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Making Fairy Tales from Personal Stories - Part II

by Doug Lipman

Table of Contents:

The Process: Review
Three Steps
A Sample Session: Review
Comments on Step One: Exploring the Personal Story
Comments on Step Two: Finding the Fairy-Tale Symbols
Comments on Step Three: Working with the Fairy Tale
Limitations of this Technique
Other Benefits From This Technique


The Process: Review

A friend of mine read fairy tales in high school. While other students read about cars and teen romances, she felt compelled to read about innocent heroes who conquered evil giants. Years later, she understood why: Her high school Latin teacher had been a "giant" who bullied and humiliated her. The fairy tales spoke to the same emotions she had experienced with her teacher.

If a fairy tale can portray an exact emotional equivalent of an episode from life, it should also be possible to start with a personal story and then construct a fairy tale with the same emotional content. Using Max Luthi's theory1 of fairy-tale style, I have developed a three-step process for creating fairy tales from the emotional content of a true-life story


Three Steps

In step one of this process, the teller analyzes, expands, and re-tells the personal tale. This is best done in the relative safety of a one-on-one session, or in a workshop where a leader can establish a sense of trust.

In step two, the teller, using Luthi's guidelines, finds characters, places and actions from the symbolic language of the fairy tale to correspond to each major element of the personal experience. A coach may be needed to help the teller find the symbols that both match the personal experience and obey the "rules" of fairy-tale style.

In step three, the teller shapes a fairy tale using the images developed in the second step. At some point, the tale takes on its own life and demands its own shape as a story, without reference to the personal experience. Once the story is complete, the teller can evaluate whether the new story has the emotional content of the personal one.


A Sample Session: Review

Part one of this article presented a transcription of an actual session in which a storyteller, Karen, told a personal story and then created a fairy tale from it. Her personal story, slightly abbreviated, was this:

When I was little, my older brothers fought a lot. I was always in the middle, trying to stop it. I'd try to stop Will from hurting Tom: I'd try to beat him off with my fists. I'd run to comfort Tom - and then Tom would start to hit me. Then I'd run to Will, who would comfort me!

Once, my parents were away, and Will, my older brother, threatened to break Tom's guitar over his head. I was sure Will would do it. I could just see the blood that would come out of Tom's head.

Another incident began the day I saw a TV show about an evil robot, and I got terrified. I started having nightmares. And then Tom got a mechanical robot. When I would go into his room, if he wanted me to leave, he would turn on the robot and say it was going to get me. I would start crying, and run out of the room. I was sure it was going to get me.

One day, Will said to me, "You are too old to be scared of this robot." He forced me to come into Tom's room. When Tom turned the robot on and it started to walk toward me, Will held me so I couldn't run away. He said, "Look, its smaller than you." He made me push the robot over, and then turn it off. I was still terrified of it. But that was the end of an era. After I had turned it off that one time, Tom's reign of terror was over.

Karen chose to focus her fairy tale on her experience of pain as she watched her two brothers fight. She created a princess who tried to keep her baby brother from being hurt by the raven of an evil nursemaid, who was a sorceress. Every night, the raven pulled a single hair from the baby's head. When the princess followed the raven back to the sorceress's chambers, she saw the raven adding the baby's hair to a ball of hair on the table. The sorceress discovered her and turned her into a swan.

In the final version of Karen's tale, the sorceress explained the princess's absence by claiming that a flock of swans had stolen her. As a result, the king ordered every swan shot on sight. An arrow drew a drop a blood from the princess/swan, and from that drop of blood there grew a rowan tree.

After months of life among the swans, the princess flew home just before dawn on the day of the first frost, the day on which the swans were to fly south. When the swan ate a piece of the fruit of the rowan tree, she became the princess again. But before she could reach her family, the sun rose and she was turned back into a swan. This happened every year on the same day.

One year, though, the baby brother had grown big enough. He was playing beneath that rowan tree when he saw a swan eat of its fruit and become a princess. She told her story, and together they rushed to destroy the raven. The brother handed a sword to the princess, saying, "She has my hairs, so I have no power over her. You must strike the blow." When the princess cut off the raven's head, the nursemaid groaned, "My power is gone!" and turned into an insect. At the same moment, the raven turned into a handsome prince, who had been under the sorceress's power. With only one more of his hairs in the hands of the sorceress, the brother would also have been completely under her power.

The princess married the prince who had been a raven, and ruled with him over his kingdom. The baby brother grew up to inherit his parents' kingdom, and ruled over it wisely and well.

Part one of this article presents the actual session in which Karen created her fairy tale. This second part - using Karen's session as an example - discusses the logic of the process, makes the coaching principles explicit, and describes how other sessions may differ.

