Writing

Fairy Tales vs. Folktales: What’s the Difference? Plus Fairy Tale Writing Prompts

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 7 min read

The line “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…” conjures up images of beautiful princesses, wicked witches, magical worlds, elves, and beasts. It is the classic opening to almost every fairy tale ever told. Fairy tales have been passed down for thousands of years, and continue to be told at bedsides around the world. Fairy tales suspend our belief, create an escape from real life, and take us to lands of make-believe.

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What Is a Fairy Tale?

A fairy tale is a short story set in a typically magical realm, with human characters as well as otherworldly beings, like witches and wizards. The heroes of these stories often face improbable scenarios against evil villains. While most fairy tales are written stories, some have been passed down verbally from generation to generation.

Where Do Fairy Tales Come From?

The term “fairy tale” originally emerged as folktales written for the European aristocratic set in the seventeenth century, starting with the publication of Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé, or Tales of Mother Goose. This collection of stories—which included classics like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Puss in Boots—was Perrault’s take on stories that had been passed down through word of mouth. In the 1800s, The Brothers Grimm, German siblings who also sought to preserve fairy tales, published seven volumes with stories such as Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and Rumpelstiltskin, as well as many of the tales from Mother Goose. The Grimms’ Danish contemporary, Hans Christian Andersen, was instead penning original children’s literature instead of collecting folktales. He became famous for fairy tales such as The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina, and The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Early fairy tales were dark and foreboding, with plots not suitable for a young audience. As written versions evolved, they included happier endings. In the original Hansel and Gretel, for instance, both the mother and father intentionally left the children to die in the woods.

What Is the Difference Between Fairy Tales and Folktales?

What differentiates a folktale from a fairy tale has long been the subject of debate. While there is no definitive consensus among scholars, there are some basic differences between the two. In short, folktales were tales spun orally and passed down. The term fairy tale grew out of folktales once they were written, beginning with Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose.

Folktales:

  • Folktales are an oral tradition with no accredited author
  • Characters are generally animals acting with human characteristics and talking
  • Folktales are rooted more in human scenarios, instead of magic, to relay a moral
  • Folktales were originally written to have wider appeal

Fairy Tales:

  • Fairy tales are written folktales credited to an author
  • Characters include mythical and otherworldly creatures
  • Fairy tales are rooted in magic, with mythical scenarios
  • Fairy tales were originally written for aristocratic audiences

2 Examples of Fairy Tales in Literature

  1. Cinderella. A wicked stepmother, two evil stepsisters, and no dress for the prince’s ball. Enter the fairy godmother, and Cinderella’s fate is changed. A pumpkin becomes a carriage, mice become horses, and Cinderella is whisked away to meet the prince in one of the most famous fairy tales ever told. Good defeats evil the moment the prince slides that glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot.
  2. Jack and the Giant Beanstalk. When a poor boy trades his mother’s only cow for magical beans, she throws them out the window. They grow into a beanstalk that reaches the clouds. Jack climbs up and enters the castle of an evil giant who is intent on sniffing out the intruder. Jack steals his gold and races down the beanstalk. The giant gives chase but falls to his death. Jack returns with the gold. He and his mother live happily ever after.

The 6 Components of a Fairy Tale

To write a fairy tale, map out your idea against the story structure that has worked for thousands of years, and let your imagination run wild. Here are six easy steps for creating a fairy tale:

