5 Questions To Ask When Writing a Fairytale Retelling

Fairytales are very vogue at the moment. Everyone is jumping on the band wagon. The bookshelves (particularly for young adult) are full of princesses and heroes. Shows like Grimm and Once Upon A Time are prime time and widely watched. And even Disney has taken to rehashing its own stories on the silver screen. They are the new vampires and everyone is getting in on the action.

But there is a great difference between doing a thing (say… Twilight for instance) and doing it well (say… True Blood). And I, of course, want to do it well so over the last two years I’ve given myself a crash course in how to handle already existing stories. Because that’s the fundamental problem. People have literally read that one already. So when you launch in, it’s not like handling any other genre. It isn’t enough to have a story. You have to justify to those legions of existing fans of the original story why you are taking their beloved tale and rehashing it. How do you get people to reread a story where they already know the plot and the characters and still surprise them? How do you keep them hooked?

I have learnt a hell of a lot over my time in this minefield. I thought I knew fairytales until I tried writing one. Which means I’ve done this backwards. I started with the mistakes and then have spent two odd years fixing them all. I don’t recommend this approach. It’s frustrating and demoralising at times and involves hours of stress. (This is what I get for being a “pantser” I guess – I’m terrible at pre-writing research)

The problem is, despite there being so much momentum in this area (retellings generally, not just fairytales), there is not a lot of guidance out there for people. Even when I went looking I struggled. I can find fifty infograms telling me how to get my character out of a straitjacket but nothing when it comes to copyright implications and types of retellings. And so, I thought I’d put together a quick guide of five questions I wish I had asked before I launched into my fairytale retelling with the hopes that maybe it can help some of my fellow fairytale lovers.

5 questionsQuestion 1: Do you really know your fairytales?

The honest answer for me was a resounding no. If I’m completely honest, I was a bit of a Disney reliant. I trusted the mouse to have done his research and just springboarded off the back of what he had done. Mistake. I knew about the Grimm fairytales but I’d never actually read them. I knew people had told me they were (and I quote) “a tad” darker than Disney.

You don’t say.

As I illustrated last week, the Grimm brothers somewhat live up to their names. So my advice here is pick your source material and then dedicate some serious time to research. That doesn’t just mean the Disney and the Grimm but try to watch/read what other people have done with it. Once Upon A Time is a great melting pot for all fairytales. My book is based on Snow White so I suffered through both Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman as well as the obscure version the BBC made in the early 90s and as many others as I could find and I read any and every book based thereupon.

The purpose of this is two-fold.

1. You get to really understand the story you are handling before you start and by looking at the common denominators across all the other versions, you can find the core themes/ideas of your fairytale in question.

2. You’ve got to know what’s out there to avoid rehashing something someone has already done.

Question 2: What kind of retelling are you doing?

A retelling is a retelling is a retelling right? Wrong. In my experience, there are four overarching ways to handle a retelling.

The Reimagining

The same story. Same characters. Different cast. The recent Disney remake of Cinderella is a classic example. Same story. More three-dimensional cast. No real changes. It looks different but basically does the same thing. I imagine the live action Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson (breaths held) will run a similar pattern. Or look at the Rogers and Hammerstein version of Cinderella – that’s another straight reimagining. I also put things like Burton’s Alice in Wonderland under this category. It’s borderline to retelling but there just wasn’t enough original content. I’m sorry but “Wonderland” to “Underland” does not count. At the end of the day, same story.

My advice? Leave these to Disney. It is very difficult to do a straight reimagining that doesn’t come across as “because I do this better than the original did” and that tends to put backs up.

The Prequel/Sequel approach

Gregory Maguire showed how successfully this can work with his novel (and the now incredibly popular stage show soon to be film) Wicked. It’s a prequel to the Wizard of Oz. Same world. Same characters. Different part of their timelines. It’s brave territory because you are effectively leaping into an existing world with someone else’s characters and picking up where they left off but it has been done successfully. Let’s face it, Disney are pretty terrible at their own sequels so the field is open for new players.

