Once Upon a Time


Here in Australia, season one of the ABC fantasy-drama series Once Upon a Time recently came to an end. The series concept is this: in the magical world of fairy tales, the evil queen lays a curse that transports everyone to Storybrooke, Maine. The evil queen does this to punish Snow White who, as a child, did something that blighted the queen’s future. In Storybrooke, Snow is mild-mannered teacher Mary Margaret. Also in town are Prince Charming, Red Riding Hood, the woodcutter, Cinderella, Pinocchio and many more, including the Machiavellian stirrer of the piece, Rumpelstiltskin, in the guise of antique dealer Mr Gold. Then there’s the evil queen herself: Regina, mayor of Storybrooke. Everyone has a new identity, and none of them remember their former lives in the fairy tale world. Then an agent for change comes on the scene in the form of ballsy but conflicted Emma Swan, who may just have the key to undoing the curse.

I had my doubts about this series. As a lover and long-time reader of fairy tales, I wondered how they’d fare in the hands of writers who’d produced something as convoluted as Lost. I’ve become aware that many folk believe the Disney fairy tale movies are the authentic versions of these stories, and I suspected the writers would not value and respect the strong, true heart of their material. On the other hand, fairy tales have staying power. It’s in their nature to grow, develop and change, consistent with the oral storytelling traditions that gave rise to most of them. There are some wonderful novels and short stories built on fairy tale material. If a writer knows, respects and understands the original, it’s OK to play around with it. Up to a point.

So was I happy with Once Upon a Time? Did the high concept for this series produce a satisfying result?

Season one gets the tick of approval from me – I watched every episode. Viewers in the US and Australia loved the series, though the response from critics was mixed. I did have some reservations, and advance info about season two suggests they may increase. The mixture of traditional fairy tales with novels such as Alice in Wonderland and mythological stories such as King Midas didn’t work for me. I was sometimes jolted by the transitions between one world and the other and wondered if perhaps there were flaws of logic. I found the Disney details, such as the names of the Seven Dwarfs and a reference to the fairy Maleficent, quite jarring. Some episodes, like the Hansel and Gretel story, came across as clunky.

However, the writing was overall strong and the casting excellent, in particular the inimitable Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin/Mr Gold. He’s a nuanced villain with sufficient complexity to keep the viewer engaged throughout. Female viewers enjoy the feminist take on many of the stories, though this is hardly new –  feminist fairy tales have been around at least since Angela Carter!

The series gains depth from the fact that the personal stakes for the characters are so high. When the fairy tale characters were ripped out of their familiar world and dumped in Storybrooke, everyone lost something precious: freedom, power, leadership, family, love, home. In the human world the stakes are equally high: Emma comes to Storybrooke after the son she relinquished at birth turns up on her doorstep with a crazy theory about his entire town being under a curse. Ten year old Henry is convinced that Emma is the only person who can undo the spell, but first he must convince her that magic really exists. It doesn’t help that his adoptive mother is Regina, aka the evil queen. Did I mention high stakes?

The last television drama that hooked me in as successfully as this was Prison Break, in which the concept was even higher. Older brother is on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Younger brother, a genius engineer, contrives to be convicted of a crime and incarcerated so he can break his older brother out. Before he does this he gets a full upper body tattoo of the blueprints for the prison building. Nuts? Indeed – but thanks to the charismatic leads, Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell, the strong theme of brotherly loyalty, the great supporting cast and the tension-filled prison setting, the series made compulsive viewing. It did go on too long, with the plotline stretching credibility to breaking point in season three, but it remains one of my favourite series ever.

From the above I extrapolate the following points to remember when I am creating a story, none of them new to Writer Unboxed, but all of them worth another mention:

– Don’t be afraid of high concept. Both these stories look wildly implausible in outline, but were brought alive by clever writing, good casting and creative confidence.

– A clever, original concept is great, but your story lives and dies on the emotional journeys of the individual characters. Make things personal. Challenge your characters to the max. Raise the stakes and keep on raising them.

– Do not fear the old fairy tale values: faith, courage, loyalty, family, endurance, truth and so on. Prison Break is all about self-sacrifice and brotherly love, plus cool tatts.

– Know when to stop.

What high concept novel or series has held you enthralled, and why?

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About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


  1. says

    SUCH a great show! I loved “Once Upon a Time”. Like you, though, I found many of the more explicit Disney references to be a little odd in the midst of things. As far as a high concept//series that held me enthralled, Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” saga has always intrigued me. The first book is DEFINITELY an intense story. The stakes are so, so high that in some ways, you don’t see how things could work out, but the way in which Card finishes off his masterpiece at the end is brilliant. SO great!
    L.M. Sherwin´s last blog post ..Night Bells Flash Sale! 50% Off for the Next 48 Hours!

  2. says

    For me the best example of a high concept series was Heroes. The first season was perfect; the stakes were both high–“Save the cheerleader, save the world.”–and personal for each character. The high concept of individuals with superpowers trying to work out what they were and what they needed to do worked perfectly, and the first-season arc story was excellent. But it didn’t know where to go from there, or when to quit; consequently it staggered along for a few more seasons, getting worse all the time until it died.
    Marion Harmon´s last blog post ..Marvel Mystery Men

  3. Denise Willson says

    While I enjoy a classic fairy tale as much as the next guy, I’m more of a clear-new-paths kinda gal, so I’ll forward this post to a friend. She’s in the throes of number two of a three book pub contract, and this post is a perfect fit for her.

