When creating a fairytale world, certain language marks the tale as timeless.
Why timeless? Stories which begin in a fairytale fashion share the quality of essential truth. Earlier audiences assumed this essential truth to be the essence of God’s own voice:
In the beginning was the Word.John 1:1
Fairytales begin with a similar, familar phrase. This phrase sets the tone and tells the reader: “This is an old and distant story tied to modern times only thinly.” These beginnings all serve the function of effacing a particular voice. For more on that see Psycho Narration, especially the bit about dissonant and consonant narrators. (A Once Upon A Time story has a ‘dissonant’ narrator, with no personality of its own.)
A Once Upon A Time beginning also tells the reader that “This could be anywhere. Its heroes could be anyone. This hero could be you.” For the same reason, fairytale characters are archetypes.
FAIRYTALE BEGINNINGS IN VARIOUS LANGUAGES
Some languages e.g. Japanese say ‘A long time ago…’ (Mukashi, mukashi…)
There once was a king/queen/princess…
It was once…
German: Es war einmal… (Once upon a time)
Armenian: There was and there was not…
Korean: Once, in the old days, when tigers smoked…
Czech: Beyond seven mountain ranges, beyond seven rivers…
Lithuiana/Persian/Thai etc: Once upon a time, a long long time ago…
VARIATIONS ON ONCE UPON A TIME
Some stories simply start with the word ‘Once’. This is enough to invoke the ‘Once upon a time’ tone.
Other stories utilise “Once Upon A [X]”
Slap Happy Larry Stories
I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.
Header illustration by Eloise Wilkin