The Retelling

This covers pretty much everything else. Similar story with some kind of twist. Maleficent retold Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of the villain. Once Upon A Time puts everyone in a giant melting pot called Storybrooke and throws in a memory curse for good measure. Tangled updated Rapunzel for a more modern story, giving the usual 2D prince an upgrade and a personality (shock horror) – Shrek is another good retelling of the same story. Frozen is perhaps the most high profile retelling of the old classic The Snow Queen. A Cinderella Story (I was a Hilary fan) takes Cinderella and puts it in a different time period.

As the above illustrate, retellings can stay pretty close to the original story but tend more often to drift quite a ways from the original so the options here are pretty endless. Generally speaking though, each one has a key detail that is the core of the retelling (Maleficent – villain pov; OUAT – mixed tales in one place; Shrek – erm… prince charming is an Ogre; Frozen – villain isn’t a villain). If this is the path you are taking, my advice would be to have very clear in your mind what your linchpin is and keep it in focus at all time.

The Thematic Retelling

The most subtle of the collection. I suppose you could argue these aren’t really retellings. They are completely different stories with completely different characters but they borrow themes and ideologies and iconologies from the source material. The best example of this I’ve ever witnessed is House MD. For those of you who don’t know, Greg House is actually based on Sherlock Holmes and throughout the eight series, small little idiosyncracies are added here and there to thematically retell Conon Doyle’s classic story. There is no argument that the stories are completely different. But themes they share are things like both principles are unnaturally smart and observant; there is a heavy focus on puzzles and solving the impossible; Drug use and addition.

And then there are the smaller “cuter” things. Holmes/House (someone somewhere was very proud of that); Watson/Wilson; House lives in apartment 221B; and every so often they’ll throw in a line of dialogue that throws back to the original material.

This is my choice of retelling. For me, it offers the most flexibility. It allows you complete creative control over your stories and characters but allows you to still use the existing background of the fairytale to add depth and familiarity for the reader.

Question 3: Do you know your copyright limitations?

This is the one that will give you the most headaches and heartache if you aren’t 100% certain of what you are allowed to use and what you aren’t. Copyright law changes from place to place so I’m not going to even being to start to try to provide details here. Each story will be different. It will depend on when and what the original source is. Peter Pan, for example, is a fairly modern novel and so has more restrictions than Sleeping Beauty but Disney can get quite protective over their stories but it tends not to cover fictional novels. From Wiki:

In 2013, the US Patent and Trademark Office issued a trademark to Disney Enterprises, Inc. for the name “Snow White” that covers all live and recorded movie, television, radio, stage, computer, Internet, news, and photographic entertainment uses, excluding literary works of fiction and nonfiction

An afternoon of research will save you a lot of worrying later down the road. Particularly if you are thinking of self publishing and so don’t have the safety net of an agent and a publishing house.

Question 4: What are you bringing to the party?

I’m sounding like a broken record at the moment. I lament to anyone misfortunate enough to be around me Hollywood’s loss of ability to do anything original. I swear, if they remake another “classic” 80s movie I’m staging a protest. First Fame, Flashdance, 90210, Superman – the list just goes on and on. I nearly cried when they released that they were redoing Mary Poppins.

So what are you doing writing a retelling? – I hear you ask. Is that not exactly the same thing?

My answer. Not if I do it right.

Big if, I know, but an important one. Think about Romeo and Juliet for a second. Do you know how many movie versions have been made? No? Me either. I had to Google it. According to TCM…

There have been more than 30 film versions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – silent versions, sound versions, versions in foreign languages, and in modern dress. Source

Now, how many have you heard of? One, two? I’d reckon the two most people know is the Baz Luhrmann movie from 1996 and Disney’s Gnomeo and Juliet. I’ve seen more, I know I have but these two stick in my mind. Why? Because they did something different and they stuck to it – for better or worse. They knew what they were bringing to the party. If you give the reader the same stuff they’ve already seen, at best your work will be forgettable, at worst left discarded and unfinished. A retelling can so easily become a very boring experience for a reader if they haven’t got anything new and exciting to be drawn to.

