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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
Folktales have inspired great authors for centuries. So why can't they inspire
elementary school students to hone creative writing skills?
- Creating stories from motifs
- Understanding Plot
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:
- an involving story
to start with;
- 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.
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:
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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In order to help the children understand plot, I tell two variants of the same
folktale, such as:
Any folktale with a clear, simple structure will do.
- 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).
Then I ask what is similar about the two stories. One fifth grade class listed
- magic things were stolen
- things were given by a supernatural
- 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?"
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:
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.
- oral tales
- written stories
- comic strips and even
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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman