How to Write a Fairy Tale Retelling

How to Write a Fairy Tale Retelling | Learn how to create a fresh, compelling retelling of a classic fairy tale!I don’t know about you, but I love a good fairy tale retelling. I’m actually writing one right now, and have plot bunnies for several more hopping around my head. There’s just something so fun about taking an old tale and turning it into something new! (Seriously, you’ll get addicted).

If you’ve always wanted to try writing a fairy tale retelling, now is a great time to give it a shot! Retellings are currently popular in the market, both in the publishing and film industry. But how do you pull one off? Here’s my advice for creating a fresh, compelling retelling!

Do Your Research

In order to retell a story, you need to know the original. (And I’m not talking about the Disney versions). Read up on the original fairy tale and any variations it might have. You might be surprised to find the originals are a lot darker than their Disney counterparts!

Next, research existing retellings (both films and books) and take notes. Make sure you know what’s been done already so you don’t accidentally write something that’s too similar. Agents and editors want a fresh story! Also read reviews of these books and films and take notes on the reader’s opinions. What did they like and not like about the retelling? Don’t repeat mistakes other writers might have made.

Don’t Give Readers the Same Story

One of the most important things you’re going to need to decide is how similar (or different) you want your story to be from the original. The key to a successful retelling is to avoid giving readers the same story. We know that story. We can read it anywhere. A retelling that’s too similar can lead to boredom in the reader. We want something that’s new and exciting, but still feels familiar.

You don’t want to follow the original plot to a T. Your story will be predictable, and that will lead to bored readers and pages that don’t get turned because they already know what happens. You’ll need to brainstorm ways to make your plot different! You can include main plot points from the original story, or go in a completely different direction altogether and create your own plot.

Let’s look at some examples of retold fairy tale films that illustrate the different degrees of a retelling.

Original Story: Disney’s Cinderella (2015)

This one isn’t really a retelling–rather, it’s a remake. While I enjoyed this film, I couldn’t help but be somewhat bored. It follows the animated version almost exactly and didn’t introduce anything new.  While it was visually pleasing and Prince Charming was cute, I could have just watched the animated version. This is what you want to avoid–don’t remake a fairy tale, retell it!

Slight Modifications: Snow White and the Huntsman

This retelling was more interesting. Snow White is represented as a warrior trying to reclaim her throne rather than a frightened, fainting damsel who is happy to spend her days singing and cleaning. The Huntsman also takes a larger role, and the romance is with him instead of the Prince. Besides these major changes, the film remains very faithful to the original while taking a darker tone.

A Fresh Look: Maleficent

Of the films listed here, this is by far my favorite. The tale of Sleeping Beauty is retold from the villain Maleficent’s perspective, and reveals why she came to put a curse on an innocent baby. This retelling offers a fresh look at a familiar story, yet still follows the original fairly close.

Completely Revamped: Beastly

This retelling of Beauty and the Beast is drastically different from the original. It’s set in modern day and barely follows the original story line. (This isn’t a bad thing! Marissa Meyer does this with the Lunar Chronicles, creating a new plot that keeps things exciting). Instead, it takes the theme of inner beauty being more important than outer beauty and creates a new plot.

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You will need to find a balance between drawing inspiration from the original tale and your own ideas. This can be tricky. Pay attention to your favorite parts and elements of the original, as well as those that are the most memorable and iconic. For example, Cinderella’s glass slipper, Red Riding Hood’s red cloak, Snow White’s poisoned apple.

This doesn’t mean that you have to include all of these things. And if doing so feels forced or contrived in your plot, then don’t! But pay attention to what gives the fairy tale its distinct feel, and what is endearing and memorable about it.

Also, look at how you might incorporate these elements in a new way. For example, in Cinder by Marissa Meyer (a sci-fi retelling of Cinderella), Cinder is a cyborg with a metal foot. Instead of losing a glass slipper on the palace steps, she loses her metal foot. That was a very clever way to stay true to an original plot element, yet make it new and interesting.

