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Retelling fairytales into a Novel?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Writer’s_Magic, Nov 2, 2018.

  1. Hey, Guys!

    Retelling fairy tales is such easy. I mean, many bestsellers are just retellings. Twilight is just a retelling of Beauty and the Beast and Cinder is just a Dystopian retelling of Cinderella. It can be so easy. Especially, if you have no ideas. But how do you do that without seeming to be a (bad) copy of those novels?
  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    I don't think it is easy at all. You have to have new ideas to make it anything other than a copy of the plot and characters. How are you going to subvert expectations but still retain whatever made the story interesting in the first place? And then you have to write it well...
    It can be done and done well.
    One of my favourite films is The Warriors. A 1979 film based on a 1965 novel, itself based on Xenophon's Anabasis from 350+BC. Because of the film I went back and read a translation of the original [okay bits of it - its huge!].
    Sheilawisz likes this.
  3. CupofJoeCupofJoe I thought about that Cinderella is set on the Mars. But this time, the prince has an evil uncle, who wants to attack the earth.
  4. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I think as long as you're not doing a scene for scene rip off, you'll be fine. There are an ifinfite amount of retellings out there. What I've found from the ones I've read are they take the plot and use it to covey a unique perspective on things.

    But really, I think as long as you aim to tell a good story, original or not, you'll be fine. How many times has Romeo and Juliet been retold? I mean many authors draw from sources. I remember reading that Game of Thrones is a retelling of the real life War of the Roses.
  5. valiant12

    valiant12 Sage

    I don't think that its easy.
    The main challenge is that fairy tale characters are flat and one dimensional.
  6. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Archmage

    Rendering the old tales into new ones is never exactly what I'd call easy, you can do it, sure. They get retold plenty of times already, ranging from more humorous to darker and everything in between. I do enjoy twisting them myself too and use it fairly often.
  7. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Sage

    I enjoy it mostly. I can't think of any intolerable adulterations or botched interpretations at the moment. Only because most fairy tales were
    1. Originally told to scare the crap out of children or otherwise perpetuate cultural norms. Disney and Golden Books (Mother Goose) did a reasonable job making them 'tamer' for more modern audiences; and 2. Most stories of this nature evolve over time, get adapted and edited by other cultures, and retold. This happens over and over for generations. If you start studying folktales, it's interesting to see how many vastly different cultures end up telling the same kinds of stories. Almost line for line. Maybe it's because some core values and fears are shared globally, but I've always been interested in how one culture's big bad wolf is another's cruel shapeshifting fox-princess.

    Do I sometimes feel like there's a writer's strike or a hard stop on original scripts in Hollywood watching existing book materials made into movies? Yep. But, to add to your Cinderella example: I know of about six different narratives and interpretations of that story. All independently enjoyable, even though they're mostly the same narrative. Some versions are brutal, others more tragic, some landing in more modest territory.

    I had a lot of international folk and fairy tale books growing up that I eventually gifted to my friend's children to enjoy. I usually appreciate a new spin on a classic- that's how it continues the tradition of evolving for future generations to enjoy. I also remember particularly enjoying "What the Dickens?" By Gregory Maguire, for reinterpreting of all things, the Tooth Fairy trope...
    Sheilawisz likes this.
  8. Wiglaf

    Wiglaf Dreamer

    Most of what we now call ‘Fairy Tales,’ certainly the two you refer to in your question, come out of the oral traditions of pre-industrial Europe. They were ‘collected’ during the nineteenth century, most notably by the German Brothers Grimm (Cinderella, Hansel & Gretel, Puss in Boots … etc) and the prolific Danish author, Hans Christian Anderson (The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, The Emperor’s New Clothes … among many others). No one knows how long they were passed from mouth to mouth before they were eventually written down, some could go back centuries, but in the modern age they have stayed in print, been revised and re-told, handed down from one generation to the next, for over two hundred years. Personally, I think there are two reasons for this incredible longevity; first - they’re f*****g great stories! And second - they deal with deep-rooted cultural archetypes of behavior and society which we struggle to talk to kids about unless we use metaphors; things like child-abuse, crushing social inequality, and … monsters.

    To me, getting involved with these stories and rewriting them seems well worth doing. But is it easy? I think you’ll find it’s actually not. Because we all know them (or think we know them) we’re all informed critics of any new versions, and where we demand that authors stay true to the old, familiar narratives, we also want to see high degrees of originality and craftsmanship in the way any re-telling is put together. With this in mind, for me, the concept of Disney’s ‘Maleficent’ was just great, though as a movie it had other faults which, sadly, kept it out of my Top 10.

    If you do decide to start working with these tales as source material, I think there are a couple of things that might be worth thinking about; changing a story’s setting is usually a good start, and Cinderella on Mars sounds like a fine idea. But wherever the action happens, you may find it’s worth focusing on characters, rather than environment, as the main carriers of the narrative. A protagonist your audience can relate to generally makes things easier, but beyond that, if you can make ALL the characters in your story rounded, believable individuals, each with a story of their own (that may be worth telling at some other time), then I think you’re really onto something.

