Adapting Folktales

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November 18, 2022

Storytellers today are indebted to early scholars who wrote down local stories and preserved them for future audiences. Without these records, many of our most loved stories would have been lost and forgotten.

Through the years, these traditional tales have inspired countless authors, and their structure and themes offer a wealth of ideas for a myriad of story genres and formats. Folktales have reappeared again and again in short stories, poems, comic books, novels, plays, and films.

For writers, rewriting older tales to reflect contemporary situations can be a freeing exercise that helps conquer one's own writing fears and anxieties. Also, the archetypes built into these traditional stories become highly effective when they reflect individual traits and eccentricities from the writer, which in turn makes them highly relatable to the modern reader.

Evil stepmothers and stepfathers, loathsome monsters and other frightening figures can be the story replacement for the wicked, evil, and loathsome real figures in characters’ current living conditions.

If you're planning to use folk tales in your writing, learn as much as possible about the cultural beliefs and the customs of the people who originally created the stories before adapting them.


  • Any story that comes from the oral tradition can be changed to fit your needs; folktales are in the public domain and not protected by copyright (however, later retellings of the folktale may be protected by copyright and ethical behavior, so be sure to check which version you're using).
  • Any key parts of the story. Look for core episodes, author’s vocabulary, imagery, mood that can be repurposed or reimagined.


There are many ways one can work with folktales to create new stories or refresh the old ones. Here are some approaches you can take:


      • Drop episodes
      • Drop characters
      • Omit or reduce descriptions
      • Omit any explanatory comments


      • Invent new or enhance original settings using the five senses as a guide
      • Add new incidents/interactions
      • Embellish dialogue
      • Introduce new characters:
        • Develop the characters (personality/mood/mannerisms)
        • Add plot repetition
        • Add motivation
        • Add details and descriptions (e.g., clothing, scenery)
        • Add cultural relativity (e.g., customs, material objects)


      • Change characters, their names, associations, meanings, gender
      • Change the setting/time period
      • Change the point of the story -- making changes to the ending
      • Tell it from another point of view
      • Change, partially or wholly, from one language or dialect to another
      • Change dialogue
      • Shift the whole style or tone of the story
      • Rearrange the plot to create more suspense or to place more emphasis on one point than another

Whether the newly crafted story is a retelling, an adaptation, a translation, a spoof, or a loosely-based version, how far the story strays from the traditional version, is up to you. 

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