Make It Fresh

So how do you retell a fairy tale in a way that’s new and interesting without rehashing the original? Here are some ideas for you!

#1 Switch the Roles of the Hero and Villain

The t.v. series Once Upon a Time does this with Hook and Peter Pan, making Peter a villain and Hook tortured and brooding, eventually joining the side of the good guys.

You have to be careful with this one, though! Those who have a deep love for a character will hate seeing him become a villain. I’ll confess that at first I found the OUAT switch weird, and I was kind of sad that Peter was evil. But it ended up being really interesting and working well in the story!

#2 Use a New POV

Try telling the story from the perspective of a villain, like in Maleficent. Or, use the POV of a different character. For example, what if you were to retell Snow White from the POV of the Huntsman? A third option could be to use a dual or multi POV, switching back and forth between multiple characters. For example, you could go back and forth between Sleeping Beauty and Prince Philip.

#3 Change the Time Period

Your story doesn’t have to take place in the same time period as the original. You could make it modern like Beastly, or even futuristic like Cinder.

#4 Change the Setting

You don’t have to stick to the original setting, either. What if you took the traditional European fairy tales and put them in a setting like Africa, Asia, South America, or the Middle East?

#5 Use a Different Genre

You can use genre to put a different spin on a fairy tale. What if you made Snow White into a modern thriller? Or Sleeping Beauty Steampunk? A great example of this is Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, which puts a sci-fi spin on classic fairy tales.

#6 Do a Crossover

Both Once Upon a Time and the Lunar Chronicles cross over multiple fairy tale characters and story lines. This can make for an interesting story by exploring how these story lines connect, and how these characters interact with one another.

#7 Make it Dark

You can’t go wrong with going dark! There’s something strangely irresistible about a dark version of the light-hearted happily ever after we’re used to. And after all, the original tales were usually pretty dark themselves!

What are your thoughts on retelling fairy tales? What retellings have and haven’t worked for you?

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19 thoughts on “How to Write a Fairy Tale Retelling

  1. Great post. I love the old tales, but they’re usually so short! There’s so much room to expand on them. My favourite retellings are Robin McKinley’s novels Beauty and Deerskin, as well as the movie Ever After.

    I love retelling old tales. My current WIP started as a gender-bent retelling of Robin Hood, although it’s changed over time to the point where is almost unrecognizable. I’ve got some ideas for Cinderella and Psyche and Eros, too.

    BTW, your floating share bar overlaps the text of your posts when I’m reading them on a tablet.

  2. This is such a great post! I think fairy tale retellings have started growing in popularity these days- especially Disney movie retellings! There are a couple of Aladdin retellings that have been published/are coming soon, and I can see this trend continuing in the future. And of course, Marissa Meyer’s series has been fantastically popular (can not WAIT for the last book!!), for good reason. 😀

    You offer up some awesome tips. I don’t watch OUaT, but I adore the idea of flipping the villain/hero, although I do see how it can pose some problems for people. Peter Pan being evil DOES sound weird to me, but I think if it can be pulled off right, I would love it! Genre blending is a great way to inject some originality into a story that’s been done a lot as well. I hadn’t thought of making the story dark, but seriously, what a FANTASTIC idea.

    Love this post, Kaitlin!! Thanks for sharing these fabulous suggestions. <33

  3. I’m somewhat (but mostly not) embarrassed to admit that two of my favorite movie retellings are A Cinderella Story (w/Hilary Duff) and Sydney White (w/Amanda Bynes). Both set in modern schools, ACS in high school and SW in college. They both manage to work in the iconic objects without making it feel forced (e.g. Sam’s glass slipper is her cell phone). SW is also fun because the ‘dwarves’ become important characters–Sydney gets stuck housing with a group of awkward, nerdy guys (the “seven dorks”) and helps them break out of their shells and become more confident in themselves.