It’s all about balance between keeping the stuff you love and that inspired you to write the retelling in the first place from the original but combine it with enough new elements and surprises to have your fingerprints all over the prose and keep the reader hooked and second guessing.

Question 5: What are you trying to accomplish?

Imagine the following (fictional) conversation that must have happened between Stephanie Meyer and the agents she pitched her work to:

Agent: “So what is this book about?”

Stephanie: “A vampire falling in love with a human.”

Agent: “Been done. If I want star-crossed lovers I’ll read Romeo and Juliet.”

Stephanie: “Funny you should mention that. R+J is a massive theme throughout my book.”

Agent: “Okay, so it’s Romeo and Juliet with vampires. Isn’t that just Dracula?”

Stephanie: “No. Mine is for young adults and, get this, my vampires sparkle.”

Agent: “Okay… you’ve got me intrigued. But tell me why I should publish this book over all the other ones? What does your book accomplish that they don’t?”

Stephanie: “…”

Actually Steph, bless her, had quite a choice of answers. Love or hate Twilight, it does do a lot of new things to an old hat. It made vampires attractive to a young audience. It retold the old story of Romeo and Juliet and the star-crossed lovers against a (faux) gothic background. It makes stalking an attractive feature… okay, okay, I’ll stop. But my point is, whatever your view on this book, the first one anyway, brought something new to the shelves.

If you have ever got as far as pitching a novel to an agent, you’ll know this question has a nasty habit of popping up. It isn’t enough to just have a story these days. The publishing industry is about the bottom line. You have to do more than just justify your story as a story, you have to justify it as a book as well.

So have this in the back of your mind. Think about what you are doing that makes your novel unique. Is it addressing a new audience? Has it got a currently relevant message? Is it exploring a moral dilemma? Is it changing the genre of an old classic? In short, why is someone going to choose to pick up your book out of the millions out there? What is your sales pitch? If the best you’ve got is “cos I love Sleeping Beauty and wanted to have a play around with my own version” you might want to sit down and really think about this one.

If you are struggling with this, write a blurb. Write yourself the paragraph you’d put on the back cover to hook new readers. That 500 odd words is everything unique about your book. It’s your “why you should read this” declaration to the world. Look at what you’ve written and ask yourself if you would pick up that book. Better yet, hand it to half a dozen beta readers and ask them if it makes them want to read the book. They come back with a yes and you’ve got yourself a book.

Next week I look at elements of the fairytale and how to start turning ideas into a novel…

7 thoughts on “5 Questions To Ask When Writing a Fairytale Retelling

  1. jazzfeathers says:

    Really enjoyed thsi article. I’m thinking about writing a retelling (maybe, I’m not sure yet) and your post has given me lots to think about.

    • Maxi Bransdale says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I’m addicted to fairytales and retellings so my advice would always be go for it. I’ve had so much fun working on mine.

    • Maxi Bransdale says:

      Thank you so much. I’m just happy to be sharing my passion with other writers so I’m always thrilled to hear such lovely positive feedback.

  2. lauramichaela says:

    I am in the midst of putting my own twist on some of my favorite fairy tales – one is a twist on cinderella with dragons, but there were parts that played homage to the Perrault version, and no one got it. They were like, why is she doing this? This doesn’t make sense… LOL! I cut them!

    Interesting note about the House/Sherlock connection – Phryne Fisher, who lives in an entire mansion all to herself, is also located at 221B. If you’re familiar with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, you might have already seen that.

    Thank you so much for this list – I believe it will definitely help my own endeavors going forward!

    • Maxi Bransdale says:

      Sorry for the slow response, have been snowed with other (day job) dramas.

      I’m so glad you found my post helpful. It is my absolute pleasure to provide it. I’m forever surprised by how little is out there for us retellers given how many of us there are and how popular this genre is so I’m excited to be able to help my fellow writers. Wish you the best of luck with your projects, they sound really different and imaginative.

      I find that’s the thing with retellings, they can be pretty subtle so you end up having to explain yourself. Over the years, I’ve turned that into a bit of a yardstick. If I have to explain it, it’s probably too subtle (though it breaks my heart to kill my darlings).

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