Five Tips For Fairy Tale Retellings

What is it about fairy tales? Why do we find these stories so intriguing and how do they keep emerging in different variations and art mediums?

As a writer, fairy tales are my bread-and-butter. I cut my teeth on them. They were the first stories I ever read as a child; I owned a hundred Golden Books about Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses. At eight years old, when I started to write, my works were all blatant imitations of these tales.

And whenever my parents took me to the video store (that’s the Netflix of the 80’s and early 90’s, for you young’uns), I selected Cannon Movie Tales every time without fail, preferring to watch cheesy live-action renditions of Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella above anything else.

The romance attracted me: princes and princesses meeting in the woods, dancing in ballrooms, and falling in love. The settings called to me, from towering castles to mysterious forest cottages. I liked the predictability of it all, too; no matter what conflicts came up, you could almost always be sure of a happy end for the heroes.

But I believe what draws me most strongly to fairy tales is how much wiggle room there is for the imagination. All you have to do is ask questions:

  • Why is Cinderella’s stepmother so cruel to her? What might have happened in her past to cause this?
  • Where did the evil queen come from? Did she always want to marry the king? Did she have anything to do with his wife’s death?
  • Why does Rumpelstiltskin want the queen’s child so badly?
  • What exactly does the sea witch want with the Little Mermaid’s voice (in the Andersen rendition, not the Disney)? What is she planning to do with it?
  • Who is the enchantress? Why is she determined to punish the Beast? Does she go around teaching others these lessons? What might she have against him?

 

Fairy tales are the perfect building blocks for original stories: they give you a foundation upon which to work, and then you are free to execute everything else as you would wish. Almost everyone is familiar with them, which means your work will be instantly recognizable, but then you can add in the element of surprise and put your own spin on things, whether it’s a setting that has never been done before, putting a minor character at the forefront, or switching up the ending.

That leads me into my five tips if you plan to write a fairy tale retelling:

 

  1. Keep a couple of familiar elements. Ground the reader (“Oh, okay, this is clearly a Sleeping Beauty retelling because this witch is pissed that she wasn’t invited to the princess’s christening” or “Ah, this Snow White, the queen has a magic mirror”). Make your audience feel comfortable and complacent, like they know what’s gonna happen… and then YANK THE RUG OUT FROM UNDER THEM.
  2. Add in something new and unexpected. You want the story to be familiar, but not boring. Put a twist on this fairy tale that no one but you can do in the exact same way: write a character other than the original hero (or create a new one), set the tale in a specific country (since most fairy tales are in some obscure medieval version of Europe), twist the premise, change how the story ends.
  3. Beef up the characterization. Another thing I like about fairy tales: the characters are notoriously flat, which means they are blank slates ready for the imagination. In fairy tales, people tend to be all good or all bad and have a singular motivation throughout the story. Change this up! Make the characters human. Heroes can fail, villains can redeem themselves, minor characters can seize the spotlight as well-rounded individuals in their own right.
  4. Mix in other stories. Stirring together different fairy tales can lead to a truly compelling mix, especially because some of them already seem to connect together effortlessly. What if, for example, the witch from Rapunzel led a double life as the witch from Hansel and Gretel? She could lock her petulant teenager away in a tower, knowing she’ll someday lose her, and leave to attract smaller children to replace her. A bit far-fetched, maybe, but you can see how many possibilities there are with fairy tales for original concepts.
  5. Build a world around the tale. Like the characters, fairy tale settings are typically bland. We have a castle. We have a meadow. We have a totally random tower that’s hidden in a forest. Shade in the details: who lives in the village below the castle and what is day-to-day life like there? Are there other kingdoms around? What are their relationships with this kingdom? Why does this prince have to marry that princess? Who built that tower in the woods and why? All fantasies benefit from rich world-building and fairy tales are no different.

 

I hope this post offers some helpful information if you are thinking about writing a fairy tale retelling!

Tell me in the comments: What’s your favorite fairy tale and why? If you could twist any fairy tale around, which would you choose and how would you do it?

10 Responses to Five Tips For Fairy Tale Retellings

  1. Tracy Auerbach Nov 8 2017 at 7:36 am #

    The Hansel and Gretyl story is terrifying because the witch (personification of the Lilith archetype) is just the worst! Love that one and working on a version now.

    • Jules
      Jules Nov 9 2017 at 9:57 am #

      I love the Hansel and Gretel tale. There are so many possibilities! All the best luck with your retelling, Tracy!

  2. Linda W. Nov 8 2017 at 9:30 am #

    My favorite fairy tale is Cinderella. But I also love The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Shannon Hale once mentioned that if you want to retell a fairy tale, choose one you don’t like and tell your version of it. I would choose either The Water of Life or East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

    • Jules
      Jules Nov 9 2017 at 9:58 am #

      Oh, I like that advice! But I also think choosing a fairy tale you enjoy is really fun, particularly when you get to change the ending or the elements to suit your purposes. Those are some great choices you have!

  3. Sandra Tilley Nov 8 2017 at 9:35 am #

    Great post and great ideas. I’ve been toying with the idea of re-writing a myth, and your fairy-tale advice was just what I needed!
    Thank you!

    • Jules
      Jules Nov 9 2017 at 9:59 am #

      Thank you, Sandra! I’m glad this post could help in some small way and good luck with your retelling!

  4. Charlene Nov 9 2017 at 9:47 am #

    I wasn’t even thinking of ever writing a fairy-tale retelling but this has seriously given me some food for thought! What a great post!!

    • Jules
      Jules Nov 9 2017 at 10:00 am #

      Thanks for reading, Charlene!!

  5. Olivia Nov 9 2017 at 12:46 pm #

    Thanks for the post! This is such well thought-out advice. I think I most love fairy-tales with a great sense of longing from the characters. A tale like the Little Mermaid, who so desperately wants to be part of the world of land, instead of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, which have survival narrative threaded in there. I’ve definitely been tapping into those emotions for my writing by re-listening to Disney soundtracks!

  6. Aly Nov 10 2017 at 2:13 pm #

    Thanks for this post! I’m working on a fairy tale retelling mashup for NaNoWriMo and I’ve been a bit stuck. I think that going back over the original fairy tales (East of the Sun, West of the Moon and Tam Lin) and finding those questions might help give me some more plot inspiration to work with.

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