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?