    It seems to me that one of the big trends these days is rehabilitating the villain, as in Maleficent or Wicked, or showing a “good” side to traditionally evil creatures such as vampires. Personally I’m a big fan of the “resisting your evil nature” and “redemption” motifs, but I feel like they can easily be overdone or mishandled, esp. if they wander too far into moral grey areas (“Well, yeah, s/he killed thousands of innocents, but S/HE HAD A LEGIT REASON!”).

  4. I sort of stumbled into my own particular “take” on fairytales without even realizing it – I’m a historical fiction writer, and after I was introduced to fairytale retellings via a writing contest, I got hooked on writing them as straight historical fiction. It’s fun finding the real-world parallels for the magical elements of the fairytale in my chosen historical period. I did “Cinderella” as a Western romance (published), I’m working on “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” set in the Jazz Age, and am planning another Western with “Little Red Riding Hood.”

    I was a little upset when I found I wasn’t the first author to put the “Twelve Dancing Princesses” in the 1920s, but after reading over some synopses and reviews, I was relieved to find we were taking completely different angles on it. That’s one of the neat things about retellings: you get to see different authors come up with unique variations from the same starting point.

    Coincidentally, I just recently wrote a blog post about fairytale retellings myself: http://thesecondsentence.blogspot.com/2015/08/fairytales-on-menu.html

  5. Though it’s been a while since I read it, I remember loving Donna Jo Napoli’s BEAST. She’s a master of fairy tale retellings. I haven’t read them all but the ones I have are exquisite, and she always writes them from the perspective of a side character and makes the story her own in other ways, as well. This review of BEAST gives you a good idea what they’re like: https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/inside-his-skin-donna-jo-napolis-beast

    I love your advice, Kaitlin. While I don’t have any fairy tale retellings in mind for projects at the moment, I’m definitely pinning this for future reference!

  6. Yay! I’ve always loved fairytales, and at the moment I’m happily in the middle of writing a whole series of novella-length retellings. Part of the purpose of the exercise is to get a bit of experience writing in radically different settings and genres, so I’ve had no trouble keeping it fresh as you suggest! Plus, a lot of my retellings are tributes to genres I love but don’t usually write big projects in. Eg…

    – I wrote a retelling of Beauty and the Beast…in India…in the style of a Bollywood movie. No, really! It worked really well! I used a red lotus instead of a red rose.
    – Then I wrote a retelling of The Fisherman and His Wife…in 700s Byzantium…in the style of historical epic/clockpunk/screwball comedy. Yes, really!
    – Then I wrote a retelling of Jorinda and Joringel…in Tudor England…in the style of English folklore, from Tam Lin to Goblin Market to Stardust.
    – And most recently, I wrote a retelling of Snow White…in Prohibition-era New Zealand…in the style of a Mary Stewart romantic suspense novel.

    (Two of those are published; the other two are forthcoming, and I have plot bunnies for many more).

    And in fact, here’s another potential way of making it fresh: Pick a lesser-known fairytale to retell. I’ve written retellings of stories I thought no one was familiar with, only to discover that lots of my readers knew all about, say, “The Fisherman and His Wife” and were super keen to read a retelling of something a bit different!

    1. I really like your last point. There are so many fairytales, too, that finding one that inspires shouldn’t be too hard. The Fisherman and His Wife retelling sounds really good!

    2. Um okay all of those sound freaking amazing! Where can I find the published ones? I’d love to read them!

      And that last point is very true! Less-known fairy tales are great sources of inspiration for retellings!

  7. I like versions that make the story more logical in universe. For original Cinderella, the fairy godmother comes out of nowhere; beyond the magical dress deadline there isn’t any more magic in the story. Seems trite; not enchanting. In Ella Enchanted, the story is full on fantasy with lots of magic cropping up, but there are rules that come with it. Conversely, Ever After takes away the magical element, and the other servants who love Cinderella bring out her mother’s wedding gown to get to the ball.

    Fairest is a good version of Snow White. She isn’t the fairest of them all, she’s very homely. The journey is her coming to appreciate herself as she is, even when she is offered magic beauty, and helping the queen realize the same thing.

