The Retell

Just to let you know in case you can come, I’ll be signing books at the Westchester Children’s Book Festival at Mohawk Day Camp in White Plains, New York, on May 5th. I’ll be there from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM, and I’ll have time to chat. I’d love to see you!

On January 10, 2019, Emily F. wrote, I’ve been working on a retelling of the Mulan legend. What I’ve been wondering is, how far can you take a story from its origins before it stops being a retelling? For example, would you consider it to be a retelling of Mulan if it’s not set in China? I was reading book reviews of another Mulan story, and the reviewers seemed generally unhappy with the fact that the author took the story out of China. And that’s only one example of a way I’m deviating from the original legend…

Any thoughts on what makes for a good retelling?

Christie V Powell wrote back, Do you feel the need to label it as a retelling? If not, you can just write the story you want to write, and if people notice the similarity, it’ll be a fun bonus for them. Most retellings that I’ve seen don’t label themselves as such. Disney added a tiny “inspired by The Snow Queen” in the credits of “Frozen,” because the story was so different.

One of my favorite books when I was little (I have no idea what the title was) was a retelling of The Arabian Nights in a Native American setting, incorporating actual or made-up Native American folk tales. This was about sixty years ago. I suspect the tales weren’t true to the culture, but I don’t know. I hope they weren’t actually offensive. Anyway, in my ignorance, I loved it. If a thousand reviewers had been miffed about the transplant from one society to another, I wouldn’t have cared. And I liked very much that I had the inside dope that this was a transformed Arabian Nights. I enjoyed making the connection.

I agree with Christie V Powell that you don’t have to call your creative work a retelling. And, going the other way, I think, no matter how far you stray, you can call it such if you want to. Ella Enchanted and some of my retellings in The Princess Tales are pretty faithful to classic versions. But in other of my fairy-tale based books, like A Tale of Two Castles and Ogre Enchanted, the connection is pretty tenuous. I don’t think I did in A Tale of Two Castles, but in Ogre Enchanted, I cite the source, the fairy tale, “The False Prince and the True, on the copyright page. And I do the same in all the Princess Tales. My hope is that kids who see the citation will be moved to read the originals. Then they can have two pleasurable reading experiences. They can notice the differences between the stories and ponder why I made the changes I did.

Is a story still “Beauty and the Beast” if the beast is a wasp, and when he’s transformed he turns into a sheep with golden fleece? If we think it is–if the fairy tale inspired us–and we want to claim a connection, no one has the right to say we can’t.

Critics’ opinions vary about everything. I would advise that we not dwell on negative judgments of another author’s work and certainly not apply them to our own. Even this particular reviewer might have a different opinion about our story. Some critics might even like the variety that came with the change of location and whatever else.

Really, when we write, we have to please only ourselves. Later, after we’ve revised more than once, we may have to please an editor and then a copy editor. No one else. Critics are on their own. Even readers are.

But the wonderful thing is that if we please ourselves, if our story is true to our own ideas, then readers, and sometimes critics, will find the truth in it and be pleased, too.

Having said all this, however, I wouldn’t make Mulan the title of my story. In the text, I might not even mention the name Mulan except on the copyright page or in an afterword, because the mention might send the reader out of the story.

As for what makes a good retelling, hmm…

I love it when I find a new way in my own work to look at a fairy tale and when another author shows me a new way. Donna Jo Napoli, for example, always does this. Her novel, The Magic Circle, tells the tragic-but-triumphant story of the witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” and her Zel, among other things, explains the witch in “Rapunzel.” Beast is “Beauty and the Beast” from the beast’s POV (as is my Ogre Enchanted, sort of, but in an entirely different way). My favorite of her books that I’ve read is the lighthearted and endearing Prince of the Pond, a retelling of “The Frog Prince.”

I also love a straight retelling that honors the original, like Robin McKinley’s Beauty, a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” which set me to writing Ella Enchanted. Beauty tells its story in beautiful language. The atmosphere enfolds me, and she treats her characters with great sympathy. Also, another important feature in a retelling: Robin McKinley brings the world to life.

I appreciate when an author finds a surprising way into a story, as Susan Fletcher does in Shadow Spinner, in which she tackles the story that frames the tales in The Arabian Nights. I had wanted to do the same, but I got stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to make the sultan sympathetic, because he kills a series of young women, but Susan Fletcher does it by stepping back–her MC is a young girl with a limp, who hunts for stories when Shahrazad runs out.

And I’m delighted when a retelling deals with the wrongness in a tale. I can’t find it online, and I don’t own it, but a picture book exists that reveals that the real hero of “Rumpelstiltskin” is the eponymous dwarf. He saves the miller’s daughter’s life three times, and he makes sure, I think, that she discovers his name. Recognition has been a long time coming!