  1. Open with “once upon a time.” Start with this famous fairy-tale opener, or a line that sets us in a land far away and a time long ago.
  2. Create a world with rules. Create an enchanting land filled with magical creatures. Paint a vivid picture of this world. Remember the early versions of these classic tales—it doesn’t have to be all rosy. Include dark elements to your world.
  3. The heroine. Develop a strong main character. Make them fierce but flawed. Their weaknesses will make them vulnerable to the villain (think of Little Red Riding Hood’s naivety with the Big Bad Wolf.) In the end, have them conquer evil and overcome that weakness.
  4. The villain. Create an evil antagonist. They’ll present the conflict in the story and be the main opposition to your heroine’s ultimate goal. Have fun—design the ultimate bad guy or girl.
  5. The moral. Fairy tales usually have a teachable moment when the heroine defeats the villain. Give your readers a takeaway that is a lesson in character, especially if your story is for children.
  6. A happy ending. While original folktales sometimes had dark resolutions, it’s always safe to conclude with the standard fairytale ending where good triumphs over evil. Despite some popular renditions, the heroine doesn’t need a prince or a fairytale romance as she walks into the sunset. As Neil Gaiman says, “You don’t need princes to save you.”

How Fairy Tales Appear in Modern Literature

Fairy tales are still a recurring theme for writers. New collections of the classics are published regularly. Their universal appeal is based on their unwavering structure of a heroine, or hero, conquering a villain. Knowing about the canon of fairy tales and how fairy tales work narratively allows you to subvert them by reimagining them with new rules. In Western anglophone culture, those building blocks include Greek and Roman mythology, indigenous stories, the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and the Bible. If you’re writing in English, you should familiarize yourself with these narrative building blocks.

Literature is a long and contiguous conversation, each story linked to hundreds of others that came before it and those that will follow it. To understand an update or retelling—or to write one—you need to be familiar with the original story. Consider Disney’s Maleficent (2014) as an example: In this update of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, the prince is a dud, and the true love’s kiss required to break the sleeping spell comes instead from Sleeping Beauty's surrogate mother, Maleficent.

Bestselling author Neil Gaiman has cited fairy tales as an inspiration for his work. His stories, such as The Graveyard Book, Stardust, American Gods, and Coraline, explore the concept of good versus evil through characters who connect to alternate worlds with mythical beings. For a look at how he retells a fairy tale classic, read The Sleeper and The Spindle, his take and twist on Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

How Neil Gaiman Creates a Fairy Tale World

  • Switch a story element. This could mean taking a story to a new location—Cinder (2012) by Marissa Meyer re-imagines Cinderella as a cyborg in Beijing. Or think about changing the type of story—in The Snow Queen (1980), Joan D. Vinge turns Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale into a space opera.
  • Give readers something they’re not expecting. In “October Tale,” Neil Gaiman began with the conventions of a fairy tale, the jinni in a lamp. Readers expect a few things from this type of story: that the jinni will grant a wish, and that whatever a person wishes for will turn out badly for them or teach them a valuable moral lesson. Instead, he undermined that expectation when Hazel chooses not to wish for anything.

Prompts For Writing a Reimagined Fairy Tale

Choose a fairy tale that you know well. Select one of the characters from the story for the following exercise and write a few pages about them, using one of the following prompts:

  • Pretend you’re a therapist treating the character. Write a scene in which you discuss the character’s life and problems, then arrive at a diagnosis.
  • Write a newspaper article describing the events of the story. For example, “Snow White—Woman Hiding in Woods for Ten Years Found by Wealthy Hiker.” Then write a story for that headline using journalistic objectivity.
  • Have your character explain their actions to a jury.

Further Reading

For a re-envisioning of popular fairy tales, check out some of the following titles.

  • Red as Blood (1983) by Tanith Lee
  • Tales of Wonder (1987) by Jane Yolen
  • Snow White, Blood Red (1993) by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (ed.)
  • Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins (1999) by Emma Donoghue
  • The Wilful Eye (2011) edited by Nan McNab (ed.)
  • Happily Ever After (2011) by John Klima (ed.)
  • Clockwork Fairy Tales: A Collection of Steampunk Fables (2013) by Stephen L. Antczak (ed.)
  • Unnatural Creatures (2013) by Neil Gaiman (ed.)
  • Beyond the Woods (2016) by Paula Guran (ed.)
  • The Starlit Wood (2016) by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe (ed.)
  • The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories (2017) by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (ed.)