Many classroom teachers use classic and modern fairy tales to teach the elements of plot in fiction. Perhaps you’ve seen a shape resembling a bell-curve with short intersecting lines for words including antecedent action, inciting incident, conflict, plot complications, climax, and denouement. Because readers are familiar with the story line for fairy tales, the mechanics of fiction are easy to see. Consider Grimm’s fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel.
Antecedent Action: Poor Hansel and little Gretel are the children of a woodcutter, a widower remarried to a heartless woman. She recommends leading the children into the dark woods and leaving them there because the family’s resources are too thin to nourish four.
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Inciting Incident: Hansel and Gretel’s weak-willed father relents and agrees to the wicked stepmother’s plan.
Conflict: The children overhear the plot and are thus forewarned. They crumble the bread given to them, unaware that birds will eat the crumbs and erase the children’s trail leading them home. Without a trail, the children are lost and alone, no longer pitted against the stepmother, but against all of Nature’s deep, dark woods and their own guileless natures. The children simply don’t know how to survive on their own.
Complications Intensify the Conflicts: A house made of sweet treats guaranteed to entice children hither appears; it is the work of an evil witch who plans to feast upon the children. She’s larger and filled with guile, but unlike the stepmother, she has more than her wits to use against the children. She has power to create an illusion that fair is foul and foul fair (Macbeth); this empowers her to dupe and imprison the babes after which she heats an oven, planning to force Gretel to shove her own brother inside. Little Gretel thinks on her feet and pretends to be unable to push Hansel. The witch rushes in, putting herself in jeopardy; Gretel pushes the witch off her feet and inside the oven, then slams the door. Freed from certain death, the children steal the witch’s riches in order to save their father from penury and starvation.
Complications Continue: The children still don’t know how to get home, but they set off in the general direction of home, arriving at the edge of a large body of water. They can’t swim. This time, however, Nature befriends the children. A duck appears to carry them on its back. On the other side, the children recognize the terrain and find their way home.
Climax: Hansel and Gretel’s little hearts have forgiven their father’s shrunken one. Better still, he’s realized his complicity in his children’s suffering and is grateful for a second chance. He embraces his children and tells them the stepmother is no more.
Denouement: All live happily ever after, father caring for his children well because his children cared for him, delivering wealth untold, enough for a lifetime.
Reading Challenge: Apply the terms reviewed above to any other fairy tale as you read it.
Writing Challenge: Map, as I did for Hansel and Gretel, the plot of the fairy tale you chose to read. Briefly explain each element.