What Makes a Short Story a Fairy Tale?

I’ve been writing a series of short stories, each of which is subtitled, “A Fairy Tale.” A couple of them do have bits of magical elements. Three of them are more or less down to earth. People in my writing group have asked me: In what way are these stories fairy tales?

I responded to one of them as follows, referencing my latest story that I call "Saturday Night in the Big City."

This is how I get ideas for short stories. Read a fairy tale (I have a copy of Andrew Lang’s Pink Fairy Book - there is an entire collection available in many colors). My latest effort is from a Japanese tale called, “The Slaying of the Tanuki.” I then superimpose a Celtic Cross Tarot spread, which tells a story of its own. Once begun, however, once the first sentence has dropped from the end of my fingers, the story tells its own tale, which doesn’t necessarily follow the script.

As you probably know, not all fairy tales contain fairies. Mostly they are little morality plays, or little illuminations of a particular culture. In this case, I use a few fairy tale tropes, like “once upon a time.” A few others are there as well. “Every night he sat at his window” is reminiscent, to me, of stories like the shoemaker and the elves. “Every day the shoemaker cut his leather out, …” and self-referencing, “In most stories, …” I also call my character Jackson, because (a) I do know a guy (not this one) who calls himself Action Jackson, and because “Jack” is a popular fairy tale name, i.e., Jack and the Beanstalk.

I wrote in the prologue to my first novel that “all the myths and fairy tales are true.” And that’s the conceit with which I write these stories. Fairy tales are often human stories writ large, metaphors of human behavior. I met the “ogre” in this tale one time – he was a face looking out of a car window, dark and featureless in the shadows. I don’t know if he was “evil,” but I did think he was wicked, and worthy of a place in a fairy tale. As is my sorry protagonist.

Below is a synopsis of what I started with:

Japanese Fairy Tale

The Slaying of the Tanuki

Shades of Little Red Riding Hood with an element of revenge

The Tanuki (a wolf-like creature) causes problems for a man and his friend the hare.
The man traps him and brings him home, meaning to cook him for dinner.
The man leaves him hanging in the kitchen and goes off to chop wood.
The Tanuki sweet-talks the wife into letting him go, and he eats her.
The man seeks revenge, and helped by the hare, after a couple of failed attempts, tricks the Tanuki into a sinking boat and they drown him.

Main Theme: Six of Wands (Pride in success) (hero has conquered addiction before)
Crossed by: The Tower - ambitions and goals made on false premises. (he doesn’t realize how tenuous his success has been)

Focal point: Ace of Wands – An idea that needs cultivation (He still thinks he can do it, if only …)
Past: 5 of Swords – Lost battles (to the sly one) (He underestimates the wiles of the dealer)
Strengths: 3 of Cups – Emotional connections and friends (His girlfriend and friends help – or don’t help, as the case may be)
Near Future: The High Priestess – Acceptance of wisdom (feminine) – He knows that his girlfriend is right

Suggested approach: 6 of Cups – childhood memories – his childhood memories do not bring him comfort
Influence of Others: 8 of Cups – walking away, avoidance, hard journey – mostly his friends see him avoiding the journey he has to take
Hopes and Fears: 2 of Wands – overcoming challenges to reach potential – he hopes he can break his addiction but is afraid that he cannot
Outcome: King of Cups - stays calm and balanced, even in turbulent conditions, and has learned how to stay open to his emotions and unconscious impulses, without being overwhelmed by them. – open ended ending, nothing is for certain.

Jackson and Joey – Hope of escape from addiction/enslavement

Saturday Night in the Big City

A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, a wicked crack dealer lived in a dingy motel room on a bad stretch of road in the lower part of town. He saw the world through dark glasses, and everyone who didn’t call him Boss, called him Rayban. His was a dark soul.