There are other fairy tales out there that need attention! Greek myths, too! Here are three prompts based on them:

∙ Explain the miller in “Rumpelstiltskin.” Write a scene that shows why he boasts to the king that his daughter can turn straw into gold. Go on to explain why the king makes death the punishment if she fails. If you like, make him sympathetic–a tall order, in my opinion. Write another scene in which the miller’s daughter does more than wring her hands, in which she actually accomplishes something.

∙ Before you read Donna Jo Napoli’s version, write the backstory of the witch in “Hansel and Gretel.”

∙ Retell “Sleeping Beauty,” but put it in the modern world, no more than three miles from where you live.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. One of the things I’ve always loved about `Ella Enchanted’ is that it does stray from the original. Before I read it, I didn’t know you could do that. 🙂 Now I have several fairy-tale retellings that live in my daydreams and sometimes on my computer. I’ve read several of the books you mentioned; `Beauty’ is one of my favorite books, and `Shadow Spinners’ is brilliant, especially since it isn’t set in Western culture.

    One fairy-tale retelling that I really enjoyed (and haven’t seen mentioned around much) is `Valiant’ by Sarah McGuire. It’s a retelling of `The Brave Little Tailor,’ only in this version the tailor is a girl trying to make ends meet after her father dies. She ends up having to disguise herself as a boy so the tailor’s guild will allow her to keep working -and then the giants show up and besiege the city. It’s a fun book.

  2. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    This was such a good post! I appreciated that you included greek myths as stories we can retell and draw inspiration from. I’ve always loved myths, though I have yet to retell one. I encourage fellow writers to look into Greek myths and other myths, as well, such as myths from South America and Europe.

  3. Writing Ballerina says:

    This question is sort of related.
    I’ve read many wonderful novels and series, and as a writer, I naturally dream of creating such marvellous literature. As a result, many of my story ideas are fashioned after my favourite works, e.g. my current WIP loosely based on The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Mrs. Levine. I aim for a similar “feel” to what reading the novel gave me.
    My question is, how close can you get without stealing ideas? How close is too close?

    • I don’t think you should worry about it- not because it’s not something that should be avoided, but because your writing will probably drift away from it. Pretty much everyone has an unconscious style, and that gets into our work whether we like it or not. I make jokes about all my different MCs being transgender and having subplots (or main plots in the case of my WIPs Runaway and How To Kill A God) about family issues. Ms. Levine has her fairy-tale retellings and focuses on writing with brevity. You have a style too, and I don’t think you need to worry.

      tl;dr do whatever you want, and credit Ms. Levine in the acknowledgements.

  4. Does anybody have a “favorite” fairy tale that they keep going back to to retell? I know Robin McKinley has talked about Beauty and the Beast having a special spot in her heart. I seem to keep coming back to Snow White,” even though it’s not a “favorite” per se (Kissing/carrying off random dead girls in the woods? Really?), and Cinderella.

  5. On a related note, does anyone have certain things that show up again and again in their fiction? Here are some that I’ve noticed in mine:

    My Cinderellas tend to like to cook.

    Snow Whit’s all about the trees.

    My characters are a hungry bunch, sometimes downright starving. All 3 completed novels have a reference to a character being hungry enough to eat mice, and sometimes actually doing it.

    All 3 start out in “the middle of nowhere” (and in 2 cases, literally underground), and all 3 end up with the MC living “On high..”

    What are some of yours?

    • Of my four published books, three are in the same series, and all of them are in the same fantasy world, so there are purposeful similarities. But in general…

      Family relations are always important, especially siblings.

      Finding home tends to be a theme.

      So far, both of my heroines are similar to my personality (in enneagram, type 9). I’m mixing that up in my next one on purpose.

      Both heroines thought that they were good at direction but turned out being good at landmarks–they get completely lost in a different (mountainless) environment.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      Green eyes — most often dark forest green or a vibrant emerald.

      Often the MC’s name starts with L or K — I think names starting with these are really pretty, I don’t know why.

      I usually go into a lot of description about the character, be it very specific shades and curliness of hair, or the length of a nose, or something else. I find it easier to write them if I know these specifics.

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      In my stories, I always go big or go home. If it’s a science fiction story, the entire Universe at stake. It can never be just one planet or one galaxy. The funny thing is, I don’t think we can even comprehend how big the Universe really is. I keep writing stories with such high stakes I can’t even comprehend it.

    • For recurring fairytales, I’ve done Sleeping Beauty twice with very different executions focusing on different aspects of the story (the first one was about a girl cursed to die, the second was about a girl being in cryogenic suspension for a hundred years).

      For themes, some recurring ones are:

      Complicated sibling relationships, especially between sisters. If siblings aren’t willing to kill to protect each other, they’re trying to kill each other. Sometimes both at the same time. Which is really weird, because I don’t have any siblings in real life.

