Friday, May 4, 2018

6 Tips for Writing Fantastic, Original Fairytale Retellings - A Guest Post by Grace

Today is one of the greatest days of 2018 for two reasons:

1) It is May the 4th, so we can get our Star Wars pride on. Not that I don't always do that, but it's nice to have a day where we're all unified by our love for space ships and Wookies and bounty-hunters-who-should-never-have-died-in-movie-number-3. Ahem. Sorry. Still bitter about that last one.

2) Today brings us a guest post by Grace from Bard on Pilgrimage. And when I say "us" I really mean you because I've already had the privilege of reading, laughing over, and being provoked to thought by this post. Grace is an epic writer, great blogger, and huge nerd. She has kindly volunteered to be the first of three people who have stepped up to fill in for me during these next three weeks as I battle Microbiology finals. So let's hear some loud, enthusiastic, pod-racing-from-the-Phantom-Menace-style cheering to welcome her!

Originality is overrated.

Now before you throw me into the sarlacc pit, hear me out. Depending what source you read, there are only a limited number of plots out there—1, 7, 9, 20, 36. One glance at your personal library should tell you there’s going to be some recycling going on. But you don’t usually see it lauded until you come to the fairy-tale retellings. (Other stories get retold too, as soon as they enter public domain—that’s how we got zombies invading Pemberley—but let’s stick to the not-quite-as-macabre side of things.)

So maybe you struggle with compelling plot structure. Maybe villains aren’t your strong suit (*swallows guiltily*). Or maybe you just want a quick side project, and a fairy tale sounds like fun. Retellings let you blatantly rip off an existing story, right? Nothing could be easier!

Amazing. Every word of what you just said was wrong.

Fortunately for you, you have this post to put you on the path to the Light Side—I mean, help you start your fairy-tale retelling.

6 Tips for Writing Fantastic, Original Fairytale Retellings

1. Do read the original. The beginning is the very best place to start. Know your material. This is not an option. There are plenty of great sites out there that provide fairy tales for free—as well as any variants from other cultures. Read the variants too! They may have some interesting twists that your readers won’t be expecting. Read, take notes, analyze what’s going on. The more you can find the roots of what’s going on, the easier it will be to swap up things like setting or character roles, because you won’t lose sight of the meaning. More on that later.

2. Don’t follow the Disney version verbatim. Your readers will know you did not do your homework. Gaston may be a good foil to the Beast, and Rapunzel’s healing hair was pretty handy, but unless you have a fresh reason for incorporating that detail, it might just be an easy way out. We want to read your story. If you look to Disney for inspiration, study their strategy of putting an original spin on old fairytales, but don't use them as source material.

Or fairy tale retellings, either.

Although . . .

3. Do feel free not to feel free. Take as many or as few liberties and twists as you want. If you want Snow White to be a scientist in an asteroid mining facility, go ahead. If you want her to be a medieval fantasy princess, go ahead. The little mermaid can be a mermaid or an android; Beauty can be a medic or a merchant’s daughter; mirrors can be people, dwarves can be cats, fairy godmothers can be inanimate objects or plot developments or actual fairies. Do steampunk, do contemporary, do culture- or gender-swaps. Play with viewpoints, motivations, character roles—or don’t. It’s up to you. As long as the story stays true to its most important roots (again, more on that later), the branches and leaves are all yours. And on that note . . .

4. Don’t compare your ideas to others’. Yes, the Lunar Chronicles are amazing. Yes, Gail Carson Levine has fairy dust in her fingers. Yes, Kyle Robert Schultz is the inimitable overlord of the Afterverse (and really should be the one writing this post, who am I kidding here). But that’s a white rabbit hole you don’t want to fall down. No one else can envision your story just like you want it. You may love their voice, you may admire their sense of humor, you may die in envy of their plot twists multiple times a day—but they didn’t have your idea. You did. It’s your messy, adorable, incorrigible little brainchild, and the foster system doesn’t accept brainchildren. You get to bring it up and help it grow and mature, and eventually you can show it off to the rest of us like the proud parent you are. If you want to read this story, then you need to write it.

