Writing a fairy tale retelling is the original fan fiction. The universal themes of fairy tales and the imaginative manifestations of them have continued to inspire countless works of art for thousands of years.
To this day, fairy tale retellings are a popular genre in books and film. It’s one of my personal favorites (I am a Disney fan, after all) and given how long the classic fairy tales have endured, they don’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon.
If you want to write one of your own, you may be thinking (given how many fairy tale retellings exist and how long the original source material has been around), what the hell can there possibly be left to do? How could there be any originality left?
The truth is, every story out there is inspired by something else. What makes something unique is the perspective through which it’s told and the fresh way a mixture of elements we know and love have been put together. That’s what is at the heart of any great fairy tale retelling (and great art in general).
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How to Make a Fairy Tale Retelling Unique
Dive into the source material
Before you can really sink your teeth into a retelling and start playing with the story, you need to get familiar with your source material. The more you understand the original work, the more you have to pull from when you start writing your own version.
GET TO KNOW THE ORIGINAL STORY
We all know the most popular fairy tales well because we’ve been told them so many times in a variety of ways. However, the original stories are often very different from the retellings we know, such as the Disney versions.
The original stories were penned centuries (in some cases, even thousands of years) ago, so there are a lot of things you’ll probably want to leave behind that are badly dated ─ elements like misogyny, racism, and inappropriate relationships run rampant in old fairy tales. There are many other interesting story details, though, that you can pick up from the original text that can make your retelling richer and more layered.
Every writer interprets things differently. You never know what detail could spark your imagination and turn out to be something few others have used, so definitely take the time to read the original works. You can find pretty much all of the classic fairy tales for free online since they’re in the public domain (meaning the original copyright has expired).
- The Amazon Kindle store (it has some of them available for free)
- University of Pittsburgh
PAY ATTENTION TO THEMES
What makes fairy tales timeless and so pervasive in every culture are the underlying themes that we all relate to. They’re the truths that we connect with and instantly recognize on a deeper level.
They explore topics like transformation, self-discovery, justice, judgment, class, and of course, love. Many of us can relate to Rapunzel’s loneliness, the Little Mermaid’s desire for adventure, and Cinderella’s aching for love. We’re inspired by their will, spirit, and perseverance as they face challenges and ultimately overcome them on their journey to finding true love and happiness.
These are deeply human feelings and experiences, which is why they resonate with people of all generations and backgrounds. Fairy tales (and the best stories in general) make us examine these truths and help us understand them more deeply.
When writing a fairy tale retelling, look for the core of the story that you’re putting a spin on. What human experience is at the heart of it? As long as you have this, you can get as creative as you want with the rest of it.
TAKE NOTE OF YOUR FAVORITE ELEMENTS
Besides the theme, what else do you love about the fairy tale you want to retell? Take some time to examine the story and take notes on what draws you to it over and over again.
If it’s the love story, what is it specifically about the love story that captures your heart more than others? The dynamic between the characters? A particular trope (like forbidden love, friends to enemies, etc)?
Keep pulling back the layers. The more you understand what you’re drawn to about this particular fairy tale, the more creative license you’ll be able to take because you’ll know what needs to stay the same to maintain the core of the story and what you can play with to make it unique.
Study the fairy tale retelling genre
Knowing the expectations of a genre is key to crafting a satisfying story for lovers of that genre. You can still get creative with those elements and even mix it with other genres (like the sci-fi retelling of Cinderella, Cinder by Marissa Meyer), but having a firm grasp on the elements that draw people to retelling after retelling will give you a strong foundation to start from.
If you love fairy tale retellings (I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that you do since you’re in this post), this will be pretty easy. It’s just about clearly identifying those elements that you respond to.
LOOK AT WHAT’S ALREADY OUT THERE
Take some time to go through the books currently available in the fairytale retellings genre to see how other people are playing with these stories and what the common threads are. Some places to check are:
- GoodReads Lists of Fairy Tale Retellings
- BookBub’s lists like this one of 20 Magical Fairy Tale Retellings for Adults
- Amazon’s Best Sellers List for Teen & Young Adult Fairy Tale and Folklore Adaptations
What is missing? What hasn’t been done that you would love to read? Just one twist on the story can be the starting point for something completely fresh and intriguing.