It's much easier to create a fairy tale from a personal story with someone else present, even if the other person has no experience as a coach. Personal stories often represent personal hurts, areas of our lives where we may not be able to think at our best. Therefore, the coach's role is vital. The discussion that follows aims to help train the potential coach.


Comments on Step One: Exploring the Personal Story

In eliciting the storyteller's personal story, the coach acts as an interviewer. All the skills that help in collecting family or historical stories are important here. In particular, the coach needs to listen on several levels and respond interactively on each.

On the first level of interviewing, the coach just helps the flow. At the start of her session, Karen, like most storytellers in this workshop, felt uncertain that her personal story was adequate. Here, clarification and encouragement were sufficient to help her focus on the issue of her brothers' fights.

On the second level of interviewing, the coach directs the storyteller toward "stories." People often summarize huge chunks of experience with phrases such as "My older brothers fought a lot." On this level, the coach constantly moves the teller toward specifics: One day, in a particular place, something precise happened. In the sample session, two questions moved Karen in this direction. The first was, "Do you remember a particular fight?" Another question that moved her toward specifics was, "Was there a first time you stood up for yourself?"

On this level, the coach uses the skills of a story listener, always trying to create mental images. If something does not make sense or seems hard to imagine, the coach asks questions to make imagining easier. In Karen's session, the coach tired to imagine the scene with the robot more fully - by asking, "Where was Tom when Will made you knock over the robot?" and "What did Tom do while this was happening?"

On this level, too, the coach tries to imagine the experience of the teller. Some feelings are clear and need no explanation - as when Karen's brother's robot would start walking and Karen said, "I would start crying and run out of the room." On the other hand, the coach had to ask several questions to understand fully Karen's experience when her brothers fought:

    "How did you feel when they were fighting?"
    "What did you feel like doing when they were fighting?"
    "What were you afraid would happen if it didn't stop?
As an interviewer, I have found that a scene that I can't visualize often contains an important clue. In this case, Karen's fear, rage and helplessness are below the surface. Neither the personal story nor the fairy tale based on it will have their full force until these suppressed feelings can enter the story. Karen realized this at the end of the session:

It needs more emphasis on how painful the crying was to the princess - and how painful it was to see the raven hurting the baby. Maybe she would try to beat it off with her fists. That part needs a lot of beefing up.

On the third level of interviewing, the coach tires to understand the overall shape of the story. In Karen's session, the coach tries to understand the bigger significance of the overall relationships:

    "How did you feel about Tom?"
    "What was the role of your parents in all this?"
Later, to place these incidents in a larger story, the coach asks:
    "Do your brothers still fight?"
    "Did that ever change?"
The coach's role may seem like that of therapist, in that he asks many questions about an intimate psychological issue. The coach, however, is more like a psychological reporter - whose goal is not to cause change, but to understand and make sure that all relevant episodes and issues have surfaced.

Karen's issue was well-defined and led immediately to vivid incidents with clear emotional content. Other sessions, however, may require other strategies. Some tellers will stay on the emotionally-safe high ground of summarizing and the coach may have to use ingenuity and persistence to elicit any kind of specific incident.

If, on the other hand, the teller seems to jump form one tale to another, it might be helpful to ask, "Are those separate events connected for you?" or even "Which of these events are you more interested in using?"

The coach should keep in mind that the teller may be remembering new details or insights, just through the process of telling the story. For this reason, a tape recording of the session may free both the teller and the coach of anxiety about "missing something." (On the other hand, recording a session may decrease safety for some tellers. Each case should be considered separately.) It may even be helpful to ask the teller to retell an event told earlier in the session, since more details may emerge the second or third time through.

In general, once an episode has been fully told, the coach's next goal is to understand the issues involved: "What was the most important part of this for you?" Once an issue emerges, the coach can ask where it began, and where, if yet, it ended. In response, the teller may relate more episodes. When the teller recounts an episode, the next step is to identify the important theme(s) present. When several emerge, the next step is to decide which one the teller most wants to use right now.

When a theme or a story seems incomplete in some way, the coach asks for more - either for more concrete details or for more thematic completeness. When the coach is satisfied that the whole story has been told, he/she can verify with the teller: "Is that the whole story? Do we have the whole picture?"


Comments on Step Two: Finding the Fairy-Tale Symbols

After fully exploring Karen's personal story, the coach explained to her some of the characteristics of fairy-tale symbols. This not only helped the teller understand the fairy tale's symbolic language, it gave Karen a break from concentrating on the personal story. Sometimes, the best way to come up with symbols is to focus on something else - such as the coach's explanation. I always mention at this point that the teller may get ideas during the explanation, just so the teller knows it's okay to notice ideas as they come up.

