… and all this will happen again.
This is one of many iconic Battlestar Galactica quotes, but it’s very relevant to today’s topic: retellings.
There’s this idea out there that there’s only really one story. Or three. Or five. Or something like that — I haven’t really been paying attention. Sure, there’s structure to a story that most engaging plots follow, but that’s not really telling the same story. That’s tapping into something that seems innate to human storytelling (oh god, now I’m trying to imagine alien storytelling and how that would be different!). Today, I’m talking about actual retellings.
Retellings are everywhere, from Shakespeare to fairy/folk tales, and I want to focus on the latter. Everyone has their own feelings about them, but I tend to like them when they’re done well. Though I’m not all caught up, I’ve generally enjoyed the TV series “Once Upon A Time,” which is fairy tale central. I’ve been working on my own Beauty and the Beast retelling on the side, and one of the members of my writing group submitted a fairy tale retelling for critique today, so it’s been on my mind all day.
Why Retell a Fairy Tale?
There’s something appealing about taking a familiar, well-worn, and outdated story and slapping on a new coat of paint. In fact, if you’re looking for an “easy” project, a way to get back into writing, or just need to take a break from whatever WIP is kicking your butt at the moment, this could be exactly what you need. People certainly make novels out of these retellings, but I always think of them as experiments, and experiments for me come in the form of short stories. Here are some reasons I think a retelling can be a great writing exercise.
1. Your audience is primed.
When you retell a story, your readers are already warmed up. Sometimes, they specifically seek out retellings of one of their favorite stories. They know the setting, characters, and plot, at least to some extent, but they’re looking for your twists and turns. Even if your story is very different, readers cling to those similarities as jumping off points into your story. What’s your angle? Cinderella, except everyone’s a werewolf? Cool. I’m dying to see how that works.
2. Pre-plotted for your convenience.
The story is already plotted for you. If it’s easier to write, it’s more likely to get written. One of the toughest things for me when writing short stories is coming up with a satisfying ending. With a retelling, you already have the direction laid out. The expectation is already there, just waiting for you to subvert it in some way. Maybe you’re transplanting the cast into a completely new setting, and the intrigue comes from how you’ll convert Sleeping Beauty’s spindle into something more modern. Or maybe she is awake and ugly and out for blood. How did we get the story so wrong?
3. Make it yours.
This is the best part. With some of the plot’s heavy lifting already out of the way, you can focus more on the details. Make Sleeping Beauty ugly. Make the evil queen the good guy. Tell me a side of the story I don’t know. If you felt left out of fairy tales as a child because none of them represented you, write the hero you wanted to see. Whatever you do, make it yours.
4. As always, ignore the haters.
Some people are going to hate what you’ve done with the place. They hate werewolves and can’t believe how stupid your werewolf Cinderella story was. That’s life. As long as you enjoyed writing it and got something out of it, it’s a win.
There’s definitely a market for retellings, but more than that, they can be a fun writing exercise. “What if?” can be a powerful inspiration, along with, “Why not?” This is what inspired my flash fiction story “The Judgment of Alexander.” Someone asked me why the goddesses didn’t just split the apple.
It’s wonderful to create your own fantastic world, but sometimes, you need a break. If you’re feeling stuck, there’s nothing wrong with splashing around in some else’s for a while (assuming you’re doing so with permission if it’s under copyright). Happy writing!