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June 30, 2024 12:00

Why Writers Should Pay Attention to Fables

Louise Dean. Founder, author and Director of The Novelry.
Louise Dean
April 22, 2018
April 22, 2018

We’ve all heard of fables, but they may not be something we consciously think about very often. In fact, many people pay no mind to fables after they close their big book of Aesop’s morally instructive stories in early childhood. But if you’re interested in writing a novel, it might be time for you to revisit those old fables and see what inspiration they stir. In fact, our founder Louise Dean thinks they’re at the heart of many of our greatest tales. In this blog post, she explains the value of fables for writers.

The magic of storytelling

Paulo Coelho wrote his 45,000-word The Alchemist in two weeks, as it was ‘written in his soul.’ It is ‘a fable about following your dream.’

As those taking The Classic Class know, what you write can come true.

In the very first chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling declares that Harry Potter will become famous worldwide.

In a way, a book is a spell.

So long as you know what it’s about, what its promise is, in one sentence, you can deliver it whole, and quickly.

‘Alas,’ said the mouse, ‘the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.’
‘You only need to change your direction,’ said the cat, and ate it up.
—Franz Kafka, ‘A Little Fable’

Do you have it in your soul? Yes, and that’s something we teach our writers to excavate with the The Classic Class some have described as unusual therapy.

With a fable you cut to the chase, you don’t beat around any bushes, and this is very good ‘therapy’ for the nearly-reformed literary fiction writer or any writer who is good with words and rubbish with story, as so many are.

The foundation of fables

Let’s look at Aesop. Born possibly in the sixth century BC, no-one is quite certain, but like Uncle Remus, he was a slave who told stories about beasts and birds that have endured and woven their analogies into the fabric of our everyday understanding and discourse.

In a fable, the persons are slightly impersonal, if not downright impersonal.

The main players are often animals, they are ‘creatures’ or ‘types’ who epitomize the less admirable (fleeting in cosmic terms and yet perennially recurrent) facets of human nature. Think of Orwell’s fable Animal Farm.

G.K. Chesterton explained it thus:

They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two.
—G.K. Chesterton

Fables are of nature, they convey a fatalism, that everything is as it is, and will always be, irrespective of our foolhardy whims and caprices while we are here. They have a moral outcome.

They are the alphabet of humanity... The upshot is everywhere essentially the same; that superiority is always insolent, because it is always accidental; that pride goes before a fall; and that there is such a thing as being too clever by half... There is every type and time of fable: but there is only one moral to the fable; because there is only one moral to everything.
—G.K. Chesterton

The moral to everything? That one man, one woman, one beast, will be checked by the greater good, the universe will win the day, the reaper will reap, as yesterday so tomorrow.

The story in any form, but especially this pithy number, reminds us that every one of our battles won is a temporary victory. And while this is cold comfort on the one hand, if you turn it over you see the good news in our temporary, ever-changing condition:

Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fables are usually concise

A fable is a potted novel. A long story cut mercifully short.

Animal Farm: 29,966 words

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: 39,000 words

The Alchemist: 45,000 words

Slaughterhouse-Five: 47,192 words

The Great Gatsby: 55,000 words

Lord of the Flies: 62,481 words

Brave New World: 64,531 words


The timelessness of fables

You can argue that this genre is, to use Edgar Allan Poe’s words, ‘Out of SPACE—out of TIME.’

It’s the timelessness that makes it a ‘classic.’ If you have not turned your hand to a fable, perhaps it’s time you did in this Age of Impatience.

Wordsworth viewed the development of a person’s life as a movement from a prenatal knowledge of eternity, through socialization (‘the light of common day’) to an adulthood of compensations arising from the ‘shadowy recollections’ of eternal truth, which come from a contemplation of nature.

The ‘creature,’ the actor of nature, carries the shorter message all the way home, and strikes the heart, conscience and mind hard.

You will get there, and when you do you won’t have time to lose. You will be a fabulist.

Go forth and be fabulous. Join us on the famous Classic Class.

For one-on-one help writing your novel, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry today. Sign up for courses, coaching and a community from the world’s top-rated writing school.

Someone writing in a notebook
Louise Dean. Founder, author and Director of The Novelry.
Louise Dean

Award-winning Booker Prize listed author.

Members of The Novelry team