You know a story has made it into cultural canon when it’s getting repackaged and updated in different versions. This has been especially common in YA fiction lately – Epic Reads came up with a spectacular chart of examples.
When you update a tale that lots of people know, it gives you a framework on which to construct your story. You can choose how closely to follow it, but readers do tend to have expectations based on what you’re retelling. Some stories require only one or two elements for their inspirations to be identified: an all-too-human monster brought to life by a scientist, ill-fated young lovers from warring families, a death-like sleep dispelled by a kiss. If, on the other hand, you’re retelling Jane Austen, readers are going to be looking for a much closer adherence to the original plot.
As a rule, the more high-concept the story – the more easily its appeal could be summed up by one snappy sentence – the looser your retelling can be without losing its connection to the original. Note that I say “its appeal” rather than “its plot.” You could sum up Alice in Wonderland by saying “young girl finds herself in a strange world of whimsical characters and nonsensical logic.” That’s accurate as regards the plot, but does little to describe the appeal of the story, which lies in the specific characters and weirdnesses of Wonderland. If you’re adapting Alice in Wonderland, readers will want to see your take on the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen.
Retelling a fairy tale, myth, or classic story has plenty of perks . . . and a few pitfalls. And if you know me, you know that a sentence like that is a lead-up to LIST-MAKING FUN TIME!
Benefits of Writing a Retelling:
- People familiar with the original story have reason to be invested in your story before they even pick it up. They may wonder what your version of the Beast looks like, or be curious about how you handle the darkness of a Wuthering Heights-inspired tale. If your version has a twist of setting or circumstance, this can also make readers wonder: “How will The Little Mermaid be different if it’s gender-swapped?” “What kind of wolfish nemesis will Little Red Riding Hood encounter in space?”
- Some people will pick up your book just because they love the source material SO MUCH. (I may or may not read pretty much anything that’s based on Alice in Wonderland.)
- If you make it clear that this is a retelling, people are less likely to grouse that you’re being unoriginal. Of course, you should still be original. If your adaptation doesn’t bring anything new to the table – new and significant – then why should people want to read it?
- You get to play around with your own version of a setting and characters you already have feelings about. Naturally, any writer has feelings about her/his own characters, but this is different. Change an element that always bothered you in the original story, or play up and expand on your favorite parts. Explore the themes the story deals with, or push its message in a new direction.
Of course, there are also Risks of Writing a Retelling:
- While Reader A may love Peter Pan so much that she’ll devour anything based on it, Reader B may hate Peter Pan and refuse to even try any adaptation of it. (Plus, some readers may simply get tired of an oft-retold tale.)
- And if Reader A does love Peter Pan that much, she may balk at of the changes you’ve made. After all, whatever you tweaked could be the thing she liked best about the original.
- You’re setting yourself up to be compared not only with other retellings of the source material, but with the original work. If you can’t write swoon and snark, for example, tackling Pride and Prejudice may be ill-advised.
What are your favorite retellings? What story would you like to see adapted more often?