Today is Fantasy Day for Indie E-Con, an online celebration of writing designed to connect readers with indie authors. In honor of the occasion, here are my thoughts on how to go about writing a good retelling of a myth, fairy tale, or other classic story. I have a smattering of experience in this area, so hopefully you burgeoning faerallel* authors out there will find my advice helpful!
These days, it seems like someone’s always retelling, rebooting, or re-imagining something. Whether it’s the latest comic book adaptation to film or television, or a cancelled show that’s gotten the band back together years later for a new season, or a book that promises to tell you the untold story of your favorite fairy tale, retellings have become an increasingly common part of popular culture.
But, like the subjects of these retellings, the phenomenon itself is nothing new. Even the things which seem the most unique and original build in some way upon something that came before. Star Wars contains many classic tropes from folklore. Anime is often rooted in Japanese mythological or cultural conventions. Even something as unusual and trend-setting as Doctor Who basically re-imagines its own time-honored concepts as the decades go by.
What’s the point in writing a retelling when there are so many of them out there? One might as well ask what the point is of writing anything at all. You can never be completely original, and you probably shouldn’t try–a work which contains no similarities to anything else on earth would be pretty bizarre, and probably not very appealing. People are naturally drawn to the familiar, after all, which is why authors use comparison titles when they market their books: “If you like [insert famous title here], then you’ll like [insert new kid on the block here].”
That said, though, how does one go about writing a worthwhile, engaging retelling of something that already exists? The subgenre of retold fairy tales and myths isn’t exactly under-served, after all, so it can be difficult to find a way to break into it. At this point in my career, I’ve retold about a dozen or so older works–some of them multiple times–and I’m working on even more of them. (Yes, I know I haven’t written twelve books yet–most of my books contain multiple retellings woven together.)
So, here are my tips for building a compelling new story on top of something we’ve all heard before.
1. Make sure whatever you’re using is in the public domain. This can get trickier than you might expect. Some stories are obviously in the public domain–no one even knows who wrote the very first version of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, after all. But with books written more recently, it’s sometimes complicated. For example, a few stories and characters from the Sherlock Holmes books are not currently in the public domain in the U.S. And some of the entities you might expect to be available for adaptation, such as Zorro, aren’t in the public domain at all (thanks to an intricate legal battle that’s been going on for decades). Many of the stories adapted by Disney are public domain, but the specific representations of those characters used by Disney are not–so check to see where the fairy tale ends and the movie begins. On the other hand, you can “adapt” something you don’t have the rights to if you alter it enough from the original so as to avoid a flagrant copyright violation. Do your research and be creative. This is important either way, since regardless of whether you’re dealing with public domain content or not, you want your story to feel fresh to the reader.
2. Find the heart of the story you’re adapting. To retell something, you need to break it down to its core elements so that you can properly recapture it. Beauty and the Beast is about redemption. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is about the duality of good and evil at war within humanity. The tales of Jules Verne are about exploration and wonder. Distill the story down to these fundamental building blocks, and then use those to build something new.
Note, however, that I’m not talking about “deconstructing” classic tales. This term usually implies a negative, destructive process that reinterprets the story in a dark, mocking fashion. If that’s the kind of story you want to tell, then go for it, but it’s not the type of retelling all readers prefer. Many would rather see the source material treated respectfully, with more upbeat results. Sometimes a dark take on an old story works very well–I’ve written several myself–but if that’s the path you choose to follow, try not to alienate fans of the original story if there’s any way to avoid it. Your readers should feel that you understand and appreciate the source material as they read your version of it.
3. Find the heart of your own story. Some people assume that writing books based on pre-existing material is easy, because you’re not starting from scratch when you craft your story. It’s true that working with established stories is helpful for coming up with ideas at the beginning of the process. But given the vast amount of public domain works there are to choose from, it’s not accurate to say that writing those stories is any easier than writing something that isn’t a retelling. By the time you’re done, you have something with just as much original material as a different genre of book, even if it’s constructed on a familiar foundation.
The point is, even if you’re writing a retelling, you need to bring something original to the table. This can be an unusual setting or cast of characters, or an unexpected twist on the tale you’re working with. The finished product of your retelling efforts needs to have its own identity, which is something you need to establish from the start. It’s not enough to call your story a Snow White retelling or a re-imagining of Frankenstein. What sets it apart? What makes it yours? Answering these questions will help to hone your focus as you write.
4. Strike a balance between the story you’re retelling and your own creative vision. Now that you’ve established the components of your book–the core of the source material and core of the story that you want to tell–you need to bring them together to form a coherent whole. The balance doesn’t have to be fifty-fifty. You might rely heavily on a fairy tale to craft a fantasy novel around it, or you might write something that is only loosely inspired by a classic story. Either way, however, you should try to determine how you will blend the various elements together early on to prevent your book from becoming disjointed. That doesn’t mean you have to write a detailed outline if that’s not your style, of course. But even if you’re discovery writing, having the basic structure of your retelling pinned down will make it easier to write the story.
All this might sound complicated, but the truth is, writing retellings is a lot of fun. You get to take something familiar to many and put your own unique spin on it, in the same way that filmmakers work with established franchises like Marvel or Star Wars. Be daring as you re-imagine the classics. The guidelines I’ve given you here are intended to help your creative flow, but the truth is, there are no hard and fast rules to this subgenre. Forge your own path while giving proper consideration to what came before, and you’ll end up creating something that a wide range of readers will enjoy.
*Faerallel: A fantasy subgenre consisting of fairy-tale retellings set in realities parallel to our own (i.e. period settings or contemporary backdrops like Storybrooke in Once Upon A Time). I made up the word, which, as a card-carrying author, I totally have the right to do. Therefore, it is officially A Thing.