Miss Write's Advice: 5 tips on writing folk tales

Miss Write Illustration by One Fine Day Cartoons.
Category: Writing

Our resident Agony Aunt returns with writing advice for any writers looking to pen an original folk tale. Don't suffer in silence, please get in touch with Miss Write with your writing questions.  


The Question

Hi. I've recently started to write a folk tale but I'm finding it hard to extend it and make it more interesting. What are your top tips? Rachel


The Answer

Like any shorter form of writing, folk tales can be difficult to structure well. When do you stop writing? Is the story satisfying enough? Do your characters feel real?

If you thought about these questions for too long, you’d spend most of your day rocking back and forth in a corner, which wouldn't be very productive. Folk tales are traditionally associated with oral storytelling. Therefore, above all else, maintaining an engaging, atmospheric narrative is key. 

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. Here are my top five tips for bringing your folk tale to life:


1.    Focus on the story

Unsurprisingly, your story is key. I suspect that you’re probably trying to cram too much into a single story. In a folk tale, readers and listeners will expect an enthralling story far above detailed descriptions of your characters' inner worlds. Focus on that.  You should feel confident about which ‘type’ of tale you're telling. Using this definition, trim away any parts of the story that don’t fit. More than any other writing, you need to think carefully about your audience. When your work is read aloud, you’ll need to keep your audience's attention and help them to avoid the temptation to surreptitiously refresh their Facebook feed. I'd suggest focussing on the setting first to make sure your story links closely to it in detail. Who knows? If you've got a particularly strong setting, you might even be able to produce a series of linked folk tales. 


2.    What is the moral message?

Folk tales traditionally have a strong moral message at the heart of the story. What is the moral underpinning your story? Distil it down then write it out in a single sentence to pin above your workspace. Refer back to it anytime your tale feels like it might be sagging. Again, chop anything that doesn’t support your moral message without batting your readers over the head with it. No-one likes to be preached at. 


3.    Go along to a storytelling session

Head along to a storytelling session, buy a large glass of wine, and settle down to listen to a professional deliver a folk tale to a live audience. Not only will this be the best excuse to procrastinate from your writing, and drink some wine, but you'll actually learn something in the process. More importantly, you should consider staging your own storytelling sessions at home during your writing process. Yes, that's right, I’m suggesting that you spend a lot of time talking to yourself, your smartphone, or the mirror. Trust me, it’ll help. Once your story is in decent shape, read it aloud to friends and family and ask for their honest feedback.


4.    Immerse yourself in the history of folk tales

Ideally, before you've even put pen to paper, you should immerse yourself in the history of the genre you’re writing in. I’m not demanding that you become an expert in the field, but folklore has such a rich history and is subject to some fascinating interpretations in ballads, epic poetry and legends. Try picking up an old childhood favourite, a new take on the genre or even a folk song and think carefully about the essential elements. How compelling is the narrative? How is the setting brought to life? Are the characters vivid? With the story you’ve already started writing, think about where it could stand in folklore history, and do some more research into similar tales. It might seem a bit fake slotting your story into a ‘type’ but grounding your work in the genre will help you develop a more assured and focussed piece of writing. 


5.    Quality not quantity

Finally, quality is always more important than quantity. You mention that you want to extend your folk tale. Why? Expanding your word count only makes sense if you genuinely have more to say. It would be far better to reassess the story as it currently stands. Edit your work carefully and with purpose (see number 2). Look at the haunted woods and the individual trees and, who knows, with fine tuning you might already have an original folk tale that's ready to tell.


Have you got a question for Miss Write? Add it as a comment at the bottom of this blog or ask away on our Facebook page or @ScottishBkTrust on Twitter, using the hashtag #askmisswrite.

Rummage around in Miss Write's archives here.

Miss Write

Miss Write is Scottish Book Trust's resident writing Agony Aunt. When she's not busy drinking tea, making to-do lists or alphabetising her book collection, she likes to get some writing done.