Thursday, February 16, 2017

How to Write a Killer Fairy Tale Retelling

Hi, Fairy Folk! This is Tahlia, editor of Timeless Tales Magazine. One of the most common questions I get from writers is what I look for in a retelling. So I thought I’d provide my top tips for how to nail your short story or poem, whether it’s a fairy tale, myth, or legend. Hopefully this will spark some ideas for our upcoming issue (Arthurian Legend theme, in case you hadn’t heard yet)...

Unsurprisingly, even before I created Timeless Tales, I read a lot of retellings. Not just fairy tales and myths either—Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Jane name it, I’ve devoured it. I’ve even had a few of my own published, back when I was writing more short stories than reading.*

So I thought I’d share some of the wisdom I’ve picked up along the way about how to produce a killer twist on a familiar tale.
1. Re-read the source material:

Never assume you already know the tale. Do a little research to dig up lesser-known facets that might inspire you. Better yet, read multiple versions of the story because, especially with the older tales, you'll find different details and even endings.

I admit I failed to do this with the first retelling I ever wrote, Two Knights in One Day. It was a take on Sleeping Beauty, but I only discovered after it was published, that the original contains a rather horrific plotline involving rape. Would reading this have changed my story? Hmmm...hard to be sure, but I probably would have put more of a conscious emphasis on consent in romantic relationships.

Another example is a TT submission I read a while back. It used the names “Anastasia” and “Drusilla” for Cinderella’s stepsisters. As an editor, my eyebrows immediately raised because those are the names the Disney movie gives them. It made the author appear a little amateurish because it felt like that was probably the only version they’d ever encountered! Even if the original doesn’t change your own story, you owe it to yourself to know what your version will be compared against.

2. Question the Original. Especially ask "how" and "why":
Exactly how does Rumpelstiltskin spin straw into gold? Why didn’t Puss start helping the Miller’s son until after the Miller died? What makes the wolf's disguise so convincing to Red Riding Hood? Let’s be honest: most fairy tales don't waste time on explanations. Part of the fun is all the nonsensical happenings and illogical behavior, but you can add complexity and depth by tackling these issues head on. Don't’ feel like you need to address every oddity or answer every question, either. Pick one or two and stay focused on those.

Surprisingly, your biggest handicap in writing a retelling might be your love of the original. Being a huge fan of the original can actually blind you to its flaws and prevent you from taking risks.

I made this mistake with a Little Mermaid retelling I wrote. I absolutely adore Andersen’s lyrical prose. His descriptions of pain are just unbelievably exquisite. So my first three drafts spent waaaaaay too much time meandering through descriptive paragraphs in an attempt to emulate his style. It completely got in the way of the plot. Thank goodness the magazine’s rules forced me to cut my word count down. I realized that 3-4 pages could be deleted because they had just rehashed scenes from the original tale. Once they were gone, the pacing was dramatically improved.

On the other side, don’t be afraid to ask yourself what bothers you most about this tale? My Sleeping Beauty retelling I mentioned earlier emerged because I didn't like the idea of a guy kissing a girl without ever knowing her. So I wrote a version where the two could communicate while she's asleep.

3. Ask "what-if":

This is your classic elevator-pitch twist. It’s taking a key
building block in the original and replacing it with something new. This is a great time to play with setting, swap genders, and question innocence or guilt. What if Cinderella happened in Ancient Greece? What if the Little Mermaid was male? What if the witch wasn't evil?

In my experience, the strongest What-If retellings are the ones that fully develop the concept they’re presenting.  Don’t get lazy and treat your Ancient Greek setting like it’s a themed party. Slapping on some descriptions of marble columns and renaming Cinderella to Penelope isn’t going to make your story stand out. You’ve gotta dig deep, maybe do some (gasp!) research even. Ask yourself how your new setting changes the motivations of your characters and the outcome of the plot.  
4. Consider the Minor Characters:

I told my Sleeping Beauty story from the prince's perspective, but you can think even more outside the box than that! Give a voice to someone who is usually glossed over. What are Hansel and Gretel's parents' motivations? Don't stop at people, examine animals and objects too! What does the spindle think about for a hundred years? Don’t be afraid to even invent a character!
5. Do NOT Keep the Plot the Same:

It doesn't matter if you set it on the moon, from the perspective of the glass slipper, and make Cinderella annoying rather than sweet, if you keep the basic plot the same (orphan girl abused by stepmother, girl defies odds to go to party, girl wins prince), it will be predictable and probably boring. Take risks! Surprise your reader!
6. Mesh Two Tales Together:

This is probably my favorite technique to use. Find parallels between two stories and weave them into something new. I've done King Midas/Rumpelstiltskin and Hamlet/The Little Mermaid. Don't ask me why, but I get such satisfaction from bringing two very different worlds into harmony with one another. It turns the story into a puzzle for the writer and I get a big kick out of that element.

You can even mesh pop culture and folklore. Wouldn't Ocean's 11 and 12 Dancing Princesses make a fantastic combo??? You bet they would!

*”Two Knights in One Day”, my Sleeping Beauty retelling and “M’Lady”, my Dracula-inspired Cinderella retelling

This post was updated from a post on Diamonds and Toads from 9/28/2011


  1. Some good tips here. I think one of the 'danger zones' for fairy tale retellings, which is closely related to your comment about using a new setting as mere window dressing, is thinking that one good idea (eg, "what if Character X was really Y?") is enough to sustain a lengthy story or book. Sometimes a retelling has an interesting hook, but it gets served up embedded in a generic, dime-a-dozen framework, such as stock-standard girl-power YA fantasy. Admittedly this criticism is somewhat related to my personal taste, as I tend to really enjoy almost picaresque fairy tale stories with new ideas, creatures and/or adventures on every other page.

  2. What a great article! Thank you! I am pinning it so I'll be able to re-visit after I finish my dissertation (on fairytales) and can actually dive headfirst into Story again! This tickled my imagination!

  3. i believe i will enjoy reading books that could be mashed. i love the idea.

  4. Very helpful, especially the notion of combining two fairy tales. Thank you.

  5. Very nice post. Great entry and very helpful.

  6. Excellent written! Please, write, more! :)