Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Retellings: Why do it?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

FIRST! Steph and I are going to be at the One Year Adventure Novel conference. We'd like to talk to those of you who are planning to go. If that's you, please email me at jill@jillwilliamson.com to let me know. Thanks!

Since I talked about high concept ideas and story types last week, today I wanted to focus on one very popular type of story. The retelling. This is when you take the plot structure from a well-known story and use that to tell your own tale or to tell a different version of the same one.

The biggest examples of this type of story are fairy tales and superhero stories. They've been around for a long time and people are still telling the same stories. Every year there are new books and movies based off these story models. They're very popular in the YA genres but tend to be less obvious in adult genres.

So why do people rewrite stories?

Because readers love them. They're familiar tales. They bring about nostalgia. Some authors find it fun and challenging to tell them from a different angle. To use a familiar plot with a new point of view character, or to write a familiar point of view character in a new plot.

So how to do it? Here are some ideas to get you started.

1. Read the original. If you're reading one of the Grimm stories, you may be surprised how dark they are. If you're reading comic books, you may be shocked just how much there is to read.

2.  Make sure you understand the original story. Most classic fairy tales were cautionary stories that made a lot more sense to people during the time they were written than they do to us today. It's fascinating to study them, though, and understand them fully. If you're writing a retelling or a more contemporary story, you still want to know the story well so that you don't upset die-hard fans.

3. Read, read, read as many retellings of the story as you can. It's important to know what's been done so that you can do something unique. You can't know that just from reading descriptions on Amazon.com. Dive into your story and see what's out there already.

4. Take notes. As you study the original and the retellings, be thinking. Is there a character or plot point that intrigues you? Was there a question left unexplored? Write down what you think as you're reading so you won't forget when ideas come to you.

5. Write a history of life before the original story and a future telling of life after it. Does this exercise spark any ideas or where you could take your story?

6. Decide. Your retelling must be a solid story on its own. How do you want to come at the story? Which characters will stay? Which will be cut? Do you want people to know it's a retelling or not? Will you tell a parallel of the original in a fantastic setting like Cinder? Or take a minor character and branch off like in Wicked? Which elements of the original story must remain in order to please fans?

So, what do you like about retellings? Why do you read or watch a similar story again and again, knowing the basic plot? Let me know in the comments.

56 comments:

  1. Hmmm. I've wondered about retellings before. I usually wonder how the writer came up with the immensely entertaining retelling...I've wondered if I could do one, but then I end up deciding that no, I'd rather work with my own, original as possible ideas. ;)

    Nice post, though! Thanks!

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    1. I like doing my own thing too, Amanda. But maybe someday the right idea will sneak up and grab us!

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  2. Awesome post! My current WIP is actually a retelling of Cinderella, so this post was perfect for me! :)

    -Abby

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  3. I absolutely love fairy tale retellings. I've written two decent ones and one lousy one so far, and they're probably one of my favorite sub-genres of fantasy.

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  4. I like retellings ^_^ I've got an idea in progress for a Tarzan retelling!

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  5. You're so right about Grimm's Fairy Tales. I got it free on my kindle a while back and was surprised at how creepy a lot of them were. My brother was reading it and he's like, "These are seriously supposed to be kids stories?"

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    1. Grimm's Fairy Tales *are* very dark. I now know why my Mom didn't like reading them to me when I was like five...

      -Abby

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    2. Yes about Grimm's Fairy Tales. We have a hardback copy AND I got it free on my Kindle for easier reading in the car.

      Layla.

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    3. I don't think they were ever supposed to be just for kids. They were cautionary tales, mostly.

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  6. Wonderful post! I love the idea of fairytale retellings and had even thought of a few possibilities...

    One of my ideas was a retelling of the biblical story of Esther (my favorite tale of the Bible). =] (concept summary: http://sarah-plainandaverage.blogspot.com/2013/03/secret-story-contest.html)

    This is super helpful, thanks for sharing!

