What Cinderella taught me about story bones

While on vacation in Wales this summer, I bought a beautiful used copy of Cinderella. It’s a hardcover book that used to belong to a library. On the endpaper, there are traces of due date stamps dating back to 1975. The book’s older than I am!

Cinderella title page by Arthur Rackham (1919)

This version was written in 1919 by CS Evans, who worked at William Heinemann publishing house. It’s well known for Rackham’s silhouette illustrations, which have become iconic representations of the Cinderella story.

I thought Evans’s version would have some subtle twists on the Grimm and Disney versions of the story. I was wrong.

In this version, Cinderella spends two years in boarding school without visiting home after her mother’s death. When her father finally comes to pick her up one day, she’s resolved to behave in part to make sure she isn’t sent away again. At home, she meets her new step-mother and step-sisters. They treat her abominably and her father retreats to his study, never saying a word about her new role as the family maid and cook, not even when he encounters her scrubbing the stairs.

So, the first lesson was that the variations on Cinderella are not always subtle. In addition to the Grimm version of the story published in 1812, Frenchman Charles Perrault had published version that came into popular print in 1698. Perrault wrote for an aristocratic audience and the Grimm brothers wrote folktales.

Evans was writing for an audience that wanted to less violent, child-appropriate versions of the story. There is no cutting off of heels or toes. Instead, Cinderella is remarkably mild, even inviting her stepsisters to court after she marries. Evan’s version is a lesson in good behavior.

Despite these differences, these stories all have the same title. So my questions is, what makes them the same story? The answer: structure.

Cinderella and the glass shoe illustration by Arthur Rackham

While they vary in the details, all of these stories include the same main plot points. There’s a dead mother, a mean step-mother and her two daughters. There’s a prince, a ball, and a magical helper. There’s a lost shoe, a found foot, and a marriage.

If all those elements are present in a story in that order, it’s a Cinderella story.

In storytelling terminology, these stories have the same bones.

As a storyteller or writer, if you can be sure of your story bones, then you can transpose your story for different audiences, purposes, and occasions. In the case of these three versions of Cinderella, the Grimm versions preserved a tradition from the land, Perrault wrote for aristocrats at the French court, and Evans wrote for children and their parents in early 20th century England.

If you’re telling an academic or professional story, your story bones can help you adapt your story for students, future employers, funding organizations, colleagues, conferences, or even Aunt Matilda at the next family gathering.

They key to these transpositions is deciding which elements to expand or contract, which details to include or exclude. For academic storytellers, that means taking deep dives into technical information where appropriate for both the story and the audience. All of this can be done while maintaining the integrity of the core story, the story bones stay in place.

When I bought my pretty version of Cinderella, I expected to read it and be only mildly surprised. That hasn’t been the case. Instead, it’s given me an appetite for more.

Yesterday, I ordered three more fairy tale books. Two include versions of Cinderella. What lessons will I learn from them?

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2 Comments

  1. Great stuff coming from just across the table!
    Writing is so much fun with Christine!

    • Said the woman who makes sure we sit down at all. Thank you! Can’t wait to read what you’ve been working on as well.

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