How to Write A Fairy-Tale (or Other Story!) Retelling That Sells

There’s a reason readers flock to retellings of fairy tales, folk tales, and other classic stories: they already love them. In fact, most writers of retellings probably start those projects because they love the source material, too.

A retelling takes a story that everyone (or many people!) knows, and changes some key elements (setting, for example) so that it becomes a new, but still recognizable, story. Authors like Gregory Maguire, Marissa Meyer, and Danielle Page have seen huge success taking these beloved tales and making them their own, and readers are consistently excited for more. So how can you craft a retelling that’s intriguing, entertaining, and original?

Pick a story you love.
Don’t settle on a tale for retelling just because it seems like it’d sell. (That pretty much never works, even if you’re not writing a retelling!) You should have some personal connection with this story, whether it’s one you loved as a child, or one you’ve newly discovered.

Make sure you can use that story.
Not everything is fair game for retelling. Anything that isn’t in the public domain is unlikely to get a go-ahead, because you’re infringing on someone else’s intellectual property. So more recently published books—or pretty much any original movie—are out. Double check before you invest too much time into a project. However, all fairy tales, folk stories, Arthurian legends, Robin Hood stories, Shakespeare, and so on are totally fair game.

Make sure it’s not too obscure.
Readers connect to retellings because they already have expectations going in. If your readers don’t recognize the obscure Grimm’s fairy tale you’ve chosen to adapt (The Girl Who Trod On The Loaf, say), it’s not going to resonate with them. Think broadly when you pick source material so that you don’t lock your potential readers out.

Figure out what to change.
A retelling has to have some element that’s different from the original—that’s what makes it retold. You have an arsenal of craft techniques at your disposal: you could update the setting to modern times (or set it in a different historical era), you could change the POV from the hero/heroine to the villain (or another side character), you could change the format (a diary, a novel in verse), or switch genres entirely (sci-fi, anyone?)

Tinker with the plot.
Some (okay, most) fairy tales hinge on paper-thin motivation and nonexistent stakes. Think hard about what could get your characters into the starting situation, and what kinds of emotional depth will motivate them to take the actions that set the story in motion. Don’t count on the source material doing all the work for you—in a fairy tale, that’s fine, but in a novel? No way.

Think of what’s done before.
The downside of the popularity of retellings is that there are a lot already out there. Is yours really bringing something new to the table? If you have, for example, a Cinderella retelling where Cinderella is part cyborg, it’s going to be tough to make the case to an agent, editor, or even reader that your story is appreciably different from Cinder. 

Know your audience.
If you’re changing genre or age category, be sure to keep in mind what your readers will expect. If you’re writing YA, for example, eon’t get too bogged down in the source material to forget to include all the appropriate tropes that draw readers to those books: romance, teenage awkwardness, banter, etc.

Decide how to adapt (or update) details.
Some stories are, for lack of a better word, hella dated. Old tales run rampant with misogyny, sexism, racism, and other damaging tropes. If you’re going to contend with those in your story, work carefully, do research, and consider hiring sensitivity readers to help you navigate your changes.
Also, your chosen story may have magical or otherwise logistically impossible elements that don’t fit in with your chosen retelling setting. Are you going to leave them in, craft an alternate explanation, or bend the plot to skirt them entirely?

Make sure it’s truly a retelling.
Finally, not all stories that use recognizable tropes really are retellings. If your high concept pitch is “Romeo and Juliet, but in present-day, and the families aren’t actually fighting, and they end up happily ever after,” you don’t have a retelling on your hands—you have an original story. And that’s fine! Things adapt and change and grow as you write them, and that doesn’t mean your idea is any less feasible. You’ll probably just want to remove the source material from your pitch, or risk confusing potential readers when your novel doesn’t deliver exactly that.

 

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