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Writing Fairy Tale Retellings that Stand Out by Betsy Cornwell

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Article by Betsy Cornwell ©.
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Every few years, someone announces that “fairy tale retellings are back!” In truth, however, retellings are just about the oldest kind of story there is. Sure, technically the first story couldn’t have been a retelling . . . but I’d be willing to bet that the second one was. Many writers and scholars argue that all stories have been told before, or that there are only nine or seven or two types of stories to begin with. Even the Old Testament stated “there is nothing new under the sun,” thousands of years ago! What chance does a contemporary writer have?

I write fairy tale retellings for a living, and I also write essays about fairy tales and mythology for Parabola, a magazine that focuses on intersectional ideas about religion and spirituality. I know for a fact that retellings of fairy tales and myths have never gone out of style.

But it’s also true that retellings are having a cultural renaissance right now, especially in young adult media. Here’s how you can make your retelling stand out from the crowd:

1.     Unearth the deeper themes

Any story that’s lasted long enough to be retold has something to say about the human condition. Little Red Riding Hood might seem like a quick children’s story about a girl, her granny, and a Big Bad Wolf, but why has it been so often retold? It’s a warning for kids to obey the rules lest they get hurt, of course, but it’s also a story of rites of passage and initiation into adulthood, including some darker aspects of sexuality, as retellers from Angela Carter to Steven Sondheim have pointed out in their interpretations. What’s really behind your source fairy tale that’s made people love it for so long? Find that, and you’ll discover the beating heart of your retelling.

2.     Pull apart the plot

Fairy tales run like well-oiled machines: their plots progress so perfectly that you can actually chart them (just ask Kurt Vonnegut). When I started writing my Cinderella retelling, Mechanica, I was thinking that its story arc was so perfect, so well orchestrated, that it was actually a little claustrophobic. My inspiration for the book was a heroine who could reach into her own storyline and break it down, rework it into something that suits her in particular rather than some one-size-fits all Happy Ever After that every little girl’s supposed to want. When I took the storyline in a new direction, aiming for a new Happily Ever After, the rest of the book took shape.

3.     Avoid generic settings

You know what I mean: Western culture has built up this idea of a generic Fairy-Tale-Landia, a vaguely medieval, vaguely pastoral kingdom where all the knights ride white horses, all the witches have warts, and all the princesses wear cone-shaped hats—and there’s always somebody named Baldrick. I’m not saying writers can’t do wonderful, original things in this kind of setting—Patricia C. Wrede and Terry Pratchett both turn them delightfully topsy-turvy in their books—but nine times out of ten, such generic settings are boring or even lazy on the part of the author. Marissa Meyer shook up the game when she set her series of fairy tale retellings The Lunar Chronicles in futuristic fictional cities like ‘New Beijing.’ All of human history and culture is open to you in your writing, not to mention every setting your imagination can dream up. Why stick with something stale when you can show a tired old fairy tale a whole new world instead?

4.     Focus on character

Whether you change a major plot point or not, and wherever you set your retelling, making the characters your own will always make your story fresh and original. Each of your characters should have something of you in them—even the villains! Characters who are personal and complex, full of the same contradictions that real people have, invite real investment from readers. We want to read about people, not two-dimensional paper dolls, so take the archetypes that are present in most fairy tales and give them some weight and heft.

betsy-cornwell5.     Let your voice lead the way

At the end of the day, the only thing that can make any book original is the author’s voice. For the perfect example, look to the fairytale retellings of Angela Carter, a true master of the form. She does ineffably clever things with plot and character, but the real treat of her writing is its style, the lush, lyrical, seductive way she weaves her prose. Anyone can tell a story, but only you can tell it in your particular voice.

Ultimately, fairy tale retellings need all the same qualities to stand out as any other genre: compelling characters, engaging settings, an exciting plot, and something to say about humanity. But don’t worry too much about originality; remember what the Old Testament said about new things, after all, and consider how many ‘original’ novels today are still tired and derivative. Your deftness as a writer, not your source, defines how compelling and original your book will be.

I said that the first story couldn’t have been a retelling, but creation myths might tell us something else. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, in the beginning there was the Word, and all of creation came from it.  The universe, then, retells and retells that first Word, on and on, forever. Don’t let anyone give you flack if your book happens to do the same thing.

(c) Betsy Cornwell


Betsy Cornwell is the author of Mechanica, a steampunk retelling of Cinderella, and Tides, a contemporary magical realist novel reworking Celtic selkie folklore. An American novelist and essayist based in County Galway, she holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame, where she taught fiction writing and film & television studies.

She is a consultant with The Inkwell Group and a contributing editor at Parabola magazine. Find her on Twitter @betsy_cornwell or visit her blog at betsycornwell.com.

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