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!
Psst…before we get started, click here to download the free PDF worksheets I created to go along with this post!
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.
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?