    Blessings,
    Sarah

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  7. I absolutely love retelling´s, if they are retold creatively and well. For my current WIP, I am taking a minor character from Arthurian Legend and retelling her past (this minor character is actually Nimueh). So yes, I certainly definitely absolutely *anyone get the reference?* love retelling's!

    Layla.

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  8. Wow, this was an interesting post!

    I did it once for German class. We had to combine at least three fairy tales and made a 'new' story. That was a lot of fun!

    And it's a good idea when I can't come up with any interesting ideas for a story... So: thanks!

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  9. I love to read retellings (wicked is my fave musical EVER!) but I don't think I could pull off writing one. It would end up too short. Ash by Malinda Lo was partly a Cinderella retelling, but it also had some other elements (I read this like 5 years ago, but I think there were fairies in it) to help the story along. But the evil stepmother and sisters part was the same ;)

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  10. Retellings can be so much fun. =) My JEWEL OF PERSIA was a retelling of Esther (waving at Sarah Elizabeth above!), but I took such a vastly different approach to it--my main character was completely fictional, Esther was a secondary character--that I had to make the decision NOT to read other Esther retellings so that I wouldn't be confined by them. I felt weird about that for a while, but it was the right decision for that story...though the readers who don't like it often say it's because Esther isn't the heroine, LOL. I get that completely. It makes it a little TOO different from the original for some!

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    1. So is Wicked very different from the original. I think those kinds of retellings are fun. But people can be very picky about the original story when retellings are concerned, especially when the Bible is the original source.

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  11. I'm not sure superhero stories really count as retellings, because they aren't really. Each character is different in how they got their powers, and what motivated them, and so on. Yes, there are similarities, but not enough to make them retellings.

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    1. From Amo Libros:
      Not that I really know, but I think superhero stories are more the retelling of a concept than actual plotlines. A superhero retelling is more of a "setting" retelling than a "plot retelling". A Cinderella retelling generally has to have a wicked step-mother and step-sisters, glass slippers, a ball, and a prince. A superhero retelling has a superhero (or superheroes and maybe a couple villains) in a city and says "what if" (The Incredibles: what if it was a whole family, and they were trying to hide? Megamind: What if the villain wasn't actually that bad/had to save the day?). And I'm pretty sure the plethora of hero films that've come out in the last couple years count as retellings.

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    2. Not really. Most of the newest films are fairly different from each other, and they're taking new directions as well.

      A setting retelling? That's not really any different than what happens with nearly every fantasy novel since Tolkien. It's more of a genre trope.

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    3. From Amo Libros:
      I think we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

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    4. I didn't mean every superhero story was a retelling. I meant that there are dozens of Superman stories or Batman stories. Those are all retellings of that particular superhero, imo.

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    5. Hundreds of stories, since Batman and Superman have been published fairly steadily for almost 80 years. They've done a few reboots, which generally retells the origin story, but that's about it. The rest of the stories are all pretty different. (Some are really, really, really, really different, but that's a different subject.)

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  12. My book, Sew, It's a Quest started as a simple sequel to Sleeping Beauty ... but then I was folding laundry one day and a girl showed up, introduced herself as Robin and the best swordsman in the world due to a Fairy Godmother mix-up and informed me that she was the rightful main character of the book. Then a few other Fairy Tales stepped up and demanded that I add them, and I backed up the plot a tiny bit. So, while it's still a Sleeping Beauty retelling, I only barely depend on the plot. But I stuck as true to the Fairy Tales (especially the better known ones) as possible.

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    1. From Amo Libros:
      OH, that sounds so good!! Let me know when you get published!!!

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    2. It already is! I self published it about a year and a half ago, and I released the sequel a few weeks ago.

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    3. Hi Kendra! I've read Sew, It's a Quest and really enjoyed it. I can't wait to read the sequel.

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    4. Hi Kendra! I've read Sew, It's a Quest and really enjoyed it. I can't wait to read the sequel.

