How to write a modern fable for the adult reader

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

Here we will look at how to write a modern fable for the adult reader. As this is our first attempt, to make it easier we’ll use one of Aesop’s fables, The Ass, the Cock & the Lion, for both inspiration and guidance. We’ll define a fable then analyse our old fable before planning and writing out our modern fable. At the end are some pointers for crafting the fable.

What is a fable?

A fable is a short pithy tale consisting of characters that are usually animals, though plants, humans, inanimate objects or natural forces are also used. The characters are anthropomorphized (given human characteristics) and act as props for human character traits and expression. In the fable, each character fulfils a very narrow set of consistent characteristics. For example, the wolf is always a clearly defined predator with the nature to go with it; the fox is cunning, tricky, not to be trusted. Character is kept within simple boundaries so as not to interfere with the clear purpose or message/moral of the fable: to reveal a single aspect of the universal weakness of human nature.

The Ass, the Cock & the Lion

Below is the Aesopic fable we will use as a template for our modern fable.

An ass and a cock were in a cattle-pen together. Presently a lion, who had been starving for days, came along and was just about to fall upon the ass and make a meal of him when the cock, rising to his full height and flapping his wings vigorously, uttered a tremendous crow. Now, if there is one thing that frightens a lion, it is the crowing of a cock: and this one had no sooner heard the noise than he fled. The ass was mightily elated at this, and thought that, if the lion couldn’t face a cock, he would be still less likely to stand up to an ass: so he ran out and pursued him. But when the two had got well out of sight and hearing of the cock, the lion suddenly turned upon the ass and ate him up.

Analysis of the fable

The theme/human flaw or message
The theme or message is the most important thing about the fable. In order to bring this message across clearly in the tale, character must work as a simple stereotype. The theme must flow simply and clearly through this plot prop without any complications or hindrance. With the message, the fable is powerful. Without the message, the fable is worthless.

The message or moral of this fable is: False confidence often leads to disaster.

Character here is drawn as usual in simple stereotypes. The ass acts as expected, as does the lion, a predator, and the noisy cock. The ass misjudges the situation which in turn leads him to underestimate his opponent. Consequently, his confidence swells out of all proportion to his talent and his subsequent action gets him killed by the king of the beasts.

The plot
An examination of this fable’s plot in the abstract will allow us to manipulate it easily for our own aims. The abstract plot has a physical as well as an emotional side.

Here is the abstract physical plot: B flees from the sound of A. As a consequence, C chases after B. But B turns on C and destroys him.

Here is the psychological or emotional side: B flees in fear from the sound of A. As a consequence, C chases after B, assuming that because he’s much bigger than A, he’ll scare C even more. Unfortunately for C, B turns and slaughters him.

Human nature is full of irony as it is full of splendid contradictions. When a character acts on a human flaw, as in this fable, irony often arises from the action. A fable with irony works better than one without, especially if irony is combined with an unexpected twist. It is odd that the sound of the cock should scare the lion, but odder still that the ass should make the assumption from this that he himself can scare the king of the beasts even more. The irony lies in the consequences of that assumption.

Plan the modern fable

Theme/human flaw
This is the easy part as we already have the theme/human flaw from the other fable and even the way it is delivered as a message.

False confidence often leads to disaster.

We can also shift across relevant aspects of character from the other fable. The theme centres on the ass’s character flaw, which makes him the most important character in the tale. To keep him intact as a character, all we have to do is carry across his old attitude to the new situation and we keep intact his character flaw, too. If we do not keep intact this character attitude, we could very well end up delivering on a different message, which means we may as well have not bothered using this fable as a guide. Our characters will be a man and a woman and the situation modern, but obviously they must remain stereotypes. The man will become the equivalent of the ass and the woman the lion in our fable.

Let’s look again at the abstract plot from the old fable.

Here is the physical side: B flees from the sound of A. As a consequence, C chases after B. But B turns on C and destroys him.

Here is the psychological or emotional side: B flees in fear from the sound of A. As a consequence, C chases after B, assuming that because he’s much bigger than A, he’ll scare C even more. Unfortunately for C, B turns and slaughters him.

Now here’s the abstract physical plot for our fable: B dates A. This triggers C to chase B. But B turns on C and destroys him.

Here is the abstract psychological or emotional plot: C lusts after B, but until B dates A, C doesn’t act on it. As C thinks himself superior to A, he now chases B from a position of over-confidence. Unfortunately for C, B turns and slaughters him.

When we get the plot like this in the abstract we can easily see that both plots are the same.

The story
In the office, a man has wanted to make a move on a woman for quite a while but never had the confidence to do so. This is the equivalent of the ass who would never ordinarily dream of going after the lion. Up to now the woman has dated men with more money and better looks than our man, but now he discovers that her new boyfriend has less money and fewer good looks than himself. This is the equivalent of the lion fleeing from the crowing cock and the ass putting his own spin on the reason for it. Our man also puts his own spin on it, believing she is only dating below her league because she has lost her confidence. This makes him over-confident, and he gives chase. But as with the ass, the man learns too late that he has misjudged the situation. She cuts him to pieces for his assumptions.