For some tellers, it makes sense to explain Luthi's theory in considerable detail at this point. For others, it is best to give a brief summary and to explain individual concepts only as needed to perfect a particular symbol. The coach must judge the needs of each session separately and tailor the explanation of fairy-tale style to suit them.

One of the most delicate parts of this process is the choice of focus: selecting which elements from the personal story to include in the fairy tale. The teller is sometimes on shaky emotional ground at this point and may need careful treatment.

In the sample session, for example, when the coach asked Karen, "What elements from your personal story do we need to be sure are present in your fairy tale," she answered immediately "the relationships." In answering this way, Karen did something very common: She gave her own experience short shift. The coach then asked for the importance of those relationships for Karen: "What was the essence of your experience of that triangle?" In her answer she said, "It was my greatest hurt: ... watching the conflict."

At this point, the coach wisely gave the choice to Karen: should the fairy tale focus on the triangular relationships amount the three of them, or on Karen's own experience of watching her brothers fight?

It was important that Karen chose to put her experience at the center of the story. But it was even more important for the coach to give her the choice. As someone who has made this mistake more than once, I can say: It's vitally important never to take control of the tale away from the teller, even at the cost of making a drastic mistake. The coach can suggest, imagine, direct, and protest. But if he crosses the fine, invisible line into taking too much control, the teller will lose ownership of the story. If the teller feels in charge, she or he will probably correct major mistakes eventually.

Because tellers so often choose tales for this workshop that reveal their own deep vulnerability, the coach needs to be especially sensitive while using this technique. When a teller is about to defer unwisely to the coach's preference on an important decision, the only clues are often non-verbal: tone of voice, posture, loss of eye contact. When in doubt, the coach can ask, "What do you choose?" If necessary, he can spend a while establishing the viability of the other option: "there is another choice. You could make the fairy tale that included the triangular relationships by having two kings who gave the hero different tasks ..."

Once Karen chose to focus on her own experience of watching her brothers' conflict, the coach returned to exploring Karen's personal story - to make sure she had told all the relevant episodes. Again, it's important to notice that the first time the coach asked her, "What is the resolution for you?" she said, "I don't know." But once the coach said, "It's okay not to know," she started to talk about the issue, making it clear that she did, at some level, know.

Most tellers will not know the answers to these questions right away. The coach needs to give them time and permission to explore what the answers might be.

At some point, it is helpful to look at the fairy tale's overall movement or structure. I usually draw a time-line for the fairy tale on a blackboard or large piece of newsprint. The structure can be very simple. In Karen's case, it was a single line of movement from her painful conflict-watching to her being her own person.

But while a realistic story could conceivably be a gradual, steady progression from beginning to end, fairy tales strive to find a precise moment of change. Therefore, the coach asked Karen to go back to her life story to find a turning point: "Was there a first time you stood up for yourself, even at the risk of provoking conflict?" Once she described such a moment and agreed to add it, the tale took a shape with a precise turning point.

The coach's question to Karen about standing up for herself, incidentally, adapted a phrase Karen had used earlier: "I never used to stand up for things ..." Paraphrasing, though tempting for the coach is often inefficient. The words the teller uses in describing person issues are often significant. If the coach had said, "We'll need an incident where the hero comes into her own," the teller might have protested, "No, it's not so much coming into her own as standing up for herself." Using the teller's exact words can help him or her feel "heard" and expedite the entire process.

At the point of choosing fairy-tale symbols to correspond to the essential elements from the personal story, the coach has several possible strategies. The coach can make the direct suggestion of a common symbol from fairy tales, such as - in Karen's session - becoming a king or queen as a symbol for "being your own person." The teller can then accept, reject, or refine the symbol; Karen chose becoming a princess.

For more complicated symbols, the coach can break the choice down to a series of questions and suggestions.

Coach: Okay, we'll need an incident in the fairy tale where the hero stands up for herself, and the mystique will be broken. Who should the hero stand up to?

Karen: An evil magician. A sorcerer. The one who caused the conflict in the beginning.

Coach: And this sorcerer caused her to be not fully herself?

Karen: Exactly.

Coach: One fairy-tale image for not being fully yourself is to be put under a spell or transformed into another shape.

Karen: A spell would be right. Then she'll stand up to the sorcerer and break the spell.

In the case of still more complicated symbols, the coach can start by assembling a list of qualities needed for the symbols: "What do we know about the opening conflict that the hero watches?" In Karen's session, she answered this question by relating an incident from another fairy tale, and then explaining what important characteristic the incident had: "... he was just trying to help by solving a conflict and got grief for it."