    Great advice for all. Thanks, Juliet.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  4. says

    Wonderful article Juliet – especially the great writing advice at the end. Like you, I cautiously enjoyed the first season of Once Upon a Time but when the purple sludge filled the streets at the end…well…I began to worry. I suppose we’ll see soon enough how it all turns out.
    Jes Young´s last blog post ..Mary is Dead: A Drabble

  5. says

    “A clever, original concept is great, but your story lives and dies on the emotional journeys of the individual characters. Make things personal. Challenge your characters to the max. Raise the stakes and keep on raising them.”
    Thank you, Juliet. I don’t watch much TV, but my favorite shows all seem to have mastered what you said above. Dexter? Have you seen the previews for this coming season? Stakes have never been higher. And MAD MEN? Don Draper and the MM crew find themselves in the most compromising positions which makes it great fun to watch.
    Malena Lott´s last blog post ..Should you respond to criticism online?

    • says

      I watch very little TV – that’s probably why Alex calls my post ‘guileless’! I’m very choosy about what I watch, as I am with what I read, and I do try not to get hooked on long series that will rob me of writing time. However, a well-scripted TV series can teach a novel writer a lot about pace, tension, characterisation and world building.

      Dexter is not for me, but I agree the concept is remarkably bold.

  6. says

    Do not fear the old fairy tale values: faith, courage, loyalty, family, endurance, truth! I stumbled onto the show while in a London hotel (long ago gave up TV in favor of writing time). When I saw the concept, I thought “Really? You’ve got to be kidding me.” But I didn’t “click” and a great show hooked me. I love Rumplestilskin/Mr Gold with his magic and cunning. Poor Snow is chalk full of complexity too. She can make a mean revenge plan but is nobel and sweet. Even Regina’s evil-streak is rooted in her unfairly lost love and deep grief. I was pleasantly surprised and couldn’t wait for the next show. Mingling of fairy tales worked on the level they presented it–there’s this place where they all hang out somewhere in fairy world. Clever. Knowing when to stop? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and apparently the masses decide, not us, although if we have integrity, we try!
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  7. says

    Juliet, this post was so timely for me today, as I was drafting a cover letter for my agent to include with submissions, explaining how and why my fascination with fairy tales lead me to write my own Cinderella retelling. Thanks for helping me to distill what makes fairy tales so enduring, ever-changing, and important!

  8. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Love this post! In fact I’m copied the points you deducted from your musings and put them in a file to read again, and mull over. Thank you.

    When I think about it, a lot of good science fiction pieces have elements of fairy tales. I’ll have to check out Once Upon A Time. My personal taste usually runs to shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad. However, both those series could arguably have elements of fairy tales ingrained into them, too.

  9. says

    If you liked Once Upon a Time, check out the graphic novel series Fables! It provided the loose inspiration for the TV show.

    My favorite novel with a high concept is Spin by Robert Charles Wilson: one night, a group of children watch the stars go out. What’s happened is that aliens have placed Earth inside a membrane that slows time inside while the rest of the universe ages normally, meaning that the end of the solar system will occur in forty years, from Earth’s perspective.

    I also love Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, whose high concept is even easier to boil down: What if the black plague killed 90% of Europe instead? We get to see about 1000 years of what Earth would be like if other nations became superpowers instead, and the effects this would have on technology, culture, and the “discovery” and development of the Americas.
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  10. sue knight says

    Am loving Game Of Thrones…stakes are very high, lots of bold characters, plot twists etc
    Great article Juliet.

  11. says

    Thanks so much for this, Juliet! Great insights. My favorite part was about the enduring values. Perhaps these values are why fairytales endure for so long – they resonate with humans on a level that transcends culture, time, and location.

    Oh boy. Now I’ll be tempted to watch this show… :)
    Sarah E A Fusaro´s last blog post ..Writing What You Want to Read: Romance

  12. says

    Juliet, love the four wrap up points and the first, most of all, “Don’t be afraid of high concept.” Challenging just in the thought alone! I did’t watch the series, but your descriptiion leaves me rethinking that.

  13. Fleur says

    Thank you for your review, Juliet! I’ve never watched the series, but have heard positive things about it. I quite agree with you that it’s the personal growth of the characters that make stories engaging. You mention that it’s been some time since a series hooked you. Have you seen the series Game of Thrones? That and Downton Abbey are probably my only ‘must see tv’ in years!

    All the best with your writing! I can’t wait to read your new novels, especially Flame of Sevenwaters, available in the States in November (and in case anyone’s wondering, no I’m not part of a publishing house. I just can’t wait to read it!).

  14. says

    I love this post for demonstrating how writers can learn from a variety of media. I’m surprised at how hooked I got on Political Animals. Episode I I thought, nah. But then it got me.

  15. says

    You’ve intrigued me, Juliet. I haven’t heard of this series, but I’m usually about three years behind in my TV viewing and rely on others to tell me what’s worthy.

    As a family, we’re working through 24 right now. It’s certainly high-concept and gives ideas about maintaining suspense, though I find myself shouting at the screen when characters violate their own values for the sake of the plot.
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Dare to be Delighted (and Writer Unboxed Redirect)

  16. says

    My sister and I were hooked on this series from the very first episode. Here in the US, the new season is about to begin. We already have the DVR set in case we can’t make it to the TV on time! I especially love Mr. Gold’s story line, and the acting is spot on.
    Jaime´s last blog post ..NaNoWriMo and tired

  17. jonson says

    My sister and I were hooked on this series from the very first episode. Here in the US, the new season is about to begin. We already have the DVR set in case we can’t make it to the TV on time! I especially love Mr. Gold’s story line, and the acting is spot on.
    Jaime´s last blog post ..NaNoWriMo and tired