5. Don’t forget to develop your characters. This is huge. The original fairy tales use a whole ton of archetypes, a word which here means “flat characters with one defining characteristic that makes them very hard to use in today’s literary world without modification.” Gentle, pure maidens and swashbuckling princes (or plucky peasant lads) may be all well and good in Andrew Lang and the brothers Grimm, but your retelling faces a different market. Readers today reasonably expect certain things from their stories, including round, dynamic characters. So consider things like motivations, flaws, and arcs carefully. This is one key way your retelling can engage an audience and set itself apart from all the other versions out there.

And yet where it really matters, retellings are actually all the same:

6. Do keep the original theme (at least one, though there may be more). That’s the real reason we retell fairy tales. The revolting Beast and gentle Beauty are classic characters, but the chord that resonates with us is the importance of seeing past appearances. A formidable tower and yards of golden hair may be iconic images, but the delicate balance between protection and isolation soars beyond them. And of course, the great triumphant theme of good conquering evil rings out over all. No matter how dark things get, no matter how many stars fall from the sky, the tales as old as time will never stop shining—and your retelling can perpetuate the light of that ever-new hope.

...Okay, that’s quite enough forced Star Wars references for one post.

Good luck with your retellings, and May the Fourth be with you all!

The force is strong with Grace, isn't it? If you want more of her amazing writing, head on over to her blog. But not before leaving a comment below and telling us either:

A) Your own fairytale retelling tips

B) Your favorite retold novels

C) The best Star Wars joke you can think of

Or all three, honestly. No go forth! Be one with the 4th, for the 4th is with you.

Have writing, reading, or writer's life questions? Use the hashtag #ChatWithHannah below or on social media to have them answered on my Youtube channel!

Related articles:
9 Different Descriptive Settings to Use In Your Fantasy Novel (Without Using Forests)
9 Epic, Underused Mythical Animals for Your Fantasy Novel

Enjoy this post? Take a look around. If you like what you see, please don't forget to subscribe by email for a new post every Friday!

Some links are Amazon affiliate. Thank you for your support!


  1. I love that you mentioned Gail Carson Levine! She's one of my favorite authors! Some good points in this post, too. Love it!

  2. Lovely post and great points.

    I've been retelling fairy tales for as long as I can remember - the first story I ever wrote was a retelling of the Ugly Duckling, and I also distinctly remember a genderswapped Rumpelstiltskin in there. My debut novel was a mash-up involving Robin Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and a couple odd obscure tales. The latest project I just started is a collection of mash-ups between Austen and Fairy Tales (Emma+Rapunzel, anyone?)

    On 2 - THANK YOU. Seeing retellings that are based off of the Disney movie instead of the original is one of my greatest pet peeves as a reader. Once Upon a Time can get away with it - if they're not owned by Disney, the definitely have an agreement with them. You don't. Disney's movies are COPYWRITED, and if you copy them, you could end up with legal issues. Play it safe. Stick to the original tale.

    I'd actually argue #6, though, with my example being Rooglewood's Five Enchanted Roses collection. I'd always been apathetic to B&B retellings, but could never quite put my finger on why. There were a few I liked ... but, mostly I was quite "Meh" about them. And then I read this collection and found five retellings that each that told very different sides of the fairy tale. One did follow the plot and theme quite faithfully, but yet another completely rejected it for a moral that was, instead, "Good men exist. You don't have to settle for a beast." And I suddenly realized why I've never enjoyed B&B retellings. Its moral is so strong that most retellers never dig deeper or challenge it.

    Maybe it's just me, but I read retellings to discover the scope and depth of a fairy tale, to find out how someone else sees it, to understand what it's capable of. Don't be afraid of using the original theme of the fairy tale - but also try to dig deeper and see what else you can find for it to say.

    Other than that, I don't have anything to add. These were some great points.

  3. Robin McKinley has written one of the most beautiful retellings of Sleeping Beauty I've ever read. It's called Spindle's End, and there's a really cool plot twist which hinges on the main character not being an archetypal fairy tale princess. There's also a wonderful new trend in fractured fairy tales - Russian folklore. I highly recommend The Bear and the Nightingale and its sequel The Girl in the Tower. Both combine the haunting beauty of Russian fairy tales, some of them very obscure to westerners and thus refreshingly unpredictable, with a very accurate depiction of life in a harsh climate and an even harsher male dominated society.


Google Analytics Alternative