      Typical “side characters” who get their own story. The mean stepsister who freezes to death after ticking off a bunch of magical beings while her polite, sweet stepsister gets to live happily ever after (from the Russian fairytale The Twelve Months). The innocent, sweet younger sibling whose sole function is to be an object of love from her older, more hero-ish older sister (think Prim from The Hunger Games)…until the older sister leaves on an adventure (as they’re wont to do), and the younger one is forced to fend for herself. The Chosen One’s best friend who sneaks into the magical fantasy world she’s not allowed into and accidentally becomes the Evil Overlord. You get the idea. My first novel-length idea (that I sadly never wrote) was a Harry Potter fanfic about Petunia Evans sneaking into Hogwarts and illicitly learning the magic that had been denied to her.

      Dragons. I blame Game of Thrones for this one.

      Royalty and leaders who act like more like highly-exasperated government interns. (*Rolls eyes while grudgingly but efficiently dealing with the kingdom’s problems as they crop up* “I do not get paid enough to deal with this.”)

      Conspiracies. When I’m jotting down a story idea, this pretty much becomes my shorthand for plot, even if no actual conspiracies show up in the finished novel. I can’t count how many times I’ve written “untangle the web of lies and deception at ___” as a stand-in for the actual plot in loglines.

    • I tend to have mythical creatures play a large role in the story. Fairies cursing the MC, dragons (either friends of the MC or the MC is a dragon), elves, etc. I also have quests that mean something to the MC on a personal level and to a large group of people for a different reason.

  6. Um. Hi. I was just wondering if anyone has any tips on keeping characters consistent? My main character tends to be kind of contradictory in her actions.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      I have this problem, too!
      I plan out my characters beforehand, so that helps a little bit, and then I write my story. As I’m writing, if I find my characters are contradicting themselves, I make a note of it at the bottom of the document in a section titled “Things to fix in next draft.” That section is filled with inconsistencies that I’ll fix after the general story is down. In my current WIP, I originally made her afraid of heights, but I’m thinking now that it won’t work with the story so I might take it out.
      I also find it helpful to have people who will give you CONSTRUCTIVE criticism read your story as you’re writing it to see if there are any inconsistencies, which you can make note of when they point them out.

      I would also appreciate any other tips anyone else might have! I don’t want my stories to be inconsistent, either!

  7. I know who my character is, she just tends to say one thing and then go and do the opposite. It’s like, pages later though, so maybe it’s not a bad thing? I’m just not sure and it kind of annoys me that she does that.

  8. Also she doesn’t really dwell on things. Like, something horrible will happen to her or someone she cares about, but she forgets it almost immediately. Except she remembers the bad things from her past? So that’s an inconsistency I guess. How do I fix it, though?

    • Maybe she tries to forget the bad things that happen because the things from her past still haunt her. Like, she tries not to think about them in the hopes that they won’t always be in her head like the things from the past, which she can’t shake for some reason?
      Does that help?

      • Yes, that’s what I would think too. She’s blocking the current bad feelings on purpose. My main character does this. I try to slip in a hint here and there. For example, she has the thought that her home is gone, but then pushes it away and tries to pretend it doesn’t exist. She does it with romance too, denying that she’s attracted. I’ll look for some examples:

        “Where were you?”
        “I…” Keita sputtered. “I was…”
        Before she could come up with a decent answer, Brian said, “Saying goodbye.” He met her glare without flinching. “We all have home kingdoms. We know it’s hard for you to leave. You don’t have to hide it.”
        Something inside her broke, and Keita whirled around before any of them could see the tears sneaking down her face. Tears were embarrassing. Sprites did not show weakness.

        Brian shook himself and turned around to climb back down. Keita watched carefully—to make sure he didn’t slip, of course. (The reader knows by now that ‘of course’ means exactly the opposite).

  9. I have some VERY good news. So In the past I have always wanted to do Nanowrimo or one of the camps and this year I finally got around to it! I was very busy the fist two weeks of April so I shifted mine to the 13th of April to the 13th of May. I am currently on day 7 and I have written 9426, one of my personal bests! YAY!!!

  10. future_famous_author says:

    I have a question.
    How do you make characters relatable, so that your reader can understand the characters and sympathize for them, especially if your character struggles with things like being a superhero and being captured by a villain?

  11. future_famous_author says:

    I have a question.
    How do you make characters relatable if they struggle with things no one in the real world does, like having superpowers, and being captured by their father, who is a villain.

    • You might try giving the character other little problems that people do have to struggle with. And maybe describe their emotions as they go through it. If people know how the character feels they’ll be able to relate it to a time when they felt that way, too. Is that helpful?

      • I have to admit that I don’t follow many superhero things, but I do remember being impressed with the 2002 Spiderman, and the Incredibles movies, precisely because the characters are so relatable despite their fantastic powers and problems. Their powers affect their real lives in realistic ways (Peter’s stopping crime makes him late for work; Mr. Incredible slips on a skateboard and puts a dent in his car). They both have serious themes too: What responsibilities do your abilities give you, and can you value both yourself and your family?

    • You could compare it to times when you’ve felt trapped, or excited about trying something new, maybe a bit scared if the new thing gave you more responsibility. (Learning to drive, maybe?)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.