How to Retell a FairytaleHolly West
I adore fairytales. And myths. And legends. I especially adore retellings that present these stories I already love in a new and different way. There’s something really special and amazing about mixing the comfort of a familiar tale and the wonder of looking at it through a different lens. That said, hitting the perfect balance between the old and the new can be tricky.
If you promise me a retelling of… I don’t know, Rapunzel… a story that I’m very familiar with, but when I dive into it, no one is locked in a tower (literally or metaphorically) then I’m going to feel a bit cheated. I mean, there are a few elements that are key to every story, especially fairytales. Each fairytale has its own themes and its own touchstones. For Rapunzel, it’s things like being locked in towers and hair (lots of hair) and false identities and falling into thorns. When I’m reading a retelling, I’m going to expect that a certain amount of those classic elements will be present. There have to be things that, when they show up in the story, I go, “Oh, yes! That!” And I understand the significance of that element. And these things have to be key parts of the story. You can’t just drop in a random glass slipper and claim it’s a retelling. You need to touch on the core themes and explore them in some way.
That said, it’s also very easy to go too far in the other direction. Some tales are so familiar that you want to include ALL of the elements and ALL your favorite scenes. Unfortunately, if you do that, then there’s no room to really make the story your own. It’s so easy to get trapped into a beat-by-beat rehashing with just a few minor cosmetic tweaks. And honestly, at that point, why should I read your version instead of the original? Besides, if you’re going to put forth all the time and effort and energy it takes to write a book, then you should also take the time to find your own twist. What can you add to the story?
To illustrate the difference, let’s look at two different retellings that I particularly love. The first, Beauty by Robin McKinley, is a very traditional retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story. It’s set in a standard fantasy world and the plot very closely follows that of the original tale, right down to her request that her father bring her a rose from the city. That said, Robin McKinley still manages to make this story her own by really exploring the characters, especially Beauty. This Beauty actually doesn’t consider herself beautiful at all. In fact, her name isn’t even Beauty, it’s actually Honor, but as a small child she rashly stated that she would rather be called Beauty and to her dismay it stuck. She’s a bit of a tomboy who loves horses and working outdoors and helping at her brother-in-law’s forge. And the focus of this retelling is definitely on Beauty, and her relationships with her family, the animals she loves, the magical invisible servants, and, of course, the Beast himself. That depth of characterization and the exploration of emotion makes this version uniquely Robin McKinley’s and well worth a read (or ten).
In contrast, my second example is much less traditional. I’m hoping you are all familiar with Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles. (If not, you should stop reading now and go check them out!) Cinder is definitely based on the Cinderella story, you have the slaving away for an evil stepmother, the two step-sisters who are more favored, the charming prince, and even a ball. But Marissa DEFINITELY made the story her own. First, she chose to set the series in a futuristic sci-fi version of China, and instead of a glass slipper, this cyborg Cinderella has a mechanical foot. And, while she definitely explores the basic Cinderella tale of meeting a charming prince and escaping from servitude, Marissa has also added layers upon layers of additional story, including a plague, an evil moon empress, a missing princess, and a budding interstellar rebellion/war. Yet, for all that, because those key themes are explored and those recognizable key elements are included, it still feels like a retelling. Cinderella re-envisioned.
So, if all this has inspired you to write a retelling of your own, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
• First, think about what draws you to the original story. Which details and particular elements—whether it be a trail of breadcrumbs, a beanstalk, or a ball—immediately bring the story to mind? These are the things that you are going to want to include in your retelling in some form. Is it important that they stay exactly the same, or would they still be recognizable if you tweaked them a bit?
• Second, try to go deeper. What messages are at the heart of the story? Is this, like Rapunzel, a story about escaping from imprisonment? Or is it a story about being clever and seeing through lies, like The Twelve Dancing Princesses? Which elements of the plot are vital to getting that message across? And how can you make them your own?
• Then, take a step back. What things have always kind of bothered you about the story? Are there any giant plot holes? Any elements where you go, “You know, I really love this story, but it would be SO MUCH BETTER if…”
• Finally, think through your basic elements: Where is the original story set? Is that the backdrop you want to play in? If not, how would the story change if you moved it to a different era or time period? What characters are key? What hidden depths do they have? Could a different type of character fill the same role? What plot elements need to be recognizable so that readers don’t feel cheated? And where are the places where you can make things more interesting? Is there some other plotline that you want to weave in to broaden the world a bit? (This is where mash-ups come in… Although, mixing two familiar stories means you have to go through this whole process TWICE, and you’ll need to be careful to keep them balanced, so that one story doesn’t overpower the other!)
Then, once you have all these things figured out, when you are actually ready to sit down to start writing, do your absolute best to completely forget the story you’re retelling. Pin your list of touchstones above your computer, and see what journey your characters will take you on.