5 Steps to Writing a Modern Fairy Tale

As I’ve written elsewhere on this site, I love fairy tales. I have from an early age, and they are probably the genesis of my interest in magic and in fantasy literature.

LRRH Cover Lo-ResSince 2012, I’ve written three modern fairy tales — taking the classic stories and retelling them in contemporary settings. The latest — Little Red Riding Hoodie — is currently part of Amazon’s Kindle Scout program (nominate it for publication here). I’m starting a fourth this week for publication early next year.

But as much as I enjoy writing them, they present certain challenges, and I thought that would be something interesting to discuss today, as LRRH winds towards the end of its Kindle Scout campaign. So here is my five-step approach to taking a classic and making it new.

#1: Throw Out the Original

The first key to writing a good fairy tale, in my opinion, is to not force myself to be constrained to the original story. I love the fables as they’ve been handed down, but I’m writing a story set in modern times. A lot of the elements of old fairy tales may not work, and even if they did, they may not be suitable for the book I’m writing.

For instance, the principal plot of “Little Red Riding Hood” is a girl who goes through the woods taking food to her elderly grandmother. She is warned to stay on the path on the way there, but she wanders off it to take a shortcut, where she meets a wolf, who is ultimately her undoing. Setting my novel in a contemporary middle school made it difficult to feature a girl walking through the woods and meeting a wolf who could talk, and the idea of him eating the grandmother and disguising himself as her is outlandish in a modern setting.

So for Little Red Riding Hoodie, I had to do something different. There is a wolf in the novel, but it’s not a talking one who can disguise itself as her grandmother and gobble her up.

#2: Find the Important Elements and Use Them

While I give myself the freedom to tell whatever story I’m inspired to, I also realize that the book has to be recognizable as a retelling of a classic fable. When I wrote “Sleeping Beauty: A Modern Fairy Tale,” the titular character was in a magical sleep that could only be interrupted by True Love’s first kiss. Beauty & the Beast: A Modern Fairy Tale features a young man transformed into a monster. Without the pieces of the story everyone recognizes, it’s not a retelling of the original in contemporary times.

So, for example, when I sat down to write Little Red Riding Hoodie, I looked for the things I needed to include to make it recognizable. The most obvious is the red hood and cape she wears, and that was easily changed to a modern, hooded sweatshirt. She’s also trying to get to Grandma’s house, so my protagonist, Sally, thinks of her grandmother’s house as a place of safety, and she dreams of it.

And then, of course, there’s The Big Bad Wolf. In my version, this character takes two forms — a wolf-headed evil spirit, who haunts Sally’s dreams, and giant, lupine dogs that serve the spirit. Both of these fiends appear first in Sally’s dreams, but they make their way into the real world, threatening to physically destroy her.

Anyone who reads the book will be able to easily perceive the Red Riding Hood imagery and recognize the novel as a retelling of that story, despite the fact that its plot is very different.

#3: Keep Magic to a Minimum

Magic is a big part of fairy tales, and I do use it in my own. “Sleeping Beauty” has a magical elixir to put the girl in a coma. Beauty & the Beast has a ring of three wishes and an otherworldly adversary.

But for the most part, magic plays a very small role in my modern fairy tales. They are, after all, set in contemporary America — a place where people don’t believe in magic. So the supernatural forces are only a small piece of my fairy tales.

In Little Red Riding Hoodie, Sally searches for a magical key that can change her destiny. She is tormented by an evil spirit. But most of this sorcery happens not in the real world but in her dreams. She doesn’t know what is real and what it all means. She’s a 12-year-old girl, who spends most of her time trying to navigate the difficulties of sixth grade.

#4: Stories about Young People

When I think of fairy tales, I remember the wonder of my youth. I recall being a child who believed magic was possible.

For that reason, I feel it important to write fairy tales about young people. “Sleeping Beauty” and Beauty & the Beast are about teenagers. Little Red Riding Hoodie is set in sixth grade.

I think this is an important element of my fairy tales. The young have a sense of wonder and possibility adults have often lost. I find that, if I’m going to write a modern fairy tale, it will be more believable if it features a protagonist who hasn’t yet made it out of high school.

#5: Cautionary Tales

Finally, the original versions of classic fairy tales didn’t end well. They were lessons to scare people — particularly children — into good behavior.

I’m a fan of dark fantasy and horror literature, so I don’t feel obligated to write happy endings to my fairy tales. They are meant to be cautionary stories that elucidate important societal truths.

I won’t give away the ending of Little Red Riding Hoodie, but Sally does not lead an idyllic life. Her father is an alcoholic. Her mother left them and rarely visits. She is bullied harshly at school. And she is terrified by the dreams she’s having.

The real story of LRRH is Sally learning to find courage and strength within herself despite terrible circumstances. She has friends and good things do happen to her at school, but she has to make sacrifices to save her family, and she has to find courage to go on in the face of crushing adversity.

So that’s what goes into a modern fairy tale — at least the way I write them. I try to take one of our cultural artifacts and re-imagine it for a new age. It’s challenging and fun, and I hope readers enjoy them.

(You can help me get Little Red Riding Hoodie published through Amazon. Click this link to nominate LRRH for publication. If it’s chosen, you’ll get a free copy of the book!)

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