  8. I love retelling fairy tales, though I prefer lighthearted, fun retellings, where the plot holes are made fun of. Three out of five of my novels are retellings, and most of my published short stories are retellings.

    Some of my favorite things to do with fairy tales are:

    Swap genders. I’ve done this twice, once as a kid with Rumplestilskin, and then with a Cinderella retelling where I was trying to write an adventure version of the story in under 1,200 words. (And, seeing as how, it was over 10,000 when I rewrote it, that was a feat in and of itself.) It’s really fun seeing how it changes the fairy tale to have the prince and princess swap places.

    Tell what Happens After. So Happily Ever After has been achieved, but what happens then?

    Fill in the Plot Holes. Seriously, though. Some fairy tales have holes big enough to fly a jumbo jet through, and their world building needs some serious development.

    Pick on lesser known tales. There are some hidden gems out there that still have a lot of meat on them, and they’re such fun to write. There are also some really weird tales, though.

    I love fairy tale boarding schools, or retellings that explore the origins of fairy tales (from a fairy tale sense), though I’ve not actually written any of those. I need to.

    I don’t like it when a retelling’s sole focus is the romance. I drop them faster than a hot iron in July. I come to retellings for a fresh take, not steam. Ugh.

    1. Ooh these are all such fantastic ideas, Kendra! The gender swapping one is especially interesting. I love to write retellings as well, and that’s currently what I’m working on! Though it does have a big romantic subplot, there’s more to it than just the romance. I can’t get into books that are all romance, I need action and some sort of other plot to keep me interested!

  9. Does the tale of Bluebeard count as a fairytale? Because I’m retelling that one. I’m going to be making it much darker and scarier…. and the traditional victim will be a villian in disguise. I’m really excited about it.

  10. I love reinvisioning fairytales! I have done my own version of Beauty and the Beast, and am now working on Peter Pan. I have some good ideas in the works for Aladin too. The catch with my story’s is there is usually NO MAGIC. And I take a darker tone. I like modern retellings. Feel free to check out some of my stuff on Fanfiction.net. I know you are thinking omg, amature, but it’s actually a really good sounding board for what readers like and don’t like. I think my Beauty and the Beast story will make an excellent stand alone, and I intend to publish it. My author name is Muse of the Pen.

  11. Have you ever read “The Sleeper and the Spindle” by Neil Gaiman? It’s a retelling of Sleeping Beauty obviously, but instead of a prince coming to wake her up, she’s rescued by Snow White. Their kingdoms are right next to each other, and the sleeping curse starts to spread into Snow White’s kingdom, so she and the dwarves go looking for the source.
    The story implied that Snow White’s stepmother and Maleficent were part of this ancient, immortal race that could manipulate people’s emotions. The Evil Queen tried to kill Snow White, not because she was too beautiful, but because she had learned to resist the manipulation.

  12. Enjoyed your post – was recommended to me by Pinterest. I wrote a steampunk retelling of the Nutcracker called Once Upon A Winter, and I love fairy tale retellings. Happy reading and writing!

  13. I love the Lunar Chronicles! Cinder as Cinderella, Kai`s Prince Charming, Scarlet as Red Riding Hood, Ren as the big bad wolf, Cress as Rapunzel and Thorne as her savior, Winter as Snow White, Jacin being the ‘huntsman.’ I can`t think of very many fairytale retellings as awesome as this series…though I`m disappointed she`s not writing another book. I love how Cinder is a cyborg, and also Lunar…(spoiler`s alert, sorry!) Levana is the evil queen…stepmother to Winter, Cinder`s aunt. And then how Marissa Meyer ties everything together…so memorable.

  14. I write on a website called Wattpad. On my old account, I started a retelling of The Little Mermaid, which was nothing like the original version. I never finished it, but now I’m starting a Beauty and the Beast retelling. It’ll be somewhat modern, but it will have a 18th century setting.

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