Want to learn how to write great fables?
Fables have been used for hundreds of years to entertain and to educate. Within these fun stories lie truths about how humans should live and important lessons on how we should behave. Fables rarely have characters which are human. Instead, the authors rely on animals who speak and interact much like humans do. This has a fancy word for it, called “anthropomorphism” – in short, making animals more like people.
Before we get into writing our own, let’s take a look at a couple of famous fables.
The Tortoise and the Hare
In the field, the Hare was once boasting of his speed before the other animals. “I have never yet been beaten,” said he, “when I put forth my full speed. I challenge any one here to race with me.”
The Tortoise said quietly, “I accept your challenge.”
“That is a good joke,” said the Hare; “I could dance round you all the way.”
“Keep your boasting till you’ve beaten,” answered the Tortoise. “Shall we race?”
So a course was fixed and a start was made. The Hare darted almost out of sight at once, but soon stopped and, to show his contempt for the Tortoise, lay down to have a nap. The Tortoise plodded on and plodded on, and when the Hare awoke from his nap, he saw the Tortoise just near the winning-post and could not run up in time to save the race.
Moral of the story – Plodding wins the race.
Aesop (1867) Aesop’s Fables
The Frogs and the Ox
An Ox came down to a reedy pool to drink. As he splashed heavily into the water, he crushed a young Frog into the mud.
The old Frog soon missed the little one and asked his brothers and sisters what had become of him.
“A great big monster,” said one of them, “stepped on little brother with one of his huge feet!”
“Big, was he!” said the old Frog, puffing herself up. “Was he as big as this?”
“Oh, much bigger!” they cried.
The Frog puffed up still more.
“He could not have been bigger than this,” she said. But the little Frogs all declared that the monster was much, much bigger and the old Frog kept puffing herself out more and more until, all at once, she burst.
Moral of the story – Do not attempt the impossible.Aesop (1867) Aesop’s Fables
If you’re super keen to read more fables, check out Aesop’s Fables.
So how do we write a fable?
1. Decide on a moral.
Notice how at the end of each fable there is a moral or a lesson listed? This is because the writer of the fable is seeking to use the story to illustrate an important lesson which he wants the reader to learn.
Often these stories are told to children and have some kind of basic lesson. But they also speak of how people should relate to each other, or even ideas such as what is good or valued in society.
Choose a moral to write about, then that will help you to choose characters, setting and plots to explore.
Here are some intersting morals to teach:
- Don’t mess with snakes
- Never trust strangers
- Keep your friends close
- Bullying leads to more bullying
- Or even something as simple as: Don’t stay out past sun down
2. Choose characters which suit your moral.
Now that you know what you want to write about, you need characters to help illustrate your important lesson.
Choosing the right animals is key in fables. You’ll notice that each animal has certain characteristics which are used as a stereotype. Basically, the bad animals are mostly the carnivorous ones, and the herbivores are saved for the more upright and ‘good’ characters.
- Fox – cunning and clever, but always trying to trick other animals. They generally want to eat other animals or use them for his own advantage.
- Pig – messy and greedy, pigs are generally interested in themselves and being lazy.
- Frog – frogs are generally ‘good’ characters, because they are innocent and only eat insects, something which annoys humans. They are also prey for foxes or cats.
- Cat – lazy and sleepy, they like to chase mice and rabbits to eat them, or just for fun. They are sneaky and care only for themselves.
- Donkey – trust-worthy and honest, donkeys might not be the prettiest animal going around, but they are true-hearted and their humility often wins out. Read The Silver Donkey, by Sonya Hartnett. A beautiful tale of trust and honesty.
- Mouse – shy and poor, mice are generally mistreated by other animals and not viewed as very important. They often save the day due to their small size or cleverness.
- And so on…
Notice how these animals are all common animals found around the farmyard or home?
You need to choose a protagonist, or hero, character, then choose a villain. These two characters will help you to develop the plot.
You may also decide later that you need another character or two. But be careful, fables generally have very few characters, so keep it to a minimum.
Check out a great list of amazing fables here.
3. Plan your plot
Now’s the time when you start to create a setting and storyline for your characters to follow.
Rather than just beginning to write, good writers generally have a plan of how the story is going to turn out before they begin writing. That way, they can know where they’re heading in their first paragraph and add little hints and clues as to how it might turn out. This is called “foreshadowing”.
Once you decide your hero, you need to put them in their setting. Having a mouse in a field or in a house is typical, and this works well. As soon as you put an animal in a different setting to the one they normally live in, you probably need to explain why, and this can detract from your original message.
After you put your hero in their setting, let’s focus on the villain.
You need your villain to behave as that animal would normally do in the wild. A fox will try to catch the mouse in order to eat it. Once you have your villain, you know what the problem will be.
- mouse lives in a hole in the field
- Fox wants to catch the mouse and eat it for dinner
Now if your moral is to warn against being out after sun down because it is dangerous, you need the sun to go down in your story, and for a negative consequence to happen to the mouse.
- mouse forgot to pick up some ants for his stew, so he goes out in search of some after sunset
- the fox, seeing the mouse out late collecting ants, knows that mice don’t see well in the dark and waits for him outside the mouse’s hole in the field
Maybe you can see where this tale is headed already?
Surely the mouse will be caught by the fox because he can’t see well at night. Or maybe the mouse escapes in a dramatic chase. Either way, the lesson is still the same: being out after dark is dangerous.
4. Write the first line
Once you have a first line, the rest flows on from there, but that doesn’t mean that the first line is easy. In fact, writing the first line can be the hardest bit.
Fables have a very simple style, not too much flair with language, and quite straight to the point.
For your first line, put your protagonist in their environment, and have them doing some kind of action. Take a look at the examples above. The animal is named, then the environment is stated, and then they are either talking or getting ready to drink.
For example: The toad croaked loudly in his pond. Or, the horse trotted happily in its paddock.
5. Finish the first draft
Once the first line is written, hopefully the story unfolds for you.
You’ll need to set the scene a bit further and introduce the problem. Once this is established, you need to resolve the problem for your protagonist.
Be careful to give enough detail that the reader can see the scene that you are describing, but not too much that you lose what action is taking place.
Send your fable in to Word-smiths and have it published in our magazine! Click here to email it in!
Here’s a fable I wrote about swimming in icy water. Enjoy!
The Little Turtle
There was once a little turtle who thought he knew everything. His class was out on an excursion to the forest when they came upon a stream.
“Don’t jump into the stream,” Teacher Turtle said. “You’ll likely drown.”
The little turtle was hot and bothered from the summer heat and wanted to swim. He was sure that he could slip away when the class walked on and come and sit in the shaded water for a while to cool down.
The class walked on and the little turtle slunk away while his teacher was not looking and went back to the stream. The water was cold and wonderful at first, but before the turtle could get used to it, his legs and arms cramped from the extreme cold.
As the little turtle felt that he would breathe his last and his head went underwater, a loud splash erupted next to him. Teacher Turtle had come back to see where the little turtle had got to. He promptly grabbed hold of the little turtle and pulled him out onto the bank.
Moral: Don’t swim in icy cold water.
by Mike Symons, 2021
That’s it! Now you know the secrets to writing great fables.