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Tuesday, February 02, 2021

6 Rules for Retelling Classic Stories

By Bethany Henry

Part of The How They Do It Series


JH: Putting a fresh twist on a classic story brings new life to it. Bethany Henry shares tips on how to retell a classic tale.


Bethany Henry writes fantasy novels and blogs about writing and wellness at bethany-henry.com. When not writing, she can often be found on the frisbee field, drinking tea, or reading picture books with her two little girls. Sign up for her email list for weekly posts on writing craft- along with fun extras like quotes and freebies.

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Take it away Bethany...

I love retellings of fairy tales and classic stories. They can be filled with adventure, love, and magic that is both familiar and fun. When done well, these retellings can resonate with us deeply and be wildly entertaining—the base of the original story providing extra background that enriches the experience.

However, not all retellings are created equal.

There is a tricky balance in recreating a classic story in a new way. Readers have expectations and high standards for stories they may already love. Too many changes to the story and the reader will feel tricked or confused. Too few changes and the reader is bored.

And of course the story we tell needs to be good.

No pressure.

Whether you’re inspired by Shakespeare, Jane Austin, or Grimm’s fairy tales, here are some simple rules to guide us in writing great retellings.

6 Rules for Retellings

1. Know Your Source


If you are to retell a story well, you first need to know it.

And I don’t just mean the Disney version!

This might mean multiple rereadings. Taking notes and studying cultural context to see what the story meant originally. Definitely write down all the details you can to use later!

It’s also important to have a grasp of what the core of the story is and what messages are being told. Even if you don’t want to include the same themes it’s important to understand the original content. For instance, some stories contain racist or sexist elements—it’s important to be aware of that so you don’t accidentally include them in your own work.

This is vital research. All of these readings will enrich and feed into our story and make it stronger.

2. Know What’s Been Done


Not only do you want to make sure to study the story’s original source, but you also want to know what else has been done with it.

What other retellings are out there? Has it already been retold a million times? What do you like or dislike about other retellings? What styles or techniques are used?

These retellings are your genre and it makes sense to study where your story will fit in. It helps you know what expectations people may have for your story and it can provide ideas of things you may want to avoid or to try.

(Here’s more on COMP LIT: Claiming Your Place on the Genre Shelf)

3. Pick Your Pieces


You’ve studied your source and what other people have done with it. Now it’s your turn to decide what pieces of the story you will want to use in your own retelling.

You don’t need to plan out every single detail before starting your story.

However, when writing a retelling it is helpful to identify what details, themes, and plot points you will want to incorporate from the original.

These pieces will be the building blocks you will shape your story around and having an idea of our story’s structure will help it to be stronger overall.

(Here’s more on Story Structure 101)

4. Identify Your Story Twist


What makes your retelling unique?

There are a lot of interesting ways to make retellings unique, which is what makes them so fun!

Maybe you’re writing in a different genre, a different time period, or a different POV. Maybe you’re changing up the plot, the villain, the timeline, the genders of the characters, or mixing two fairy tales into one.

The possibilities are endless!

What story do you want to tell?

(Here’s more on You Look Familiar: Four Tips on Adding a New Twist to an Old Plot)

5. Deepen Your World


A lot of fairy tales in particular have fairly flat characters and a simplified world… which leaves plenty of room for worldbuilding and developing super interesting characters!

Even if the characters may carry a name from a classic story, don’t be afraid to create them into new characters of your own.

What are your hero’s motives? Story arc? What about the villain? What does their life look like in your new version of the story?

Your worldbuilding is another chance where you can fully pull the readers into your new version of the story. It provides a backdrop and foundation for your retelling and makes the story your own.

It’s also a fun place to include details from the original story to tie everything together!

For further reading on character development:

Birth of a Book: The Development Stage: Developing Your Characters
How To Identify and Write Character Arcs

For further reading on worldbuilding:

Worldbuilding for Writers: Brainstorming and Beyond
Birth of a Book: The Development Stage: Creating the Setting and Building the World

6. Don’t Be Afraid to be Different


You may be retelling a classic story but at the end of the day you are creating a new story… your story.

Don’t be afraid to make it your own!

The story may have been told before, but no one else can retell this story just like you can.

These elements can give you a solid place to start- now it’s up to you to bring your fresh story into the world and make it shine.

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