Writing Your Own Folk Tale
by Jennifer Kemnitz
I don’t know about you, but I feel like I could write half a dozen tales just spinning off the chicken hut passage in last month’s article. First, though, let’s look at general motifs to understand the structure of these tales and how they tick. Padraic Colum, a 20th-century Irish folklorist, says in his introduction to The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, pp. ix-x, that special patterning in folk and fairy tales makes them recognizable.
One patterning feature is the use of chiming words to highlight passages. This might be actual rhyme, such as in “If you ride straight ahead, it is into the marriage bed.” Or, the rhyme pattern might be looser, such as vowel or consonant rhyme (termed assonance and consonance in poetry). Repetition may also appear, such as the hero’s incantation beginning, “Little hut, little hut.” This device increases suspense, as in “Little Red-Cap” on p.142 of Grimm’s. The heroine remarks to the wolf in disguise, “Oh! Grandmother … what big ears you have!” Then the phrase is repeated with the body part changed, focusing on eyes, hands, and finally the mouth, when he eats her.
A second feature is the tangible thing at the center of the story. These tales usually give special importance to a useful, familiar article, such as a hairbrush or a mirror. This grounds the story in reality and pulls in its listeners and readers; it also enchants the everyday world after the story. Will using a mirror ever feel quite the same after “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”?
The third feature is a combination of the first two: items that correspond with each other, perhaps through echo or chime. Examples of correspondences are the mirror and glass coffin in “Snow White,” the spindle and thorns in “Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose,” and the tall tower and long hair in “Rapunzel.” Having these elements mirror and talk to each other gives an internal coherence to the world of the tale, no matter how different it may feel from our everyday reality. Using items of symbolic value to the tale is also key.
Writing a folk tale puts you in a special frame of mind; you are approximating dream space or mythological time-space. Focus on the meaning behind the action rather than on how things actually happen in our world. Think of how your dreams work, how abrupt and illogical the scene changes can seem, how the dream story feels to you, the effects in the psyche.
The folk style can give rise to interesting authorial voices, voices full of crackle and charm. This vitality can arrest the readers and catch them up in the narrative. I have felt freed by experimenting with these voices, myself. Simply donning a magisterial, omniscient voice or a winking, comical one leads to interesting outcomes in narrative.
I have written a few fairy or folk tales, and an even greater number of hybrid tales edging into surreal or uncanny territory. A larger dose of realism mixed in with folky elements might yield magical realism and other possibilities. Some of my poetry also carries these elements and influences. A poem might start with a kernel from a dream and then become more realistic. Or, it might begin as realistically descriptive, then flip over suddenly into another dimension. You can achieve various effects this way.
Here are starting points and exercises to integrate fairy tale motifs into your own work:
- Find an incident or experience in your or someone else’s life and start spinning a folk story around it. Just start playing and see what happens.
- Pick a plant, an animal, and a human with passions and a problem. You probably have the beginning of a tale right there if you inject some dream logic in the telling.
- With a particular person or character in mind, what kind of magical tale might that person find him or herself in? For instance, I am writing a fairy tale starring my grandmother as a child. She was unknown to me in many ways; she was not forthcoming about herself and her feelings, much less her dreams. I want to know more, but she has passed on. Now I am writing her into an interesting imaginal space of my own, based on her time period and place of origin. While the character will probably end up with few similarities with my actual grandmother, she is a starting point and an impetus to write.
- Another jumping-off point might be a public figure you are fascinated with or even tired of hearing about in the media. Mine the National Enquirer for ideas. Names can always be changed once the tale is spun!
- Or, pick a familiar, practical object you would like to explore by infusing it with fairy tale associations. Make the story hinge on this object, maybe making it useful to one of the characters at a crucial point. I once read a funny Lithuanian folk tale about a bread roll and its adventures in the world. Really! So it could be anything. Wouldn’t it be exciting to read a modern folk tale that incorporated a smart phone? Or a lawnmower? How about a can opener? And how fascinating to imagine what these objects might symbolize.
Finally, what are your favorite stories – written, oral, or from television and cinema? Write down the bones, figure out why they work, and transform them with the symbolism of dream. After all, many fairy and folk tales in the Western canon originated in India. As they spread out, over centuries, they changed according to people’s local tastes and the times. Let’s keep that ball rolling!
Jennifer Kemnitz is an herbalist-poet who lives and writes in Portland. She is a great defender of plant life, and can be roused at any moment to an impassioned discussion of its innate intelligence. Jennifer has been published previously in VoiceCatcher and anthologized by Poetry on the Lake and The Poetry Box. Her work is forthcoming from We’Moon and the Kerf. This article is the third and final in her enchanting series, “An Embarrassment of Riches,” special to VoiceCatcher.