Borrowing and Folk Tales

This post may seem to go against my previous posts about abandoning the same old same old, but bear with me.  One of the best places to turn when searching for story ideas is old stories.  The brothers Grimm made their mark not by writing new stories, but by collecting old ones.  Folklore of all stripes is a wonderful starting-point for a story, even if it’s only inspiration that leads you off on another track.  Likewise, borrowing plots can be a fun exercise, and can start your writing back up when you’ve stalled.

Now comes the part where I tell you not to write the same old same old.  When I say that you should borrow plots, I mean that you should borrow frameworks.  You’ll get a lot farther trying on a framework that you’ve seen used by a favorite author than you will trying to write something that nobody has written before, for, as the Barenaked Ladies say, “It’s all been done.”

Tolkien is a good example of this kind of borrowing.  The Hobbit is Beowulf with hobbits, dwarfs, elves, wizards, and orcs.  If you don’t believe me, go  read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, then come back and see about quibbling with me.

Often, when a story pops into my head, it will borrow its framework from an H. P. Lovecraft story or a piece of mythology or folklore that I remember.  The key here is that, while I borrow that framework, I’m not just writing that remembered story over again with different names.  I’m taking something old and making it new by putting my own twist on it.

When it comes to borrowing from folk tales, I can’t think of a body of work that does so better than Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Maybe you’re not familiar with all the folk tales that are used as the framework for various Hellboy stories, maybe you are, but whatever the case is, you can’t argue with the fresh treatment that they’re given.

Even if you’re not inclined to borrow whole frameworks from folk tales any mythology, it’s worth taking a look at for source material.  Though it may sometimes be disappointing to find that something that you thought was an original creation of your mind actually comes from a story you were read when you were a child, take heart.  Borrowed elements come with familiarity attached to them already, and you can use that familiarity to your advantage, forging a stronger connection with readers and strengthening your own work by incorporating those elements that you had forgotten.

This all comes with my usual boilerplate, don’t overdo it.  It becomes tiring to realize that an author is just using obviously borrowed frameworks, to the point that you may be able to predict the ending from the first few pages of a story.  You can’t rely on the work of others to hold up your own stories, you must support them with your own strong writing if they’re to have a chance of standing up against jaded readers and editors who’ve seen everything twice over.

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About Hilary B. Bisenieks

Hilary B. Bisenieks (Biss-en-yex) n. 1. An author of fact, fancy, and opinion based out of Philadelphia. 2, A recent graduate of the Creative Writing program at Warren Wilson college. 3. A man often found wearing a kilt and a top hat, regardless of all but the most extreme weather. View all posts by Hilary B. Bisenieks

One response to “Borrowing and Folk Tales

  • theothergardener

    The episode in The Hobbit with the man who turns into a beast (a giant bear perhaps although we’re never entirely sure) in the middle of the night, and terrorizes Bilbo, is a children’s nursery-story version of Beowulf. Remembering, of course, that Beowulf itself is the prototype for a whole list of bedtime tales used to scare little children into staying out of the forest, and out of mischief.
    TOG

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