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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mucking About with Fairy Tales and Tall Tales: How to Twist Them and Make Them Your Own

Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham, 1909

This weekend, I'm speaking at the Western Pennsylvania SCBWI conference on "Mining the Folklode." In case you can't make it to the conference, here's a quick overview of the tips I'll be sharing to help you take well known tales and give the reshaping that makes them interesting for modern audiences.

  So, you think you’d like to write a tale or two!

Let’s start with the basic good old-fashioned fairy tale.

You know where to begin--


Once upon a time,

But where do you want to go next? Far away? Or far far away? You decide.


Once you have your kingdom in mind, let’s give someone or a bunch of someones there a problem. A serious problem.

      A dragon is good.
      An ogre scary.
      A band of outlaws might make for tension.
      So would an invading army.
      And you can always fall back on the very annoyed and ready to do harm step-mom
Illustration by Margaret Evans Price for Cinderella  in Bates, Once Upon a Time: A Book of Old-Time Fairy Tales, edited by Katharine Lee. Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1921.

      How is the problem going to be solved?
      Remember in picture books there is a series of three.
      If they throw water on the dragon, it turns to steam.
      If they build a trap for the ogre, he eats it.
      If she/he tries to fool the vexed step-mom, that tricky step-mom foils the fooling.

      If you have a hero, now’s the time for them to start to really work hard. This is a fairy tale so magic is fair! One, two, three. YAY!

      And everyone is happy ever after.

Now, apply this to a tall tale, but let’s make some changes.

Just last week…

In Pimplepopp, Pennsylvania

In a garbage dump, a blob began to grow, and grow, and GROW

And the only one who noticed was a little boy who rode his bike by the garbage dump as he delivered papers.
      So, what’s going to happen? One, two, three.

And since this is a tall tale, give your kid some super powers.

Remember, a tall tale might sorta could be true, well, here and there. And then it’s stretched and stretched until it’s fun!

Now, what if you have a favorite fairy tale and you want to tinker with it? What do you do?

Use our template.

Do you want to change the WHEN?    

What if Sleeping Beauty took place in 2525?

Change the WHERE.

What if Jack and the Beanstalk took place on Jupiter?

Change the WHAT

What if in Cinderella the Prince was a schmuck and the step-mom was trying to keep Cinderella away from him?

Change the HOW

What if Jack decided to negotiate a peace treaty with the giant instead of killing him? What if Jack felt remorse for stealing the giant’s favorite things?

In fact, what if Jack lived in New York City and his mother told him to go out and sell her cow costume because they needed the money to buy milk. What if a guy on his way to a party needed a costume and wants the cow suit. What if he gives Jack a magic key that makes any elevator open immediately if the key touched the door? What if Jack decides to try the key out on the new office building and he finds himself on the 313th floor and . . . .

Well, you get the idea.

Have fun! If you are laughing as you write, the reader will be laughing as they read.


  1. Very interesting post, Kitty. I've copied down these steps - seems like this would work for any classic tale, include myths, Bible stories, and literary classics. So sorry I'll miss your talk on Saturday.

  2. Kitty, what perfect timing. I just had a brainstorm in the last week and have turned it upside down and inside out. I think I'll just begin as you suggest. Beginning is the key.

  3. Great information, Kitty. I participated in the workshop you presented at the WPASCBWI conference. Wow! You had me, as well as everyone in this session, eagerly participating. Great job.

  4. What a handy template! Thanks for sharing this.