Advice on Writing a Fairy Tale Retelling

If you’ve ever written, or tried to write, a fairy tale retelling, you’ll know that it’s not at all the same as writing any other story. Though you have a great deal of creative license, you can’t simply take the story exactly where you want it to go. You must stick to at least a skeleton of the original tale. Your finished story must be recognizable when compared to the original, whether in theme, character, plot line, or some other way.

I know many of you are writers, and almost all of you are fairy tale admirers. So perhaps these tips on writing a fairy tale retelling will help or inspire you in some way. I observed my own method and wrote down the brainstorming process I go through before attempting a retelling.

Retelling Pic

RESEARCH
Please do yourself a huge favor and, before anything else, research the original fairy tale. All versions of the original, in fact, because sometimes there are more than one. I love Disney as much as the next person, and if you feel it’s necessary to base your story off the Disney version, by all means go right ahead. But only after you’ve researched the original version(s). And only after you’ve come up with a very unique spin on your own retelling. Sometimes the original version opens up ideas in your mind that you never would suspect otherwise, makes you ask questions you didn’t know you had. For example: Why did Cinderella’s father (still alive, by the way, and not dead like the Disney version tells it) stand idly by and watch all the horrible things Cinderella’s stepmother put her through?

ASK: WHAT IF?
So . . . yeah. I’m aware this is a question that all authors ask about every story they write. Or so I assume. How else can you come up with something original? When writing a retelling, this part is actually simpler than when you write a unique tale. Instead of asking “what if” to questions you have to come up with to begin with, you get to ask “what if” to a theme/plot/climax that has already been written for you. Easy, right? Start by making a list of all the things you personally expect when you think of the particular fairy tale you plan on retelling.

Story: Aladdin. A central object: Magic lamp. What if: The lamp wasn’t magical? What if: The lamp wasn’t a lamp at all, but some other object? What if: The lamp didn’t contain a genie who would grant three wishes, but instead a demon who dispersed three curses? The possibilities are endless.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
You need to have strong feelings about where your story takes place. Take a setting you love – or even hate – and drop your story there. What happens? How do these unique settings change elements of your story? Make the location original, detailed, even surprising. Throw it into contrast with the mood of your story, or with what would normally be expected. Write the setting almost as if it were a person, make it come alive, and make your characters engage with it and react to it in sensory ways. This is another principle that works with just about any story; however, with a fairy tale retelling it can add an extra punch simply because the original story is so very well known. That means that a fresh and unexpected setting for such a well-worn tale will have that much more fascination for the readers.

CHARACTER SWAP
This one is done a lot, although it never seems to lose popularity. There are just so many variations that the possibilities seem endless. I did it myself in A Wish Made of Glass, writing a loose version of the Cinderella fairy tale from the POV of the stepsister. Try it yourself for the story you plan to retell. Choose a different character in the story, or perhaps create a brand new character and plunk her into the middle of the fairy tale. How do the events of the story appear to this person? How is she effected by them? Will she do something that spins the rest of the tale into an exciting new direction?

MIX IT UP
This is one of my favorites, and I used it in the most recent retelling I wrote (finished only a few days ago!). It’s pretty self-explanatory: Take the fairy tale you’d like to retell and mesh it with another fairy tale . . . or even another story that’s NOT a fairy tale. The Little Mermaid meets Blackbeard. Rapunzel meets Henry VIII. Sleeping Beauty meets Die Hard. This is so creatively attractive to me because of the wild possibilities that open up when weaving two (or more) unlikely stories together. You are forced to push both stories to the limit, bend them into unexpected shapes, watch as the characters meet each other and do unpredictable deeds. How could you NOT come up with a fun and exciting twist?

GENRE
Take your fairy tale completely out of the fairy tale/fantasy genre. Maybe even take it out of the time period in which it is set. Using your imagination, before writing anything at all, just picture what the events of the given fairy tale would look like in another genre. What would happen to Hansel and Gretel if they wandered into a mysterious, remote factory run by a cyborg witch who, instead of eating them, wanted to use them as guinea pigs for cutting-edge scientific experimentation?

CHOOSE A CENTERPIECE
This is one of my favorites. Choose an element of the fairy tale as your centerpiece. Maybe it’s the magical beanstalk in Jack and the Beanstalk. Maybe it’s the thought of a long, enchanted slumber as in Sleeping Beauty. Or maybe it’s a particular favorite character of yours, such as the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. After you’ve chosen your centerpiece, begin building a story AROUND it. Remember to also sprinkle elements of the original story, in whatever detail or capacity you choose, as you build your NEW story. In A Wish Made of Glass, I took the glass slippers themselves and gave them supposed powers: the ability to hold their wearer’s heart within them. I included elements of the original story as well. Stepsisters who must deal with the remarriage and neglect of their parents, a loose version of a “fairy godmother” in the form of the fey folk who live in the forest, etc.

Many times after choosing a centerpiece to base your story around, ideas will begin to flood your imagination about HOW you can use that piece, whatever or whoever it may be, in unique and new ways. Brainstorm, let your imagination fly free for a while before you begin to write, and the story you come up with may surprise you.

I’m curious, have you ever dreamed of writing a fairy tale retelling? Maybe you’ve already written one (or more!). I’d love to hear about the inspiration for your story, or the story you plan to write one day. Tell me in the comments below.

15 thoughts on “Advice on Writing a Fairy Tale Retelling

  1. These are stimulating ideas for any storyteller…great for brainstorming any story! Even though I write urban fantasy, I could benefit by going through many of these processes related to fairy tales. Thanks for posting Ashlee!

    You’re going to inspire me to do a long overdue post on my blog! :0)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! Thanks for sharing! I’ve been getting increasingly into writing fairytale retellings myself. 🙂 I particularly like that one about location, because I LOVE the setting I have for one I’m working on (genderswapped Little Mermaid in the sky with skyships and cloud siren people) and so I know exactly what you mean. 😀 I have so many retelling ideas… they’re so fun to come up with. XD I have one Robin Hood meets the wild west… in space. That’s a little ambitious but maybe I’ll get to it someday. And a Cinderella where she goes to the ball as a spy but the prince is a mindreader… And a Twelve Dancing Princesses one I’m REALLY excited about because that’s my favorite fairytale. I love retellings. 😀

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  3. Ooh these tips have gotten all the ideas swirling around in my head now. 😛

    I have a semi-planned cinderella retelling. Only it’s steampunk. Told by the ‘fairy godmother’ character who is actually a biplane pilot and smuggler. And the prince is the villain. I’m really excited to write that story at some point. 😀

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  4. You are so right about the importance of setting in a fairy tale – I hadn’t thought about it before. I like the idea of using a fairy tale character as a centrepiece, too – that’s a new idea to me.

    What I’d add to the advice, is to think about what element of the story moves you – either something you love, or something you are really annoyed about! – and use that to motivate your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. hi., this must be a very late response but i have some question, when you do a retelling, do you need to ask permission or any right from the original creator of the fairytale? Like do you have to pay or something? Honestly, I don’t really have any idea.:0 Thank you.

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    1. That’s a very good question! To the best of my knowledge, I believe that most of the well-known folk and fairytale stories are considered public domain. As long as you’re not plagiarizing the original story or any other versions of it, and it is your own original twist on the fairytale, I think you’re good to go 🙂

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