Many writers will eventually try to write a story based on a fairy tale or folk tale. There are some powerful examples of such adaptations: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Aimee Bender’s stories, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But writing a modern fairy tale can be easier said than done. How do you capture the essence of the original tale while also creating a story that fulfills our sense of a modern story?
Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” achieves that balance beautifully. It was included in her collection Snow in May and published in Granta, where you can read it now.
How the Story Works
The story lays out its fairy tale inspiration in the second paragraph. The narrator is being taken to a witch for help with her headaches and, on the way, thinks about the most famous witch she knows:
I kept picturing the fairy-tale Baba Yaga, who lived deep inside a dark forest in a cabin held up by chicken legs. Her home was surrounded by a fence of bones, on top of which human skulls with glowing eye sockets sat like ghastly lanterns. Baba Yaga flew in a giant iron mortar, driving it with a pestle and sweeping her trail with a broomstick, on the hunt for children to cook in her oven for dinner.
The challenge facing Melnik is how to craft a modern story around this well-known character. This doesn’t mean simply rewriting the fairy tale. Angela Carter once put the problem this way: “My intention was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.”
In short, the writer must create a world that feels modern (which often means realistic, though not always) and somehow adapt the fairy tale to this world. To that end, Melnik follows her description of Baba Yaga with details from the trip deep into the woods:
The car smelled of gasoline, and a cauldron of nausea was already brewing in my stomach. I didn’t need the migraine diary to predict another cursed day.”
These details are entirely realistic and contemporary: gasoline, migraines, medical diary, and they also nod to the fairy tale with words like cauldron, brewing, and cursed. But if the story only nodded to the fairy tale in that simple way, we might feel cheated. And so Melnik further commits to the fairy tale in the next lines:
Soon the world would be ruined by blobs of emptiness, like rain on a fresh watercolor. Everything familiar would shed its skin to reveal a secret monstrous core. And, after a tug-of-war between blackness and fire, an invisible UFO would land on my head. The tiny aliens would drill holes on the sides of my skull, dig painful tunnels inside my brain, and perform their terrible electric experiments. I’d rather get eaten by Baba Yaga.
This description is contemporary since it describes the way a migraine feels (and also because it references UFOs). But it also introduces a surreal element that will continue through the story. As the narrator’s migraine sets in, the world around her begins to resemble something more at-home in a fairy tale than a story of modern-day Russia.
So, when the narrator arrives at the witch’s house, her mother appears as a rabbit, her grandmother becomes a bear, and the witch is transformed into a fox. These transformations have an utterly realistic cause, but they also fit the fairy tale at the story’s foundation. To some extent the way the story resolves this tension between realism and fairy tale sensibility determines the outcome of the story.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s begin to write a story based on a fairy tale, using “The Witch” by Kseniya Melnik as a model:
- Choose the fairy tale. It doesn’t really matter what story you choose. You can even move beyond the realm of fairy tales: folk tales, religious stories, Greek myths, etc. Steven Millhauser has a great story—”A Voice in the Night”—that is based on the Old Testament story of Samuel and Eli and was selected for the 2013 Best American Short Stories anthology.
- Choose a modern setting. This doesn’t necessarily mean contemporary or realistic. Instead, it simply means the story is written as if its readers are familiar with the literature and stories that have been created since your fairy tale was first told or written down. It’s not enough to simply rewrite the tale.
- Establish the language of the fairy tale. This is what Melnik does by telling us about Baba Yaga and her fence of bones and flying mortar. You’re telling the reader, in the original version of this tale, here are the language and images that were used.
- Establish the language of the modern setting. This is what Melnik does with the descriptions of gasoline odor. If your story is set in some historical time, give us details that put us in that time. If it’s set in some science fiction/fantasy world, create the nitty-gritty of the world so that we’re there. The important thing is to create a world that exists independently of the fairy tale.
- Connect the fairy tale and modern setting with plot. Melnik’s story is about a young girl going to see a witch in hopes of a migraine cure. The plot is drawn from the fairy tale (seeking a cure from a witch) but is also set firmly in the modern world (the problem is a migraine and the witch is a local healer). In most cases, fairy tale plots are relatively simple. In “Hansel and Gretel,” two kids are lost in the woods. The plot of “Sleeping Beauty” is not so different from the plot of “Rip Van Winkle.” Someone falls asleep or leaves, and when they awake/return, everything is weirdly the same or different. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” an evil character dresses up like someone familiar to the main character. When you think about plot, think about it in these simplified terms, not in all the nuances and trappings of the original tale.
Good luck and have fun.