    The second thing you might find useful is to go back beyond the Disneyfication of these stories to the originals, which are often quite different. Back in 2014 the great connoisseur of fairy tales, Jack Zipes, published a new translation of ‘The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm,’ and it’s well worth a read. In this version of Cinderella, for example, when the prince is trying to find out who owns the glass slipper, the evil stepmother says to the ugly sisters: “”Listen … here’s a knife, and if the slipper is still too tight for you, then cut off a piece of your foot. It will hurt a bit. But what does that matter? It will soon pass …” Which clearly didn’t make it into any of the various Disney variants.

    But then, of course, if you do go back to the originals, you may be tempted to go totally off-piste into some of the lesser known tales, like ‘Maiden Without Hands’ or ‘How Some Children Played at Slaughtering’ … truly gruesome stuff!
    Night Gardener likes this.
  9. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

    I love reading retelling of fairytales and myths. They're quite possibly my favorite subgenre of fantasy. (Although there aren't as many good ones in the YA sphere as there were in middle-grade...) The first short story I ever finished was a retelling of Hansel and Gretel.

    It's been my general experience that they are a slightly easier to write, or at least to plot, because they give you a basic conflict and direction for your plot, but if you want to flesh a fairytale into a full-length novel, you still need to do a lot of plotting on your own, so I would be wary of writing one for just that reason. A lot of retelling don't even use the original plot, they tell another story that merely uses elements from the original. I'd argue that the Lunar Chronicles books are an example of this. The main conflicts are escaping her stepmother, (which is rooted in problems Cinderella has in the original story, but gives her a different goal) as well as a plague and possible alien invasion, neither of which have anything to do with the original tale.

    In order to write a good fairytale retelling of your own, you have to understand what makes the genre tick. The core of retellings is the fun of telling a familiar story in a new way. You have to add something. Sometimes that means as little as literally just giving a story a new setting or point of view character to see how it changes, but a good author is able to understand the specific tropes of a story and play with them on an individual level. (Like how the glass shoe in Cinder is actually a cyborg foot). Knowing all the pieces and wondering how they'll be used/changed/subverted in a particular version is a big part of what makes this type of book fun. Some authors don't even start with a specific fairytale, they write a completely original plot and just try to cram in as many references and tropes as possible. (Some examples of this are the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, and even the Percy Jackson books-only drawing from greek myths instead of Germanic fairytales.)

    I think this is why so many popular fairytale retellings tend to be of the same common fairytales over and over again. (Cinderella, Snow white, Sleeping Beauty...) The tropes are familiar to pretty much everyone. Sometimes an author will get frustrated with this and decide to write something based off of something obscure instead. That's not necessarily a bad path to take, but I think those stories tend to have a slightly different audience. So I don't think you have to worry about your Martian Cinderella story being a Cinder clone, unless it happens to share a lot of other elements.
    Wiglaf likes this.
  10. Tom

    Tom Istar

    Retelling fairy tales isn't easy. Not if you want the final product to be compelling, well-crafted, and true to the spirit of the original.

    I mean, what are fairy tales? Not an easy answer. Tracing their origins quickly becomes a nightmare task. Establishing the definition of "fairy tale" is even harder. Some, like Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella, are relatively recent (recent being the 18th century) French morality tales. What we consider the "original" version of Cinderella is actually a rewriting of an older, more brutal German story called Aschenputtel. When the Brothers Grimm recorded age-old oral folk tales, they often modified them (sometimes heavily) to conform to their moral standards and ideas of German national identity. A lot of fairy tales have their roots in multiple cultures, existing in a fluid state where the details of place, characters, and even plot vary around a central premise. Common archetypes of character, circumstance, and structure find their way across dozens of stories and hundreds or even thousands of miles. Fairy tales are a record of humanity--migration and cultural exchange, oral inheritance, religion and social values, play a role in how they appear today.

    This rich, complex history of fairy tales should be mirrored in how you plan your rewrite. What elements are you going to use? Which specific version of this story are you going to adapt, or are you going to draw on several different iterations? How will your story preserve the original central intent of the story, even though everything else may change--or are you planning to contradict its intent instead?

    I'm currently working on a retelling of The Little Mermaid. The story as I've chosen to reinterpret it is almost unrecognizable--it's set in modern New England, featuring a bestial merman instead of a mermaid princess, and set several years after he became human. Ultimately, though, I chose to preserve a skeleton of the original plot (most of it relayed via flashbacks) as well as one of Hans Christian Andersen's themes: longing for more, for connection, for affirmation, for change. It's these themes that drive the whole story. They inform every plot point and give it its soul.
    Firefly, A. E. Lowan and Wiglaf like this.
  11. TomTom You know that the original end of the little mermaid was that the prince loved another girl and the mermaid kills herself?
  12. Tom

    Tom Istar

    Close, but not quite. In Andersen's original ending the prince marries the girl who found him on the beach, and the little mermaid melts into seafoam (as the witch said she would if she failed to win the prince's heart). Andersen went back after it was criticized for being "fatalistic" and rewrote the ending so that the little mermaid is reborn as a spirit after her death--a Daughter of the Air. The others like her explain that in the next 300 years she'll have the chance to earn a human soul and ascend to heaven. So really, the original story has two possible endings: one tragic, and one bittersweet.

    Personally, I chose to pull a Disney with my ending. It's not going to be too over the top, though; it still has a lot of weight and emotional depth. Really it's a product of the worldbuilding and character development coming together in one crucial moment.

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