How to Write a Newfangled Fairy Tale

by Bruce Lansky

Here's a fun way to teach your students how to write a newfangled fairy tale. Everyone knows the stories of Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs. So, those classic stories are wonderful points of departure for creative writing projects. At the outset, I'd like to suggest that your students read the original story as well as one or more "newfangled" versions of the story in order to understand how a writer can turn a traditional story into a modern one.

1. The first thing a student needs to do is to pick a most favorite (or least favorite) fairy tale that will serve as the starting point for his or her story. The reason a "least favorite" story can work well as a point of departure is that there might be some element about a story which, if changed, would quickly turn it into a favorite. Tip: The more familiar a student is with the original story, the better. It makes sense to reread the story before writing a newfangled version.

2. Although it's slightly more complex (and more creative) it's certainly a valid approach to pick a fairy tale "theme" instead of one particular story as a point of departure. For example, a student could pick the theme of a knight who fought a dragon and saved a fair damsel in distress. (We have a story on that theme: "The Obsolete Dragon" in Newfangled Fairy Tales: Book #1) Another amusing theme would be Prince Charming kissing one (or more) princesses and marrying her (them). (We have just such a theme in Newfangled Fairy Tales: Book #2. It's called "Rudy and the Prince."

3. Next, the student must decide which key element(s) in the story to change. Here are some possibilities:

  • Time: A story could be set in the present or the future instead of "once upon a time. (We have a dandy modern version of the King Midas story in Newfangled Fairy Tales: Book #1.

  • Location: A story could be set in a different country or region. (Imagine a "Cinderella" story set in Africa, Texas, Manhattan. These ideas aren't as improbable as they may seem. You can find books with stories like these in your library or bookstore.)

  • Gender: The gender of the protagonist (main character) can be changed to provide a fresh slant. (See "Jill and the Beanstalk" and "The Prince and the Pea" in Newfangled Fairy Tales: Book #1.)

  • Ending: Or, you can keep many elements of the story the same, but change the ending. (I don't want to give away the surprise ending of "The Frog Princess," in Newfangled Fairy Tales: Book #1, but it is surprising.)

Tip: One way to go about brainstorming ways to change traditional fairy tales is for the student to think about what element of the original story he or she doesn't like. Give them the freedom to change it. Another way is to play "what if?" Name any familiar fairy tale and ask your students to come up with different scenarios--just to get their creative juices flowing. For example:

  • What if Cinderella refused to marry the prince?

  • What if Cinderella's sisters were beautiful and the prince decided to marry one of them instead of Cinderella.

  • What if the princess found the pea, ate it, and became sick?

  • What if Sleeping Beauty suffered from narcolepsy and the prince was a doctor who cured her?

4. With a traditional story or theme in hand and an idea about how to change it, now your students need to outline a plot. The plot outline should summarize what happens in the story. Your students should be advised to make their stories as surprising as possible. (Nothing is less exciting than reading a story whose ending you can guess right away.) The plot summary could look something like this:

  1. The King and Queen decide that the Prince needs to get married.

  2. They arrange a slumber party so all the local princesses can be given the "pea under the blanket test."

  3. The most ill-mannered, foul-mouthed, bad-tempered "princess" wins.

  4. Meanwhile, in exasperation, the Prince decides to leave the castle and go horseback riding to clear his head.

  5. The horse whinneys and wakes up a beautiful girl who'd been sleeping in the stable.

  6. The girl mistakes the Prince for a stable boy. She tells him she found the pea and switched places with a rude serving girl so she wouldn't have to marry the Prince, whom she imagines to be an idiot.

  7. He likes her spunk and falls in love with her.

(This plot summary is taken from the story "The Prince and the Pea" in Newfangled Fairy Tales: Book #1.)

5. With a plot in hand, the student should attempt to build interest and suspense. One proven way to do that is "the rule of three." Have you ever stopped to think why three is used so often in fairy tales? (Consider "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." By the time Goldilocks sits in three chairs, eats three bowls of porridge, and lies down in three beds, the reader's pulse is racing with worry about the possible return of the three bears. Three plot elements help to build suspense and tension. Suggest that your students include three somethings--obstacles to overcome, princesses to save, magic beans to throw out the window, or villains to outwit--in their stories.) This should result in an a revised summary. For example, in the plot outline above, the third bullet point could be changed as follows: Three ugly, rude, obnoxious "princesses" find peas under their blankets. When the prince meets them, he is horrified.

6. Before actually writing a story, you might want your students to submit their revised story outline to you or to "tell" their story (in outline form) to you or to a small group. Feedback should be positive in nature and should focus on the key issues below:

  • The way the story was changed: "I like the way you've changed 'Rapunzel' (e.g., from a princess to a bungy jumper who's too scared to jump).

  • The element of suspense: "I think your story would be more suspenseful (e.g., if you had three rotten eggs instead of one)."

  • The element of surprise: "I wasn't surprised with the way your story ends (e.g., when the princess kisses the frog and it turns into a prince)."

7. Probably the most important (and most ignored) advice is about the importance editing and rewriting. Most students believe that what they've written is "gospel." I suggest that you call what they write "your first draft." That way you can plant the seed from the outset that you'd like them to write a draft; get constructive feedback from you, their parents, or friends; and then rewrite the story incorporating suggestions they've received.

8. When the stories are written, there are a number of things you can do to make their creation more special:

  • You can ask your students to illustrate the stories.

  • You can "publish" the stories and bind them into a "book." Then, you can donate the book to the library.

  • You can invite parents (or students from another class) to a special performance in which your students read or perform their stories--perhaps using our "classroom theatre" format: (The author serves as narrator. Fellow students play roles, reading only words that are in quotes.)

  • If any of the stories are imaginative enough and will sustain interest, you could even suggest costumes.

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Newfangled Fairy Tales