Fairy Tales, Symbols, and Readers’ Expectations

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Baba Yaga

I  was corresponding today with a brilliant young writer who has crafted a story that includes symbols (names, allusions, tropes) drawn from well-known fairy tales.  In discussing what works and what doesn’t with this approach, I offered some guidelines that I thought might be of interest or use to others, and so I am sharing them here as well. In the example I am about to give, let me hasten to say this has nothing to do with what my writer friend wrote. I’m inventing it for the purposes of illustration in this folkloric discussion (and I’ll use folklore interchangeably with fairy tales here, and not even parse the distinctions with myth and legend, because I’m lazy today).

The Overload Dilemma

So let’s say you’re reading along, and you come across a person or place name identical to something you know from fairy tales.  Suddenly, voilà, the full weight of folkloric implications stirs in your subconscious, perhaps even in your conscious mind.  The character’s name is Snow White. She is probably innocent, young, beautiful, and surely a witch and/or a dwarf will wander along shortly. But no! She is a waitress at a truckstop diner and lives in the tatty suburb of El Dorado – is this a satire on the “city of gold” concept, starting out in the “trailer park of poverty”?  Perhaps not: she has an magical realism encounter with friend Nick, a fat, white-bearded trucker who always wears red flannel shirts, and confides her doubts to her friend Baba Yaga, an old Russian lady who slings hash in the kitchen…

Suddenly this is not just a fairy tale, but a send-up, right? Or is it an creative approach to an original story?  Perhaps neither. But what if all these folkloric allusions have nothing at all to do with the real story, which is that Snow White’s in debt to a loan shark, and is going to rob a  bank to make ends meet…

OK. Now we are getting into a mix of improbables and fairy tale allusions that do not serve the story.  One or two might work well, and even serve a pointed symbolic or allegorical purpose.  But too many of them become worse than distractions: they clutter the story with invented dead-ends, each fairy tale allusion suggesting a path that is never followed.

Does It Advance the Story?

Anything of notable symbolic resonance used in a story is a double-edged sword. It can clarify the heart of the story and launch it into the realm of brilliance, or obscure it more effectively than a cloud of tear gas (and may also make you cry). Here are some guidelines I suggest may help avoid these (and related) pitfalls:

1. When you include just one or two fairy tale symbols or allusions, they acquire weight. They feel Significant, and rouse reader expectation that they Mean Something, and events that follow will pertain to those folktale allusions in some manner.

2. If this sort of reader expectation is not fulfilled, the pay-off of the story is undermined or killed entirely.

3. Gratuitous use of symbols muddies the real meaning and message of the story. If it doesn’t advance the story in a very specific way, lose it.

4.  Generally speaking, less is more. Pick one or two symbols or allusions that are truly relevant and in keeping with the tone of the original story you are trying to tell, and dispense with the rest. They are distractions.

5. The parallels to the originating folklore don’t need to be spelled out explicitly. It is sometimes much more powerful to let the reader figure out what you’re signalling if a character, say, goes to sell a cow, gets scammed, and comes home with no money.  This doesn’t need to be advertised as the setup for Jack and the Beanstalk for readers to get it that now Something Unusual Is Going to Happen. They’ll figure all that out on their own. And if they’re ignorant of the Beanstalk tale, well – here’s the chance to make sure this story stands on its own, and doesn’t rely on its relationship to other tales to be effective.

So those are some points that came to me quickly today. If you write, what suggestions do you have for working with well-known symbols in fiction? If you’re a reader, what’re your feelings when you encounter allusions you recognize from fairy tales and myth?  Let us know in the comments below.




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