directs the main character’s attention to a peasant who will sell a magical steed.
Next, the magical agent is prepared. This will be a paragraph such as:
The magician went out on the shore, drew a boat in the sand and said, “Well, brohters, do you see this boat?”
“We do see it.”
“Then get into it.”
There mjght be a transaction (buying/selling) in which the main character gets their hands on the magic hen/dog/cat etc. Or the main character might order something in advance e.g. orders a blacksmith to make a chain.
Or else the main character happens upon the magical agent by chance. They might come across a tree bearing magical apples, for instance, or see a magic steed and happen to mount it.
Sometimes the main character doesn’t even have to be observant. The magical aid simply shows up and cannot be ignored e.g. a magical staircase appears before them. Magical bushes, branches, dogs and horses regularly seem to sprout out of the ground. Dwarves also tend to appear out of nowhere to make themselves available.
Sometimes the main character steals the item, often from a witch.
15. Transference to another kingdom
The transference 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 perhaps they are spirited away into the forest, which is basically a symbol for the unconscious, where all your deepest fears are realised.
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.) The main character will come close to death, either actually or spiritually (possibly both).
Main character is marked. In a fairy tale, this is a visible marker that the main character has changed. (Or, the mark is made in lieu of real change.)
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.
19. Initial Misfortune Remedied
20. Return of Main Character
This is home-away-home structure
21. Pursuit of main character
Known as the chase sequence.
22. 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.
23. 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‘.
24. 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.
25. Difficult task is proposed to the main character
task is resolved.
27. Recognition of main character
It was Aristotle who noticed all stories feature first a ‘reversal’ in the main character’s fortune, and that this will be followed by a moment in which that character realises what has happened. (The character might be horrified or delighted at this change.)
It is on this function that the theories of Aristotle and Propp line up.
Modern storytellers use a number of different words to describe this part of a story. See: Anagnorisis.
In many fairytales, the ‘reversal of fortune’ is a rags to riches tale. 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.
In many modern stories, for both adults and for children, there is a fairytale scene near the end where the main character receives recognition. Not just the personal validation that a job was well done, but public recognition.
When writers do this for their main character that’s because they are part of a specific ideology prevailing at the moment — that if it doesn’t happen in public it doesn’t happen.
In ancient times, work in the home, largely carried out by women and slaves, was devalued not because it didn’t attract a salary but because it happened in the private sphere. It was considered worthless because it lacked the recognition and permanence that was afforded to practices that happened in public. The whole point of the built world of public spaces and public institutions is that it creates a place where actions can outlast the mere lifetime of the individuals who enact them. Worth — a kind of immortality — is only able to be realised in full view of one’s peers, which is in public, not in private. This creation of worth is precisely why some try and define what they do as valuable in ways outside any remuneration offered. Shelley’s description of poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ or Ezra Pound’s suggestion that they are the ‘antennae of the nation’ – the whole evolution of the Romantic idea of genius – arises from such non-market, public understands of worth. Now, to some large extent, of course, there values still pertain, but the point is, labour, as it has moved out of the private sphere and into the public, has become the measure of the ‘man’ and prestige has flowed as much to the high salary as to any other value inherent in the world done. Donald Trump’s success as a candidate in the 2016 US presidential race, for instance, was predicated on the fact that he was rich, very rich, and this wealth was seen in and of itself as a qualification for office, beyond any particular formal qualification or experience he had.Why The Future Is Workless by Tim Dunlop (2016)
The public recognition is especially popular in TV, where it is harder to show that a character feels good about their own achievements.
28. Exposure of false hero/villain
The villain is unmasked. This is a part of the anagnorisis phase of story, and ties up the plot. Stories often include a Self-revelation on the part of the main character and then another part which tidies up the plot (which was the vehicle leading the main character to their Self-revelation.) For more on that distinction see Short Story Endings.
- 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.
In contemporary stories this can take a variety of forms e.g. a makeover scene. The outward transformation is a visual cue that the interiority of a character has also changed.
30. Punishment of villain
Contemporary stories for children are moving away from the entire concept of punishment as it’s outdated.
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.