Friday, November 14, 2014

The Secret to Writing a Retelling

So sorry for the long wait to post! I've been taking a nice and relaxing break after the craziness and awesomeness of Nightmare on Query Street. This break has been so...nice. I feel  relaxed and energized and ready to start anew.

I posted on Twitter that I wanted to do a post on retellings and I got a good amount of positive feedback.

There's been a  surge of fairy tale and fable retellings in the market today, and as a consequence, as a contest host, I've seen a lot of retellings being submitted to the contests. Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, etc.

The hook of writing a retelling is that it already has a high concept story angle. Yes, the same high concept that many agents are saying they want. I think this high concept is what attracts a lot of writers to retellings.

But here's the catch. Anyone can retell as story. Not everyone can retell a story.

Yes, yes, confusing! But here's what I mean. There are a lot of tips about retelling a story so I'm only going to share my personal view on the 'secret' to a successful retelling.

The Secret to a Retelling lies in the word 'retell' itself. Meaning, you must REtell the story, completely changing it to become your story. Don't just retell it, we know the original story. REtell it.

  1. Do NOT let the original story cripple you. 
    story you're writing is YOUR story. Not the original writer's. Not the mass media's. Do you really want to spend possible/probably years on a novel that isn't yours?

    I've seen this in some stories where in order to 'fit' the original story, the writer stretches themselves and breaks their narrative to fit some things in. Let's take, for example, Snow White. You know the whole apple thing. What if you're writing a retelling and, in this mythological world of yours, apples exist only in a faraway country? Will you do the equivalent of stopping the narrative, take the characters on a trip to the country just for the apple? Screw the damn apple if it doesn't fit in your narrative! Let the apple rot!

    I beta-read for this one amazing author who wrote a retelling I'm still in love with. Her story was mainly because of her love for the original story. Iconic scenes from the original story forced their way into this retelling and did nothing but stop the narrative and check off another box on a hypothetical list of 'famous parts I must retell.'

    Now, this does get into tricky territory. The question you must ask yourself is this: Where am I going to draw the line between taking inspiration from the original story and creating my own ideas? If I were ever to write a retelling, I'd stick mainly/only with that initial 'spark'; the reason I want to write the story in the first place. What part of the original story do I love? What arc of the story is the arc I want in mine? The similar arc would be my retelling.
  2. Predictability.

    This is a biggy. Since most probably know the original story, you must come up with an unexpected ending. This is almost a must (I say almost because I don't like talking in 100%s). How you'll make the ending unexpected is up to you. Keeping the same ending as the original story but pointing all clues towards the idea that you won't be ending it the same way? Changing the ending completely (but also making that unpredictable because if the ending is Snow White doesn't need a man's kiss, she can revive herself, we're all expecting that as well)?
  3. Originality.

    Create your own characters. The hard part, for me, is wondering if I like the retelling because of the retelling itself or because I like the original story. Sort of like loving a stranger who looks a lot like a deceased loved one - do you truly love the stranger?

    Separate yourself from the original story. Take an axe to it. Proclaim to the reader, "This is my story!" and you'll have it. This is hard to do ("But I love the original story, I must treasure it and respect it in my retelling!") but crucial. Don't give a reader the same story; they might technically like it but it'll be boring for them. Add something new to the narrative. Find your twist, and make that twist huge.
These are my tips. Especially for retellings, I'd STRONGLY recommend you thoroughly plan out (yes, plan, even you pantsers!) what your story is going to be about. It's crucial to have a story that is planted with the same seed as the original story, but sprouts to become a totally different, more ambitious, and (hopefully) better story than the original. After all, why are you retelling the story if you don't want to push it to new extremes?

Hopefully this helps! Any other tips you think would be helpful? 


  1. Thanks, SC! This is amazing advice, well worth the wait!

    I agree interpreting only my favorite story elements into my retelling is best. And yes, my ending is different, but the same in some regards.

    One question I do have. Names. I've chosen names that begin with the same letters as those in the original work. Is this okay? Or too corny?

    Thanks again for posting this!

    1. I've seen this as well. The trouble with this is, if the connection between the two characters (original and retold one) are obvious, the reader and the writer both start to drop back to the original one. On the writer's side, unconsciously or consciously, the character can't breathe and come to life because they're trapped by the original character's aura wherever they go. The reader, also, keeps trying to catch the Easter egg hints of connection between the two.

      I'd recommend coming up with something entirely new for the name so the characters become your own. (What might be fun, though, is having the villain in the original story be almost the same name as the villain in your retelling IF the villain in your retelling is not obvious. So it's like, "Holy crap, he was the bad guy?!?! OF COURSE, he has the same name almost as the original story's bad guy, how did I not catch that?!")

      This is just my opinion! Go with your gut and whatever makes your story the best it can be.

    2. Thanks! That totally makes sense after you explained

      I do have characters, one in particular, that plays a similar role in the original, although I've changed the person's gender! That should keep my readers on their toes!

      Great advice.

  2. I love this post. I admit I probably love it because I wrote a retelling of Anna Karenina in a way that almost obscures Tolstoy's original, but it was still fun to write while giving a nod to the Russian master.

  3. I am in the middle of doing a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood from the perspective of a girl who is half-wolf and half-human. I've had a hard time finding the voice for it but now I think I have. Here's my Pinterest board on it:

  4. Let the apple rot!
    Technically, since there are only so many story ideas out there, we are all retelling when we write - so this is good advice for all writers.

  5. You and I have spoken about this so you know I'm all for re-tells if done, as you say, with an original twist and original character traits. For me, a good re-tell lets me return to my inner child but allows me to explore an new version of a world I thought I knew & there is nothing better than when I read a re-tell that (for me) is better than the original.

    Great post and very timely :)

  6. Love this post. I'm about to embark on a retelling for my Camp NaNo novel in April, so this is helpful. All the things you said were floating around in my subconscious and would hopefully come out in the writing of it, but it's good to see them in black and white. The one thing I'm stuck on is how close to the original I should stay with the plot, and you've given me the thumbs up to diverge. Thank you!