Monday, December 15, 2014

Make BELIEVE in Once Upon A Time (and your story!)

Who would ever believe that Rumplestiltskin's son and Snow White's daughter have an illegitimate child after Pinochio slacks on his duty to care for said daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, and later on the daughter meets up with other well-known characters like Peter Pan, Jack and the Beanstalk's Giant, the Wicked Witch of the West, Little Red Riding Hood, Robin Hood..and even Elsa from Frozen--all just a car trip away from her loft apartment in Boston??


You'd never believe it. And I'd never thought it could be done, until my kids and I started watching the hit T.V. series, Once Upon A Time.

Wowsers, the twists and turns of the series take a fan's breath away and spin them into new levels of believability in almost-ridiculously impossible situations.

Even tonight, during a commercial break an ad came up about the Paddington bear movie, and my twelve year old says, "Oh geez, another movie about talking animals. How un-real." UM...Child-o-Mine was on the edge of his seat waiting for the next twist in Once Upon A Time!!

It is when a writer (novelist and T.V. writer alike) takes their audience like a dog on a leash following every twist and turn without question and wanting more, that the writer has truly accomplished a very grand and successful feat: making the Impossible seem Possible...enough to MAKE the audience BELIEVE the fiction! YIKES!!

I'd like to humbly dissect how they do this. (And I am certain my terminology could be replaced by more sophisticated writerly language). I will also share a bit about how this has helped me in my current novel.

1. Characters worth investing in! The good guys are truly human--with hopes, dreams, motives, flaws, name it, they are someone you want to befriend at times, or slap upside the head at other times. If a character seems to step out of line of their true self, you know the motive behind it and it does not seem "unbelievable" because they have truly been shaped into a person you want to route for....
And the bad guys are truly broken--they aren't all evil...they are products of their environment, situations, or tragedies...and so they, believe it or not, usually become a character worth investing in, too. From ashes comes beauty, right? Well, the complexity of these characters gives you a sense of... believability and very possibly human in the most fairytale sense of the word.

"You have literally seen my heart. You know it's not untouched. You are not all evil and I am not all good. Things are not that simple."--Mary Margaret, Once Upon A Time

What I Have Learned In My WIP: It's not all black and white. Wouldn't it be easy to say that this character is all bad and this one is all good, and the tension is clear cut between them? But that's cookie cutter fairytale world. And let's just say, Once Upon A Time has given fairytale world as we knew it, a pretty two dimensional reputation. I now look at my characters from several facets, AND, I am more willing to take the risk of throwing a wrench in their paths to make them dig deeper in their arc...even if it seems like an impossible task.

2. Intricate Backstory: Once Upon A Time is really a weaving of Historical and Contemporary. The historical mainly unfolds why the characters are the way they are in present day...and how they are connected to the characters who we really would never believe would come together (see my first paragraph). Some authors utilize flashbacks in their stories to help firm up their character's present-day motives or unveil a secret that will affect the rest of the story...but even without actually flashing back in writing, I now realize how important it is to KNOW MY CHARACTER'S PAST! If the past is fuzzy, and their is no solid reason to explain why the character does what they do, why the character knows who they know, or why the character views the world in a certain way, then an author is asking an awful lot of their reader to take the author's word for it and just believe that's who they are.

From FanPop
"Once I saw the man behind the beast. Now there's only a beast."--Belle, Once Upon A Time

How I Have Applied This In My WIP: While I have taken the liberty to weave in some flashback scenes in my novel, I have also used dialogue between my present characters to reveal their past stories. And it is when I have worked out the kinks in their past stories that my eyes as an author have been peeled back to reveal clearer motives and twists in the actual story.
Plot twists become more complex and intriguing when the characters are acting out of deeply-rooted fibers of their being.
And if an author hasn't shown the first growth of that fiber in some way or another, then the twist won't be so much of a page-turner but a book-closer.

Just like this hit T.V. series, I hope to have a "hit" some day too...and I am willing to create those characters worth investing in by developing the backstory needed to give them a present story worth reading...what about you?


Angie Dicken is a full-time mom and lives in the Midwest with her Texas Aggie sweetheart. An ACFW member since 2010, she has written five Historical Romance novels, has a Historical underway, and is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Agency. Angie also spends her time designing one-sheets, selling Jamberry Nail Wraps, and drinking good coffee with great friends. Check out her author page at and her personal blog at 


Sandra Stiles said...

Once Upon a Time is my favorite show on TV and one of the few I watch. I enjoyed your post. It gives me a lot more to think about as I write. Thank you.

Casey said...

I admit I have seen very little of Once Upon a Time, but have only heard people rave about the show. (personally I think it's a tad over dramatic, but I'm always coming into it out of context so that could be why. ;) But have characters to invest in and a fantastic backstory is really what can keep anyone hooked in any show--or book! I watched the entire series of LOST and not really sure WHY now as I was so frustrated with it and the ending, but I think it was because of the points you made here. I was invested in the characters enough to know what happened to them next and I wanted to learn more of their backstory. Good lessons to apply to the WIP. :)

Loree Huebner said...

Thanks for this post, Angie. You gave me a lot to chew on here.

Angie Dicken said...

Sandra-- Thanks for stopping by! IT is such a great show, isn't it? Perfect for story crafters!

Casey-- I say, give it a season (Netflix)...yes, it's over dramatic at times...but that goes with manipulating fairytales/disney characters/and overall good vs. evil across realms! HA!

Loree-- Hope it helps you with your next plot twist! Thanks for stopping by the Alley!

Pepper said...

We're big Once Upon a Time watchers in this house. I'm awed at how many overt themes of redemption are used in it! EVERY episode there's something!
And I do love how they make most of the characters more three dimensional.
Although Rumple drives me CRAZY, he's such an intriguing villain. And I love Emma!