By the time she was done, she had a list of three characteristics that the opening situation needed:

  1. the hero tries to solve a conflict, and gets grief;
  2. the hero's "grief" is banishment as a bird;
  3. the conflict the hero tries to solve is a sorcerer's attempt to harm her baby brother.
Karen seemed ready to create an incident that would have those characteristics, so the coach asked her to tell the story. Someone else might have needed more preparation. One teller, for example, said, "I'm afraid I can't think of any symbols." For her, I suggested she brainstorm a long list of possibilities without evaluating any of them until the end.


Comments on Step Three: Working with the Fairy Tale

The technique described in this article uses two distinct modes of thought. The first, used primarily until now, is analysis: deciding what themes are present and should be emphasized, figuring out the sort of fairy-tale symbols that can represent those themes and finding a structural shape for the fairy tale.

The second mode is natural for the storyteller: telling a story. In this mode the images reign, even seeming to develop a life of their own. The only dependable way to shift from an analytic to a storytelling mode is to begin a story: "Once upon a time, ..."

To some readers of the sample session, it may have seemed premature to have Karen begin her story the first time. As coach, however, I felt strongly that her internal "imagemaster" was ready to take over. Her story, as it turned out, contained many new images and solved several problems - reminding us that it's not necessary to plan everything in advance.

The whole subject of offering feedback to storytellers deserves its own treatment. For now, however, a few points are especially relevant.

First, storytellers need to know what they do well. Especially after telling a story as personal as Karen's, it's valuable for her to hear what parts actually communicated powerfully.

Second, the use of questions is empowering for the teller. By asking Karen, "How did it feel to you?" and other questions, the coach started to make Karen's experience more important than the coach's evaluation.

Third, the coach sometimes asked permission before offering suggestions, especially late in the session when Karen seemed in danger of being overwhelmed. We coaches need to remember that the storyteller's need to control the amount of information received comes before our desire to make "just one more point."

With respect to maintaining a consistent fairy-tale style, the most common suggestions that I make to tellers in this workshop concern externalization and precision, in Luthi's sense of the terms. Karen's first idea of how the sorceress harmed the boy was through gradual poisoning. The next, more externalized and more precise image was the sorceress sending a raven to peck at the boy a little every night. The third image, suggested by the coach, was even more precise: The raven came every night to the edge of the crib and pulled a single hair from the baby's head.

One caveat should be voiced here. Even though the third image is the most precise, the teller could still choose a different image. To make this workshop feel less coercive, the coach can even say, "I'm the attorney for fairy-tale style here, always representing the side of making things more precise, more externalized, more extreme. But you can stop the process anytime you want. Luthi's theory represents a pure form of fairy tales, and many real traditional fairy tales don't live up to it. Your story doesn't have to either."

In practice, more precise images are usually more powerful. It's rare that a teller prefers a less precise one. But if Karen had wanted to retain the poisoning idea, her story could still be a fairy tale.

Sometimes I don't even point out an element that violates Luthi's description of fairy tale style, because the element has great power. In Karen's second telling, she added a physical aspect to the hero's transformation into a swan that was so riveting that I would never want her to change it, even though it violated the pure style of the traditional fairy tale.


Limitations of this Technique

For all its richness, this technique has several significant limitations. It makes stringent demands on both the coach and the storyteller, and requires a substantial amount of time.

The coach, in particular, needs to:

  1. Be skilled as an interviewer, in order to draw out the full story of the personal experience.
  2. Be familiar with a substantial body of fairy tales, to offer as examples.
  3. Be highly familiar with the characteristics and demands of the fairy-tale style, as described by Luthi.
  4. Be skilled at maintaining a balance between forceful direction of a session, on the one hand, and encouragement of the storyteller to make her/his own decisions, on the other hand.
  5. Be able to respond to the fairy tale as a story and help it blossom on its own terms.
  6. Be able to "change course" easily and frequently as the session demands, hopping between the contrasting roles of interviewer, lecturer on fairy-tale style, empathetic story listener, and analyst of story structure - while keeping track of several simultaneous levels of analysis.
The storyteller, on the other hand, needs to:
  1. Be familiar with enough fairy tales to have an intuitive grasp of the style.
  2. Be able to understand and apply the abstract characteristics of fairy-tale style.
  3. Be willing to discuss his/her personal experience candidly and with access to the underlying emotions.
  4. Be able to separate the personal story from the fairy tale, while keeping the symbolic connections in mind. The hero is not one's own complex self; the raven is not one's older brother, the nursemaid is not one's guardian. All these are only depthless portrayals of single aspects of the teller's experience. At the same time, some of the teller's feelings towards her older brother, for example, should be expressed toward the raven by the hero. Keeping all this straight can be challenging.
In addition to these specific demands on the coach and the teller, this process requires a substantial amount of time. In private coaching sessions, I have never helped anyone complete it in less than two hours.

