Claire Massey, fairytale writer, and the founder and editor of New Fairy Tales, guides us through the spiralling web of writing fairytales.
We should probably start with ‘once upon a time’: Once upon a time there was a writer who set out to write a fairytale…
Brought up with the tales from childhood, we all know the stock phrases and can describe the typical characters and plots (although too much exposure to Disney can lead to the mistaken belief that Princesses must always be rescued, but we’ll get to that).
Fairytales are one of the oldest types of story we have. The tales have travelled countries, continents and generations. For example, the earliest recorded Cinderella type tale comes from Egypt in the 1st century BCE, and thousands of variants of the tale have been collected from all over the world.
Decide whether your fairy tale will be oral or literary
Fairytales can be oral or literary. Tales from the oral tradition are often clear and sharp, as though they have been polished through repeated telling. Sometimes collectors of tales, such as the Grimm brothers in the 19th century, have claimed to have recorded and preserved oral tales without tinkering with them.
Although in truth, there are no ‘pure’ tales: a tale can never be told or committed to the page without some of the teller or writer’s intentions creeping in.
Literary fairy tales, which first found widespread popularity in the salons of 17th century France, may be inspired by oral tales but they are often more ornamented than their sources. They are constructed as literature – to be read rather than told.
Choose whether to write for children or adults
Although the oral tradition is being revived by the resurgence of storytelling, it is from children’s books that most of us get our first taste of fairy tales. And for a lot of people fairytales remain associated with childhood.
From the 19th century onwards literary fairytales were usually written with children in mind. It was only in the late 20th century, with the work of writers such as Angela Carter, that the fairytale for adults re-emerged as a distinct form.
Consider the generations of taletellers who’ve gone before
The fairytale has been put to many uses by many different types of writer. There is a saying, ‘the fairy tale has no landlord’ – does that mean we can do whatever we like with them?
The short answer is yes, but I think we owe it to the generations of taletellers before us (not to mention our readers) to try to do it well. There are certain conventions to be followed, or at least to be broken knowledgeably.
You can’t write a fairy tale until you have spent a lot of time reading them. Relying on half-remembered bedtime stories and Disney films isn’t enough. Going back to the older versions, from before they were sanitised for children, can be a revelation and can also provide lots of inspiration.
Rev up your sense of wonder
The essential ingredient in a fairy tale is wonder. In fact the German term for the tales is wundermärchen, which translates as wonder tale. Our own term comes from the French ‘conte de fées’, which is misleading as in fairytales there is rarely a fairy in sight.
Wonder is the element that sets fairy tales apart; whether events take place in a nameless kingdom or a modern city, when fantastical things happen (and they must) the characters mustn’t question them – there should be no explanation.
This is unlike the wider fantasy genre, which often uses detailed description of magic to explain things, or science fiction, which uses existing or speculative science, or horror, which often uses the supernatural.
Revel in the extreme of good and evil
Fairytales are also characterised by extremes: wicked stepmothers and kind princesses, peasants and kings, fabulous rewards for the good and terrible punishments for the bad.
The plots are straightforward and tend to follow a recognisable pattern. Max Lüthi wrote of a ‘fairy-tale style’ which ‘in a few well-chosen words, merely suggests the sequence of events, and which has a preference for action rather than lengthy descriptions’.
The events often take the form of journey or quest, and there is always a transformation – of a character or a situation, frequently of both. Marina Warner has said ‘metamorphosis defines the fairy tale’. Whether a fairy tale ends happily ever after or not it will have always encompassed wondrous change.
Tell your tale
Now we’ve looked at some of the basic elements, how many ways can we tell a fairy tale?
- We can retell an old tale or write new one in a ‘fairy tale style’, keeping to the realm of ‘once upon a time’. We can leave the characters and places unnamed, and use a distant third person narrator or a tale-telling ‘Mother Goose’ voice.
- Or, we can consciously move away from a ‘fairy tale style’ by including more detail in the narrative and by naming characters and places. We can use a closer third person narrator or a first person one. These techniques can all be employed in all of the following options…
- We can retell an old tale by putting it into a different time and setting. We can tell it from the point of view of a maligned character or a character on the margins of the tale, subverting people’s expectations for the story.
- We can reimagine an element of a tale, steal a single character, or incident, or motif and take them into a new story.
- We can write a new tale that draws inspiration from traditional tales but uses no recognisable characters or motifs, creating new ones instead.
And when your tale is written what can you do with it? There is a healthy appreciation for fairytales online, with a number of online magazines and journals specialising in them and blogs dedicated to them.
Tales can also be sent to magazines that cover the wider fantasy and speculative fiction genres. The audience for these markets will generally be adults.
Sending your work to online and print magazines is definitely the best place to start as opportunities with larger publishers may be difficult for un-established writers to come across.
There are publishers who publish collections of tales and most large publishers produce picture book retellings of classic tales. The audience for these markets will generally be children.
Bring something new to your tale
I think the most important thing to bear in mind when setting out to write a fairy tale is that although we are dealing with age old material we should try to do something new.
You need to add your voice to the voices that have gone before, otherwise the results will feel redundant.
Don’t just return to the familiar tales of your own culture, look much further afield. The versions of the tales that remain prominent such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White were all popularised in the 19th and 20th century by men looking to uphold patriarchal ideals. They do not reflect our society or the larger body of fairy tales from the past – there are many neglected tales in which the Princess does the rescuing.
My favourite writers of fairytales include Charles Perrault, Grimm brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde, Italo Calvino, Anne Sexton, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Jane Yolen, A.S. Byatt, Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link.
Max Lüthi said: “The whole world is reflected in the glass pearls of the fairy tale’. What we need is a diversity of tales that reflect the world we live in now.”
Claire Massey’s fiction, poetry and articles have appeared online and in print in an assortment of places including Cabinet des Fées, Enchanted Conversation, Flax, Rainy City Stories, Magpie Magazine and Brittle Star. She is the founder and editor of New Fairy Tales, Assistant Translations Editor at The Adirondack Review, and she blogs about fairytales at ‘The Fairy Tale Cupboard’.