5 Lessons Learned from Fairy Tales

Who doesn’t know the formula for a fairy tale? It’s so deeply ingrained in our cultural lexicon that we naturally begin and end our modern stories with those familiar words:

Once upon a time…

And they all lived happily ever after.

No matter the format, we love fairy tales. Fractured, retold, spiced up, or sanitized, we can’t seem to get enough of them. But why? They’re not particularly novel. Damsels are usually in distress. Women of a certain age are bound to be as evil as they are wrinkled. Never trust talking animals. But whether we realize it or not, flawed as fairy tales might be, they attempt to explain how to navigate a world caught between the forces of good and evil.  

I’m not going to claim to be a fairy tale expert. But I was a nerdy bookworm of a child. I’d hide away for hours on end with Snow White, Cinderella, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Thumbelina, and any other fairy tales I could get my hands on. 

And I have to say that I learned a thing or two. 


1. Appearances are deceiving. 

It’s a given that anyone who looks too kind to hurt a fly is a cold-blooded killer in disguise. Random animals in tailcoats, top hats, or brandishing any object that should require opposable thumbs are definitely cursed royalty. And anyone dressed like a scullery maid, peasant, pauper, or otherwise decked out in dirt, tatters, or animal skins is also one makeover show away from being the love of your life.* 

Oh, and never trust anyone who comes bearing snacks. They’re usually a harbinger of death or Death himself. Especially don’t eat fairy food. Or piss off fairies. Politely say, “No, thank you.”

*To all the fairy tale heroes and heroines whose crushes were outwardly a swan, frog, donkey, cat, or another type of not-approved-for-consensual-relationships critters? That’s hella awkward. 


2. Don’t get greedy.

Put down the gold. Back away slowly. Yes, I know you could really use the extra cash. Maybe drop a side hustle or two and still have some coinage leftover for a new pair of shoes. And speaking of shoes, fairy tales have taught me that my shoe addiction is as old as time—also problematic. I totally relate to Karen in The Red Shoes, Cinderella and a sparkly glass kitten heel (because girl was not running in a glass stiletto), and all those princesses dancing right through their bespoke slippers. 

But just like an adjustable-rate mortgage or that no-interest for twelve months credit card offer, there’s always a catch. 

Folks (magical and otherwise) will show up with offers of fulfilling your wildest dreams. They only need one thing from you in advance—a teensy tiny promise (usually a firstborn… no matter how broke and desperate you are, hold onto those babies). Basically, be careful of the promises you make. Better yet, don’t make any promises at all. 

3. Third time’s the charm.

Don’t even get me started on try/fail cycles and how important that third one is. (Actually, if you would like to get me started on those pesky try/fail cycles and other writerly techniques, head on over to patreon.com and become a Patron of FFO.)

But that whole “if at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again” thing? True. Don’t believe me? Just ask Goldilocks. Or Snow White’s evil assassin-queen. Or that poor courtier in Cinderella sent to try on shoes. 

4. Stay on the path (unless you’re ready to get woke.) 

Look, I get it. You’ve been on that path for what seems like forever, and it feels like the same-old, same-old, am I right? Maybe it’s cooler under that creepy looking tree just over there. Or perhaps your bladder is angry at that last flagon of ale you tossed back and you’d prefer to take care of that with a modicum of privacy. Or you’re late for a very important date and what could it hurt just to cut a corner?

But this is like Fairy Tale Survival 101: Get off that path, and you will get lost. And don’t say that no one warned you. Everyone warned you—more than once. But there you went, not listening again.


It’s only when you’re good and truly lost that you can see what you’re made of. Bad things always happen. What matters is how you respond. So if you keep your wits about you? 

You might just find yourself. 

5. The most powerful magics lie within.

In fairy tales, even the small, the weak, and the downtrodden overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. Anyone can be royalty no matter how impoverished their background. Families will break your heart (and sometimes attempt to murder you) but they’ll also be there, shoring you up, when you need to shove a witch into an oven. 

Even in the darkest moments, trust that you have what it takes. Sure, the shadows are full of creatures with fangs and claws who’d like to have you for lunch. But you needn’t be afraid to question authority—to look in the locked room, open the chest, kiss the frog. Save the day. Save the ones you love. Save yourself.

• • •

The stories in this month’s issue are (if you hadn’t guessed already) fairy tales.

In “Silver and Shadow, Spruce and Pine,” FFO alumnus Maria Haskins weaves a classic fairy tale anew. From fellow FFO alumnus Dafydd McKimm, “Gingerbread” follows a devastated Hansel as he attempts to make peace with his past and reclaim his future. And from Audrey R. Hollis, “Lipstick for Villains” because what evil queen would be complete without her ruby red lipstick? Finally, in The Well Man” by T.J. Butler, a woman must look inside herself to find the power necessary to save the family farm.  

And that’s not all! A writing advice column from Jason S. Ridler with in-the-trenches advice for every struggling writer. 

Speaking of writing advice, if you’re a writer and looking for your people, I’d like to suggest you join our community of Patrons at Patreon.com. From manuscript critiques and personal coaching for writers to craft tutorials and early issues of the magazine, our Patreon community is intended to help you along your writing journey. 

Not a writer? We’d still love to have you become a Patron. Receive early issues of the magazine, copies of our anthologies, and a behind the scenes look at the infamous slush pile. 

You can also purchase individual issues in a convenient e-reader format at Amazon.com and WeightlessBooks.com.

Thanks for reading, and we hope you enjoy this month’s issue!

Anna Yeatts

Publisher, Flash Fiction Online