When I give the workshop while away from home, I try to schedule at least one whole day, a Friday evening followed by an entire day on Saturday, or even an entire weekend. A weekend session might include having people tell personal stories on Friday night along with a brief overview of the process. On Saturday morning, they would hear about fairy-tale symbols, and begin the translation process. Saturday afternoon, they could tell their stories for the first time; then use Sunday to refine and retell their stories.

When scheduling allows, it is often helpful to include time off between sessions. When the teller gets "stuck" in this process, the best recourse is sometimes to stop trying and let the story simmer on the teller's mental "back burner" for a few hours, a day, a week, or more.

Some tellers need to spend weeks just telling and exploring their personal stories. At that point, the technique described in this article may or may not be the most appropriate next step. I sometimes imagine that the perfect setting for this technique would be a one-semester course on the subject of personal stories. In such a course, the students would have ample opportunity to tell and explore their personal stories and learn a variety of techniques for developing them - including, of course, how to make them the basis for a fairy tale.


Other Benefits From This Technique

Learning how to make fairy tales from the emotional material of personal experience has other benefits as well. Not only can students work on stories they can't tell publicly, but they can get an author's view of how fairy-tale symbols work - potentially a more effective learning experience than any number of lectures on fairy-tale style and interpretation.

In addition, this technique solves another problem some storytellers - like Karen - have had: they have read or heard a tale in which one or two symbols move them deeply or fascinate them. Now they can figure out which personal issues was connected to the image for them, then make a fairy tale from that issue. In this way, they can make use of the powerful images of the traditional fairy tale that they would not choose to tell in its entirety.

Confidential or deeply moving stories aside, this technique can be used as an involved but nearly foolproof way for a storyteller to make an original story without having to "come up with an idea." For someone who feels unable to compose an original story, this technique - given enough time - will almost certainly result in an original story with a genuine emotional core.

As a purely therapeutic activity, this method may enable a storyteller to get beyond a purely personal, emotional "stuck point." If someone can't see a resolution for a personal situation, she/he can translate the situation into fairy-tale symbols, set up the fairy-tale conflict, and let the fairy tale take its course. One the resolution has been found in fairy-tale terms, the symbols can be re-interpreted for their significance in real life. In such a case, the fairy tale is only an intermediate step. The desired result of the process is a resolution of the conflict, as indicated by the resolution of the fairy tale.

In response to part one of this article, some tellers have already written me, describing their experiences making up fairy tales. I would love to receive more letters, describing failures as well as successes, so that I know what additional information coaches and tellers may need. 2

Fairy tales are universal precisely because they evoke feelings that are not unique to one set of personal circumstances. If proof is necessary that we can travel in several emotional directions from a given fairy tale, we need only read the diverse scholarly interpretations which claim to map the true meaning of any particular tale. Scholars, however, have devoted less attention to travelling the oral-to-emotional equivalency in the opposite directions, setting out form the personal experience and arriving at a fairy tale. Perhaps we storytellers - adventurers that we seem to be - will be pioneers who blaze this trail.



1 Luthi's theories are set forth briefly in Once Upon a Time, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976); see my review in The National Storytelling Journal, Spring 1987, pp. 28-30, which also reviews Luthi's more detailed work on fairy-tale style, The European Folktale: Form and Nature. (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1982. This has since been reissued in paperback).

2 Please contact me at:

    Doug Lipman

    152 Wenonah Road, Longmeadow, MA 01106 U.S.A.
    Phone: (781) 837-1940
    Alternate Phone (rings the same line): (413) 754-6728
    Fax (toll-free): (888) 300-6665

My thanks to Phoenix Power and Light for sponsoring this workshop at its annual conference. The following individuals helped with the development of this technique or with this article: Abby Buhle, Lucy Stroock, Betty Lehrman, Barbara Lipke, Lee Ellen Marvin, Doug McCormack, Linda Palmstrom, Elisa Pearmain, Cindy Smith, Jane Fox Steinman, and Clair Tuttein.

(This article appeared in The National Storytelling Journal, Winter 1988.)

Copyright © Doug Lipman



Doug Lipman

152 Wenonah Road, Longmeadow, MA 01106 U.S.A.
Phone: (781) 837-1940
Alternate Phone (rings the same line): (413) 754-6728
Fax (toll-free): (888) 300-6665

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