5 Steps for Retelling a Fairy Tale

All images from Pixabay

NaNoWriMo, the November 50K word writing challenge, looms in the near distance. Barb over at Book Club Mom posted recently about fairy tale retellings and might give it a go.

She got me thinking about the genre. I’ve avoided it. Why would anyone read a book where they already know the whole story? Then I read Snow White and the Civil War by Cathleen Townsend and fell for her creative take (reviewed here).

In a way, most stories are “retellings.” There are only so many plots. I posted once about George Ponti’s 36 “dramatic situations” but I’ve seen plots distilled down to 3: Man versus Nature, Man versus Man, and Man versus Himself. Rather broad, I know, and not very useful, but there you have it.

So, I researched some of the specific factors that make fairy tale retellings fresh and interesting while honoring the bones of the original story. Here are five suggestions:

1 – Dig into the original story

There are sometimes a few original versions, and they can span centuries. Some are so dark they verge on horror, and sometimes two or more versions merged to become the story we know today. A thorough understanding of the original work(s) gives an author plot options as well as interesting details to play with.

Most of the original stories are in the public domain as their copyrights expired long ago. The Wikipedia overview is a good place to start, but read the originals to explore nuances and jot down some luscious details.

2 – Define the original story’s theme

Each fairy tale, like all good stories, has a timeless theme or two that resonates with readers. Fairy tale themes focus on universal human experiences and aspirations such as justice, sacrifice, self-discovery, love, forgiveness, and faith, and they’re felt deeply by the characters.

The core theme of the original work is the heart of the story you’re retelling, much of the rest is creative spin.

3 – What do you love about the original story?

Drill down into why you chose this story to retell and not a different one? What captured your imagination? What scenes were your favorites? Which characters moved you?

Knowing what makes the story compelling to you will help you decide what elements are critical to keep and expand upon, as well as what you can change to make the retelling unique.

4 – Study the genre

This is your research. If you want to retell Rapunzel, read what other authors have written and do so with an appraising eye. What worked for you and what didn’t? What were your favorite scenes? Most interesting characters? How closely did the plot follow the original and where did it deviate? Did you enjoy the twists?

Most importantly, look for missed opportunities. What would have made the story better for you? What did you want more of, less of?

Also, peek at the reviews of popular retellings. What did readers enjoy and dislike? Because readers are all different, look for areas of consistency across reviewers.

5 – Mix it up!

Telling the original story too closely is probably the most dangerous route since it risks boring the reader. Pull what you want from the original story and change the rest. Toy with the plot, and sabotage the readers’ expectations by incorporating twists.

Some ideas for mixing it up:

  • Switch genres – make it a cozy mystery or thriller
  • Employ a different time period – tell it in the 19th century or 500 years in the future
  • Use a different setting – place your story in Africa or the Far East or on a space station.
  • Swap genders – Samuel White is a man rescued by seven women.
  • Swap roles – Cinderella is devious and one of her step-sisters is the kind one.
  • Tell the story from a different point of view. What was Rumpelstiltskin’s perspective on the whole straw into gold situation?
  • Mix two fairy tales into one – Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel?

Most of all, let your imagination run wild!

Happy Writing!

181 thoughts on “5 Steps for Retelling a Fairy Tale

  1. Thanks Diana! Really helpful. 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jennie says:

    I love this post, Diana. I’ve always wanted to retell Snow White and Rose Red. Maybe one day.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. markbierman says:

    I can’t imagine how hard it must be to keep these old tales fresh, but your advice is excellent. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Louise Brady, Author says:

    Great checklist 🙂 For my university final project I studied the Beauty and the Beast fairy-tale and wrote the first three chapters of a retelling with superheroes. I researched a lot of the points on your list for the essay part of my assignment, but I completely forgot about themes!
    Have fun with your retelling 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hey, thanks for the shout out! And for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on your list.

    Having written a book called Snow White and the Civil War, I’ve obviously found it productive to find a unique historical setting for a fairy tale.

    I’m not so sure you have to read a bunch of retellings–just the ones you like. My faves: Beauty by Robin McKinley, Jack the Giant-Killer by Charles de Lint, and Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia Wrede. The best mash-up of folklore characters I’ve ever read was Silverlock by John Myers Myers.

    Or you can watch Once Upon a Time. The first six seasons are pretty good, and they’re all on Netflix and Amazon.

    Beauty is an example of a retelling that sticks pretty close to the original tale. You don’t have to deviate much sometimes, which brings me to my next point:

    Rather than just thinking about what you like about the original, what works for me is what pissed me off. I hated that the prince in Snow White was basically a stranger, and that formed a lot of the backbone of my retelling. A lot of these stories have plot holes that you could drive a carriage through, and many of the characters can benefit from serious development. Once I’ve figured out all the stuff I want to fix, a lot of the story is outlined. But as always, your mileage may vary. : )

    Liked by 3 people

    • Happy to give you the shout out, Cathleen. And thanks for sharing your two cents having taken these on. You actually do a lot of them. Your point about filling plot holes is a good one as well as your point about focusing on the parts you hated! The prince in SW is a great example of an opportunity.

      Thanks for the list of retellings that you’ve enjoyed. I read The Nightingale and the Bear recently, which is based on a Russian folktale. It was amazing. So I may be hooked. 🙂 Happy Writing!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. This is such a popular genre right now, or so it seems based on the number of agents I see asking for fairy tale retellings. I read one my cousin wrote. Cinderella was throwing things at the birds who kept bugging her by singing loudly. It was quite funny and imaginative. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lol. That sounds like a fun retelling. It is a hot genre, Betsy. You’re right. And there are so many ways the stories can go, right into other genres or just adding twists, like the birds. Thanks for dropping by and enjoy your week!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Mother Wintermoon says:

    Love this Diana! Mix it up! What a wonderful adventure it will be. 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Diana, I think you are going to have a ton of fun with this project. I love this post, especially the ideas for mixing it up. It’s always a delight to read about your plans. Hugs on the wing!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I second every word of this fantastic post, Diana. A few years ago, I outlined a novel-length reimagining of a very well-known piece of American folklore, and I learned all of your advice the hard way — via trial-and-error! Haha! (I hope to finally start work on the actual manuscript next year.)

    I’m not explicitly participating in NaNo this year, but I’m about 75% done with my WIP — and I hope to be completely done with it by Halloween — so perhaps I’ll cleanse my creative pallet by challenging myself to a NaNo project! I wish you the best of luck with yours!

    Liked by 2 people

    • It was really fun to pull this post together, Sean. I learned a lot as well as sparked my imagination. The key seems to be an effort at planning before starting (rather than after). Lol. Congrats on your progress! I’ve done many many informal NaNoWriMo, but the “official” commitment is a good incentive for me to knuckle under. Either way, go for it! Thanks for the visit and happy writing!

      Liked by 1 person

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