TAKE NOTE OF WHAT YOU LIKE & DON’T LIKE
In all of the fairy tale retellings you’ve read and watched, what were your favorite things about them? What did you love about the characters, the scenes, the plots, the dialogue? What inspired you and pulled you into the story?
And what didn’t you like? What did you think could’ve been done better? What did you feel was missing?
All of these answers could be the first spark and building blocks to your own unique retelling.
READ REVIEWS FROM OTHER READERS
Take a peek at the reviews for some of the most popular fairy tale retellings. What did other readers like and dislike about them? You’ll learn a lot about genre expectations here, as well as expectations for each individual fairy tale, and pick up a lot of valuable information you can use when crafting your own. Take notes as you go.
This will help you identify those elements I mentioned earlier. Again, you also never know what could spark your imagination; something someone says they “wishes” had been different in the story or that they never see in fairy tale retellings could be the impetus for a whole new story idea.
Keep in mind, writing is completely subjective, so just because someone else likes or doesn’t like something doesn’t mean you can’t tell the story you want to tell. This is just a way to get different perspectives on the genre and individual fairy tales to get your own creative juices flowing.
Play with the structure
There is no rule that you have to follow the fairy tale from start to finish exactly as it was originally told. You can extract what you want from it (the themes, the characters, iconic elements like Snow White’s poisoned red apple) and use them as ingredients for your own original recipe. You get to decide what to use and what not to.
TAKE LIBERTIES WITH THE PLOT
Following the original plot (or the most popular adaptation of it) too closely can get boring and predictable because your readers will know what’s coming. This offers a great opportunity to subvert expectations with unexpected twists on them.
Neil Gaiman took a lot of liberties with his dark, horror twist on Snow White, Snow, Glass, Apples, in which Snow White is a vampiric villain and her stepmother, the not-so-evil queen, is the protagonist attempting to protect the kingdom from her blood-thirsty stepdaughter. Many of the story’s original elements are present in Gaiman’s retelling, including some of the key plot points, but he’s twisted it so that everything is off-kilter.
PUT A TWIST ON THINGS
Besides playing with the plot, there are a lot of other ways to put a twist on a fairy tale. To make it really unique, combine multiple twists. Mix up your own fairy tale retelling cocktail.
- New genre ─ Most fairy tales are fantasy, so you could put it into an entirely new genre, like the movie A Cinderella Story which is a contemporary romantic comedy retelling of Cinderella, or mix multiple genres, like Beastly by Alex Flinn which is a contemporary fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast.
- Different time period and/or location ─ What would the story be like if it was simply placed into a different time period, like the roaring 1920’s or the regency era? What about a different location, which would affect the culture and have a ripple effect on the story as a whole?
- Gender-swap, role swap, combine roles ─ Another interesting way to shift things in a small but impactful way is to change up the roles, like Gaiman did by making Snow White the villain and the queen the heroic protagonist. The TV show Once Upon a Time often combined fairy tale characters, like Rumplestiltskin also being the Beast in Belle’s story and the Crocodile to Captain Hook. And what if Cinderella was a man who fell in love with the princess?
- Switch to a different POV ─ The novel Wicked by Gregory Maguire and the Disney film Maleficent did this beautifully by showing the story from the villain’s perspective.
- Crossover/mix stories ─ The TV show Once Upon a Time is probably the most famous example of crossing several fairy tales so the characters mingle together and create something completely fresh and new. Grimm is a fantasy crime drama that is also inspired by several of the classic Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
- Prequel or sequel ─ Wicked by Gregory Maguire is one of the most famous fairy tale prequels about the life of the Wicked Witch before Dorothy blew into town and offers a lot of backstory on Oz. You could also go in the other direction, like Disney’s Descendants movies about the children of famous fairy tale villains.
The only limit on writing a fairy tale retelling is that of your own imagination. Let your creativity run wild.