5 Ways to Use Fairy Tales in Your Writing

August 18, 2020

It’s ALMOST TIME for our very first *** Folklore & Creative Writing Workshop ***! (Cue the screaming and confetti and the ritual gathering of requisite tea mugs, because how can you write without tea mugs?)

You’ve been asking us for this for ages, and we’re SUPER psyched to open the doors for registration this coming Sunday (be sure you’re on our mailing list so that you know the moment we open it up because seats are limited!) That said, some people may be reading this and thinking “Folklore AND Creative Writing? Ok, but what does that even mean?” So we thought we’d give you some examples using our very favorite type of folklore – the fairy tale (plus more cat gifs… because that’s who we are.)

There are SO many different ways you can use fairy tales (and folklore more broadly!) to inspire your own creative writing, far more than what we’re including here, but here are five of our personal favorites!

1) Retelling – This is probably what most people think of when they pair folklore and creative writing – retelling a classic story. But within this category, you can use so many different possibilities and strategies. You can illuminate the backstory of the enchanted mirror, set “Cinderella” in space, or even make the villain the hero (i.e. the Wicked effect.) This is one of our favorite things to do with folkloric material. Between us, we’ve published dozens of retellings. And we can’t even DESCRIBE how excited we get when we stumble upon a really ingenious one, like Juliet Marillier’s gothic Beauty and the Beast tale, Heart’s Blood, or Jane Yolen’s gripping WII retelling of Sleeping Beauty, Briar Rose. Retellings, however, can be a lot trickier than many people imagine. To get a really good retelling, you have to not only remain grounded in the story you’re reworking – you’ve got to give it new life. This is easier said than done! We’re going to talk a LOT more about retellings in one of our lectures for the workshop so, if you’re interested in them, you’re going to want to be sure to sign up!

2) Memoir – Because fairy tales are so recognizable to Western societies, they can be wonderful jumping-off points for memoirs and other personal reflections. Two of our favorite books that use this to their advantage are the collections Mirror Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales and Brothers and Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, both edited by Kate Bernheimer. These collections feature writers discussing their favorite tales and, often, using them to make sense of their own lives. One of the most moving essays is “The Boy Who Went Forth” by Christopher Barzak. He talks about growing up very different from his family and how he found a kindred spirit in the underestimated and misunderstood boy of the Grimms’ tale “The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn About Fear”: “What the strange brothers of fairy tales showed me was that, in my family, I was this sort of child. The weakling, the strange thinker, the one set apart from social normality […] [a]s an adult I was able to see that the stupid sons were stupid only in the eyes of constructed social norms, that they were not inherently useless or strange. They were, in many cases, the real heroes of their lives and the lives of their families.” Looking through the lens of the fairy tale can be the key to unlocking and unpacking your experiences, memories, and dreams.

3) Original Fairy Tales – Creating an original fairy tale sounds deceptively simple. You mix together a new plot with distinct characters and their own challenges, hang-ups, and wishes, and BOOM: new fairy tale. And while this is kind of true, this recipe overlooks the fact that the building blocks that make up fairy tales (plot elements, motifs, stock characters) are forever being recycled and remixed. Even classic original fairy tales like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” draw deeply upon beastly bride tales, not to mention mermaid and siren lore! Even the most original fairy tale remixes elements from old tales – otherwise, it wouldn’t be recognizable as a fairy tale! Does this mean that there aren’t new fairy tales being written and told all the time? NOPE! People are creating new fairy tales every day. But the line between “original” and “retelling” (or even “fairy tale” and “fantasy”) can get murky real quick.  

4) Historical – Sometimes even a historical text can draw on fairy tales. Now, in saying this, we don’t mean a historical novel that retells a fairy tale – that would fall under retelling – but rather a historical novel or even non-fiction text that flirts with the entire concept of the fairy tale. Consider, for example, the novel The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth. This book is actually about the real-life collecting of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and especially the influence of Dortchen Wild, a key source for the stories and the girl Wilhelm Grimm would later marry. You might also take a look at Jack Zipes’ non-fiction essay about the Brothers Grimm called “Once There Were Two Brothers Named Grimm,” in which he sets up the actual brothers’ lives as a fairy tale in and of itself. 

5) Aesthetics – Sometimes, all a text really needs is that certain “fairy-tale vibe.” We’re not talking about a retelling, or even a new fairy tale here, we’re just talking about that je ne sais quoi that makes people think “hmm… there’s something fairy-tale-y about this.” In other words, the notoriously hard to define “fairy-tale aesthetic”… and we say “je ne sais quoi” for a reason. It’s really hard to pin down what makes something FEEL like a fairy tale. It’s different for different people, different cultures, and different languages. Sometimes, it’s about word choice – simple, direct language can evoke the fairy-tale form, for example. Or it can be about objects. If a bad character gives a good character an apple, your Snow White radar will definitely get pinged. Sometimes it has to do with time and place. If your story is set in an undefined “once upon a time”-ish place, then you’re likely creating a fairy-tale vibe. Take a moment and think about the specific aesthetic choices you can make that might up your text’s fairy-tale feel – you might be surprised what screams “fairy tale” to you (A broken mirror motif? Bare-bones dialog? Settings that range between the forbidden forest and twisting towers?), but we bet that you won’t be alone in it doing so!

So there you have it! Five ways that creative writing draws on fairy tales – and fairy tales are just ONE kind of folklore! There’s so much more to explore. Again, be sure you know when we open up the doors to Spellcraft, our first Folklore & Creative Writing Workshop, by clicking here to hop on our mailing list!

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