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What is a Fairy Tale?

· On Writing

While I like to consider myself a neo-fabulist, my short stories tend to be slipstream, spanning fables, fantasy, science fiction, suspense, prose poetry and modern fairy tales. And, when I share that I write fairy tales, the response if often, "Oh, you write children's stories?"

But fairy tales aren't limited to the nursery -- nor bound by happy endings. Unlike fables, they don't always carry the responsibility of teaching a moral lesson.

Here are just a few of my essential elements when writing a fairy tale:

  • Attention to lyrical language and rhythmic musicality
  • An incantation-like repetition of words of phrases
  • The thoughtful use of symbolic numbers or colors
  • A supernatural, magical or extraordinary aspect
  • A moment of transformation
  • A moment of choice or consequence
  • Inclusion of animals or small natural wonders

While you can always look to classic fairy tales for retelling or reinvention possibilities, there are countless sources of modern inspiration. Atlas Obscura is a wonderful visual guide to the world's hidden wonders. And The Dictionary of Imaginary Places: The Newly Updated and Expanded Classic is a curious catalog of of a catalogue of fantasy lands, islands, cities and other locations from world literature.

For my own stories, I've taken inspiration from the 12 dancing princesses for "Silver Kingdoms." From both Cinderella and Aladdin in "Temporary Charms." And from troll bridge riddles in "The Green-Eyed Monster."

I can't imagine a time when fairy tales won't be a part of my writing life.

As Neil Gaiman, who has enchanted countless readers with his modern fairy tales, paraphrased GK Chesterton: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

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