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    5. Hi Kendra! I've read Sew, It's a Quest and really enjoyed it. I can't wait to read the sequel.

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    6. From Amo Libros:
      Really? Is it on Amazon?

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    7. Yup! And the prequel short story, The Prior Quest (which is partially based on Puss in Boots) is currently free.

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  13. From Amo LIbros:
    I LOVE fairytale retellings!! I think it's neat that it's like "Story A must have elements A, B and C, but the rest is up to you" and then see how the different authors run with it.It's really neat to see some of the things people come up with. Like the "gift of obedience" in Ella Enchanted. And it's neat to compare and contrast how different people pick up on different plot elements, and how each person makes it their own. While I don't know that I will ever write a fairytale retelling, I would like to very much. I would like to play with the name connection between "Snow White and Rose Red" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves". They're two completely different tales, but they're just waiting to be connected. And both involve dwarves, as the villain in the first one, and good-guys in the second. It's quite interesting.

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    1. Ella Enchanted is, in my humble opinion, the reason that no one should debut with a Cinerella retelling anymore. It's completely genius! (Have you read Levine's "Princess Tales" collection? Two of them are obscure Fairy Tales!)

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  14. I love this post!! I agree with what you said: retellings are totally nostalgic! I love them because just when you think you know the story from your perspective, someone comes along and puts their own spin on it and it's realllly amazing! I guess you could say my current WIP is a retelling, but it's more loosely based off an old story...and not really a traditional fairy tale either. Hmmm great pointers though!! :)

    Sierra @ Yearning to Read

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  15. Question: are there rules for what you can "retelling"? Like does it have to be a certain age or anything?

    My favorite retelling has to be Clueless! I wish I was smart enough to do that one :). I've toyed a lot with retelling because I struggle with fleshing out plots. I thought a retelling would be easier but I found out its not. It still in the back of my mind though, like what would happen in a contemporary beauty & the beast when the girl is the beast but not in a typical way, she's a beast because she's a mean person? It's hard to do.

    Also, since I've read "victim of grace" by robin jones gunn. I've wondered what it'd be like to write a contemporary YA parcel lining or based on Stories if girls in the Bible. Victim of Grace is her memoir but every chapter talks about a Bible story and what she learned from it. Like a contemporary YA of Leah and Rachel. Ofcourse they can't marry the same guy but do you see what I mean? I'm rambling today.

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    1. Tonya, have you read Krista McGee's books? She has three contemporary YA books based loosely off girls from the Bible: Esther, Rebekah, and Ruth. I thought she did a really good job of translating the message of the original stories into a modern-day plot teens can grasp. I really enjoy them :)

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    2. Stuff that is over 100 years old should be in the public domain, which is why that fellow could write Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Things that are recent are still owned by the author or maybe their family, and you have to be careful what you use and how. You can write a story that parallels a contemporary story, but be ready to get criticized. People are always raking Eragon over the coals for having the same plot as Star Wars. Sometimes I think when you write a retelling, you're setting yourself up for more criticism since there are so many more people who already care about that story.

      As far as the Bible goes, that's all great material and way past the copyright. LOL So, go for it!

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  16. I love a good retelling! Mainly because, although I know a little about what will probably happen, it's fun to see the unique twists an author adds.
    We had to do a modern day retelling of Beauty and the Beast in one of my creative writing classes. My group had to reverse the roles so that the woman was the beast figure (although not an actual beast like in the story), and the man was the Belle figure. It was fun trying to come up with new ways of telling such a well-known tale.

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  17. I just took a break from my two Big Massive Scary Projects to jot down the first novella in a series of fairy tale retellings set in a world with superheroes. Yes, seriously. So this came at an extremely opportune time! :D

    Because my setting is so wildly different from the original, and because I'm trying to grow/shorten (at the same time) the story into novella form, I'm focusing more on the symbols of the fairy tale, and letting the plot develop as independently as possible. I'm doing Little Red Riding Hood, so those are chiefly the red hood/coat and the wolf (wolves plural, actually, just because). It's fun to see how the symbols of the fairy tale gain new meaning when I toss them in with these characters.