Setting and Situation
Setting is stated rather than described in a fable.
Situation refers to the way the story plays out its conflict sequences. In our fable, the conflict will be done with dialogue. In the old one, the conflict is accomplished with physical movement.

In our fable, the man’s human flaw leads to action which creates an ironic twist. The woman’s reason for giving him the brush off has nothing to do with money and looks, as he had supposed, but with his poor attitude toward her. Yet it was this poor attitude that had first given him the false confidence to pursue her.

The modern fable

Now it’s time to have a bash at writing the fable itself.

One of the features of the fable is that it is named after the character types in the story; e.g. The Hare and the Tortoise. We are going to hold to that tradition here.

The Man & the Woman

A man lusted after a woman at the office, but kept from approaching her, fearful that she’d laugh off his advances, as her dates were always men with far greater looks and income than his own. One day, he discovered her new date was not as good looking as himself and earned far less income. Now his chest swelled with confidence, and he pounced on her, expecting a date. But he was rebuked with a laugh.

Shocked and angry at the rebuttal, he lashed out, “No longer able to date the classier men, you now date a man with fewer good looks and even less money than me. So why should you turn me down?”

She laughed again, “Your assumptions are all your own. I don’t judge men your way. My latest man is as good as any man. Your confidence was raised only because you thought mine was lowered and therefore my standards with it. You underestimate others in order to overestimate yourself. That’s why I’d never date you.”

Our theme or message rises clear and simple out of our fable: False confidence often leads to disaster.

Summing up

We are able to take the same theme/message, character attitude, and even the same physical and emotional abstract plot and sense of irony from the old fable and place them all in the modern fable, and yet on the surface they both appear very different to one another. And notice how relevant our modern fable is to our modern world! This is evidence (if needed) of how well the old fables encapsulate human nature, and do so in a witty and entertaining way. It also means that we can quite easily use these old fables as both inspiration and guide to create fresh and relevant fables of our own.


Pointers for crafting the fable

Play with the formula
Fables tend to be very formulaic. This is not a bad thing as it allows the writer to concentrate on the delivery of the message within a well-established framework. However, now that we know what strengthens and what weakens a fable, we can play with the formula to make the fable a little more dynamic.

Story type
Story is often pure fantasy in the fable, which reflects in the use of anthropomorphic character. There is no effort made to convince the reader of the reality of the situation; it is the reality of the human weakness portrayed that is the function of the tale.
The main way to break with the tradition of the formula is to give it a context and situation of realism.

We can follow the style of the Aesopic fable or take the vocabulary and imagery from elsewhere; from the modern world around us, for example. The more elaborate our language, though, the longer the fable is likely to be. For our example here, we more or less stuck to the tradition of style found in Aesop’s translations.

Description must be plot-related and kept to a bare minimum. Language is often condensed and connective words and phrases used to push the plot on quickly.

To show difference or opposition use connectives like, ‘on the other hand’, ‘on the contrary’.

Causal connectives are words and phrases like, ‘consequently’, ‘because of’, ‘under the circumstances’.

Temporal connectives point out when things are happening and the passage of time. Examples are, ‘at this point’, ‘afterwards’, ‘then’, ‘on another occasion’, ‘winter arrived’.

Dialogue is cynical, witty, innocent, honest, often contrived and preachy when delivering on the message, but always short, sharp, to the point and effective.

“Aha! You never thought to come to this, did you, you who were so proud!”

Our Aesopic fable here lacks dialogue. The fable might have been more entertaining, if, for instance, the lion had informed the ass before devouring him, “The sound of the cock might scare me, but you, on the other hand, only make my mouth water.”

It’s a good idea to establish setting and character in the first line, as we must move to the plot as quickly as possible. ‘A woodman was felling a tree on the bank of a river…’ ‘An ass and a cock were in a cattle-pen together…’

Or we might get stuck into the theme (the human weakness) straightaway. ‘A bear was once bragging about his generous feelings…’

But we must at least introduce character in the first line. ‘A very unskilful cobbler, finding himself unable to make a living at his trade…’

The narrative works purely toward the final statement/message which may well be delivered with an ironic twist. This sort of twist gives the ending a lot of punch. But whether we have a twist or not, once the message is delivered the fable must end. There is now no reason to go on writing and to continue doing so might distract from the message and even leave the reader confused.


For more on fables see: How to develop credible and insightful short story ideas from a fable.

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About jerrydunne

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1 Response to How to write a modern fable for the adult reader

  1. Fascinating! You made it very clear Jerry, congratulations and thanks. Will recommend your book.

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