First off, I hope everyone is well, staying safe, and contributing to the safety of others. David and I are okay and very grateful that dogs don’t get the virus.
And, letting you know, in addition to my ongoing daily Facebook reading of a chapter of Ella Enchanted, last week I did a Q&A talk, also on my Facebook page, sponsored by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and PJ Library. It’s still there, so you can watch and listen. I can’t say how heartened I was when both Melissa Mead and Christie V Powell showed up in the comments scroll.
Now for the post. On December 5, 2019 NerdyNiña wrote, When you’re writing a fairy tale retelling, how do you make it have a real plot? I’m trying to write a mashup of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Rapunzel.” I have my characters, and a good idea of the themes I want, but I don’t know what to have happen to make it a story worth reading. Can anyone help?
Several of you weighed in.
future_famous_author: What I do when I don’t know what kind of story to write is that I just make a new document on my computer (or get a new page in a notebook) and use bullet points. Write what comes to your mind. One time when I was doing this I ended up with a really good story. One of the words that I wrote, though, was a llama, and I did not use that word. And maybe rereading the fairytales, if you haven’t already done that, would help you. Maybe think about how you want to start it and just start writing. I have done this often, where I don’t have a plot, just a character, and a beginning, and the story ends up really good.
Yay! future_famous_author uses lists! I use bullet points, too.
Melissa Mead: I pick the parts of fairy tales that make me ask questions or roll my eyes. For example, with “Snow White,” I’ve always wondered “Why would the Prince want to kiss a dead girl?”
(Gail, if this is an out=of-line shameless plug, rather than an example, please remove it!)
Here’s one answer I came up with: https://dailysciencefiction.com/hither-and-yon/twisted-fairy-tales/melissa-mead/white-as-snow-red-as-blood
Me: Not a shameless plug. That was one of my questions when I wrote Fairest.
Raina: If you’re talking about coming up with plots in general, Gail has a ton of great posts in the archives tagged “plot” or “plotting”. One thing that also really helped me was learning about story structure and beat sheets, such as the Save The Cat method, which is what I use. (You can find the book Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder at your local library, or google one of the free summaries online.)
Thank you, Raina!
More Raina: If you’re talking about fairy tale retellings specifically, I think a good thing to remember is that (generally) your story should be an original story first, and a retelling second. It can definitely borrow characters, events, and themes from the original, but your priority should be making sure that those characters, events, and themes all contribute to making YOUR story, rather than trying to make everything match up to the original. For me, the litmus test is when a retelling is able to stand on its own as an engaging story, even if the person has never read the original fairy tale. (Though of course, if they’ve read the original, they should enjoy it even more because they’ll be able to spot the parallels!)
future_famous_author: In my version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Red was actually friends with the wolves, and the “big bad wolf” was a man who was trying to kill the wolves and wore a wolf hide. I hardly followed the storyline of LRRH at all. I had some wolves, a girl with a red hood taking treats to her sick grandma at the beginning, and some bad guys who try and stop her.
Oy! The worth-reading worry! This is a question we should never ask: not when we’re thinking about what to write, not when we’re in the thick of it, not when we finish, not when we revise, not when we send out our query letter, which will not contain words like, “I’m not sure this is worth reading, but I hope you will think it is.” !!! And not even when it’s published or ten years later. It is a question not worth thinking! It doesn’t help; it just hinders. The only important initial question is, Does this interest me?
I agree with everyone above about fairy tale retellings. Mine have run the gamut from close to the original to light years away. Right before I started writing Ella Enchanted, I read Beauty by Robin McKinley, which I love. This retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” hews close to the original and yet stands as a unique creation. I’ve never managed to be that faithful. It’s an achievement–
–that we don’t have to achieve–
–unless we want to.
Most fairy tales have been around for hundreds of years. They’ve lasted because they’re exciting; they’re generally short and packed with action. And they touch deep places in us. For me, the original “Cinderella,” for example, is at bottom about feeling unappreciated–even though I didn’t take the story that way. Cinderella does everything right and tries so hard, and all she gets is grief. We aren’t told if she loves her stepfamily, but they certainly don’t love her. Everybody (or almost everybody) has felt undervalued and misunderstood.
We can use those deep meaning to fuel our plots. The meaning you take from a fairy tale is likely to be different from mine. For me, for instance, “Hansel and Gretel” is fundamentally about abandonment, but for someone else it might be about poverty. “Snow White” makes me think about jealousy and rage, but others may find kindness and love–in the generosity of the dwarfs.
If we go with abandonment, we can give Hansel nightmares and make Gretel more conscientious than a child should be, because both children sense that their parents are unreliable. We can invent earlier incidents during good times when the parents behaved irresponsibly. We can bring in the witch during one of those incidents. If we know what the underlying big issue is, we can figure out how to structure our story. Once the two of them are in the witch’s cabin, knowing what we know about each of them, we can decide how they’ll be together in that very small space. If we’re following the fairy tale, we can plan how the two children manage to stay alive but almost fail a few times. It’s all informed by abandonment and, possibly, their commitment to never abandoning each other.
I also do as Melissa Mead does: look for leaps of logic, plot turns that make absolutely no sense. Why does feeling a pea under twenty mattresses prove royal blood? Why does the prince fall in love with Sleeping Beauty when she’s, well, asleep and he’s never met her and she’s about a hundred years older than he is, even if she doesn’t look it? Why does the Beast frighten Beauty’s father and threaten him if he (the Beast) is really a good guy at heart? Why, oh why, does Snow White fall for the evil queen three times in a row?
We can contemplate these goofy parts and see how we can explain them. Let’s take the prince and Sleeping Beauty. Why does he go on the crazy quest in the first place? We can make a list! Remember nothing is stupid on a list:
∙ He’s on the lam. He stole the golden astrolabe of the Admiral of the Fleet. A party of knights is after him, and there’s this hedge.
∙ His mother insists he marry his distant cousin, Merna, whom he hates. He’s refused, and now he’s been exiled. He’s been riding for days, and there’s this hedge.
∙ He lives in the next town over, and the hedge has grown so high that it blocks the sun from the wheat fields. Crops are failing. He hacks his way through the hedge to find the authorities and tell them to trim the darn hedge!
And so on. A nice list has ten to fifteen possibilities. As you can see, these possibilities are complicated. We probably have to set them up, which could take half a novel. Meanwhile, we have to keep an eye on the sleeping princess and decide how she can complicate the problems and then lead eventually to their solution. I happen to love this approach.
Here are four prompts:
∙ Write the abandonment story of Hansel and Gretel.
∙ Write a version of “Hansel and Gretel” using poverty as the underlying problem. Or pick another issue that strikes you as at the core of the problem.
∙ Write seven more “Sleeping Beauty” possibilities. Pick one of yours or one of mine and write the story.
∙ Write a version of “Snow White” that begins in the dwarfs’ cottage and explain SW’s behavior each time the evil queen shows up.
Have fun, and save what you write!