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    1. Oh! That sounds like a terrific combination! I would read it!

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    2. How interesting, Diana! I would like to read that. Have you ever seen ABC's Once Upon a Time? Their episode on Little Red Riding Hood was shocking and scary, but so well-done!

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    3. Hannah Elise that was one of my favorite episodes - so many of the episodes get confusing or hard to follow, or jump around too much for me. That one was particularly well done and easy to follow.

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  18. This post is awesome. I'm so glad you wrote it, Jill! Someday I'd like to do some fairy tale retellings, so this is great.

    P.S. I got "Captives" a few weeks ago and will hopefully be reading it soon :)

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    1. Thanks, Hannah! And I hope you enjoy Captives. :-)

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  19. I love retellings, I write retellings, and I second everything in this post. :D

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  20. I ADORE retellings. So, I have a question though...obviously fairy-tales aren't copy-righted and it's okay to mash them up, but what about super heros? If you mash up, say, Superman, and write about a girl who flies but is terrified of heights (just making something up, lol) is that going against any copyright? Obviously Marvel is booming at the moment, so if you wrote "your own version" of a green monster like Hulk, would you be breeching copyright?

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    1. If you're not directly violating copyright, you're doing enough, if you sell it commercially, to definitely risk a serious lawsuit, and DC and Marvel sue for more money than most writers can afford. For example, DC sued whoever made the tv show "The Greatest American Hero" that really plagued the series for its run. I only watched the pilot, but I could see where they sued, and it was not a direct rip-off. A girl who can fly but is terrified of heights wouldn't be a rip-off of Superman. Supergirl, maybe, but as long as you didn't borrow the backstory or the same imagery, you should be fine. Flying is a very common super-power. A giant green monster hero again depends on what you do. You'd be more likely to incur a lawsuit, I think, due to the giant green part being an integral and not common aspect of his character.

      It's safer to not try to retell superhero stories at all, and instead write stories that are completely your own.

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    2. Yeah, you could write a retelling of Superman, but if you call him Superman, if you call the girl Lana or Lois, you'd probably be in trouble. Comic book characters are all owned and tightly held on to. You could do a search for some of the really old comic book characters that got discontinued way back when, but even 1940 wouldn't be 100 years yet.

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    3. Some of the very little known ones might be public domain by now, but superheroes really took off in the 30s when Superman and Batman started. There might be a few, but it's just easier to make your own unless you retell their origin story, and there's only so much that can be done with that.

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  21. Coincidentally, I'm writing a flash-fiction/short story as a faiy-tale retelling right now. (Hansel and Gretel, modern-day, told from the "witch's" perspective, if anyone's interested). This is really helpful. I'm sure I'll refer back to it once I'm done. Thanks so much for the post, Jill!

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  22. I've had ideas for retellings of fairytales before, but as I've been occupied with other projects I've never really explored them.

    I'm currently watching the TV series Merlin, which is based on the Arthurian legends. Part of what makes the show interesting is that it begins before the main story of the legends, and leads up to that. They've put some characters in interesting situations - Guinevere is a servant girl, and Morgana is Uther's kind-hearted, loving ward. Seeing how they develop into the characters of the legend that we know is very interesting, and gave the show the unpredictability that retellings need to succeed.

    Thanks for the great post!

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  23. And Tangled! I love that movie. The best part is that it explains why Rapunzel had to be locked up, instead of just saying that her 'mother' wanted her to be. I have watched that movie so many times, I can quote the entire thing from memory, lol.
    That is the only movie I have ever watched that is better than the book.

    ~Katelyn~

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  24. I love retellings. I don't know if I could or would ever write one, but I'd definitely use these tips if I did! Thanks for the post Ms.Jill!

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