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New Tales from Old

by Doug Lipman

A version of this article appeared in The National Storytelling Journal.
You may want also to refer to the article, In Search of the Folktale , which describes how to find variants of a folktale using folklore reference works.

Table of Contents

Creating stories from motifs
Understanding Plot
Folktales have inspired great authors for centuries. So why can't they inspire elementary school students to hone creative writing skills?

Young storytellers can use the bones of a folktale to make new plots, or to flesh out traditional plots with new characters and settings. All they need is:

  1. an involving story to start with;
  2. a concrete understanding of motif and plot.

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Creating stories from motifs

I begin by telling a story (fairy tales are ideal). Since a motif is a small piece of plot existing in more that one traditional story, I ask the class if anyone has heard any part of the tale before. When I told "La Muerta: Godmother Death" (recorded on Folktales of Strong Women; printed in Ready-to-Tell Tales, August House; similar to Grimm #44), one student said, "I know another story about getting a reward to save the king's life." The student had recognized a recurrent theme or motif.

I wrote it on the blackboard: reward for saving king's life. Then I asked what other parts of this story could serve as motifs. The sixth-graders added:

  • death as a person
  • looking for a godmother
  • person disappears
  • person with long finger
  • if someone is to die, sees death.

Although some of these have not survived in the oral tradition, they could all be motifs.

With this introduction, the children are told to make up a story using two or more of the motifs from the list.

The results of this exercise have been most interesting. Some students set their stories in modern city streets, others in a science fiction land of their own invention. Some made the "Long Finger" a central character; others emphasized a disappearing person. There was plenty of variety and good use of the imagination.

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Understanding plot

In order to help the children understand plot, I tell two variants of the same folktale, such as:

  • the "Lad Who Went to the North Wind" (Peter Asbjornsen, East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon, Macmillan, 1953) and
  • the "Magic Cooking Pot" (Faith M. Towle, The Magic Cooking Pot, Houghton Mifflin, 1975).
Any folktale with a clear, simple structure will do.

Then I ask what is similar about the two stories. One fifth grade class listed these similarities:

  • magic things were stolen
  • things were given by a supernatural being
  • cheap things replaced the magic things
  • they used one of the magic things to get the stuff back.

Pointing to the list, I inquired of my students: "what do we have here?" The answer came back: that's the story - the plot.

After reaching this conclusion, we put the list in order and add any missing steps. We have described the plots of both stories.

Now I give them the assignment to make a story with the same plot, but with new setting, characters and details. In this example, each story must have:

  • a major character, who is given
  • a magic object
  • a supernatural being who gives the magic object;
  • the major character then stops to rest, only to have the object stolen and replaced with a worthless object;
  • the major character returns to the being to get another magic object which is used to get the first one back.

Students have used these plots to produce:

  • oral tales
  • written stories
  • tape recordings
  • comic strips and even
  • plays.
And when the time comes to hear a classmate's motif or plot, they listen raptly - intrigued by new solutions to the familiar problems of their craft.

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman