Twice Upon a Time: How to Write Captivating Retellings - Craft Your Content
Margaret Atwood

Twice Upon a Time: How to Write Captivating Retellings

As the music swirled around me in the summer night, I sat entranced, a story fitting together piece by piece in my head. 

There I was, sitting in the botanical gardens, captivated by a fountain show inspired by the music of Swan Lake. As I listened to the incredible music, I read through the synopsis, following along with the tale. The characters spoke to me, eager for their stories to be expanded upon. The original ballet had captured much, but so much more could be done, I realized. 

That was the beginning of my first novel project.

To retell a story is to grasp its essence—its themes, its characters, its aesthetics, and overarching story—and bring it to your audience in a new, exciting light. Retelling is not remaking but taking a story and twisting it into something you can call new and your own.

It is important that you are retelling a story, not remaking it. A remake is the same story, with very few elements changed. For example, Disney’s Cinderella (2015) is a remake of their movie, Cinderella (1950). The 2015 film was a live-action remake, keeping the same characters and key points of the story, just telling it in a different visual way. 

A remake is permissible but does not bring anything new to the audience. What readers want to see is a retelling: a story they are familiar with told with new twists.

If you’ve ever read or watched a great story and thought, “what if…?” you might be ready to write a retelling. Let’s look at how to choose a story, what missteps to avoid, the rules for retelling, and the methods you need to know.

Once Upon a Time…Again

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There are more than just fairytales to retell.

The first thing you should do is to choose a work. When many people think of retellings, they think of fairy tales. While these are currently some of the most popular things to retell, there are several other options to take advantage of, such as mythology, folklore, Shakespearean plays, ballets, or classic book retellings, to name a few.

Deciding on the specific piece you want to retell can seem daunting, but a generally good idea is to find a story that hasn’t been retold much. The literary world is always looking for new and unique reads. 

However, you may have your heart set on a story that has been retold many, many times, like Cinderella or Pride and Prejudice. If you want to do this, make sure to develop a fresh spin that your readers will enjoy.

The Legal Question

When planning to write a retelling, the most important thing to be aware of is the public domain, in the textbook definition: the state of belonging or being available to the public as a whole, and therefore not subject to copyright. 

Any works in the public domain are out-of-copyright and available for public use. As a writer, you must be aware of the public domain to avoid legal issues. Just as you would copyright your own work to keep it from being stolen, other creators have done the same, protecting their work for a certain period of time.

Generally, most works made in the United States prior to 1926 (as of 2021) fall into the public domain unless their copyrights were renewed. But as a rule, most works, regardless of country of origin, are protected for seventy years after the author dies, then they go into the public domain.

If you’re wondering whether the work you want to retell is currently copyrighted, an internet search will probably turn up the information you’re looking for. If not, copyright records from 1978 onward can be found in online databases like the Copyright Office. Records prior to 1978 can be found in print at major libraries, like the Library of Congress.

Let’s use one possible example of a story currently in the public domain: Aladdin. The core story of Aladdin comes from One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales. So, you would be able to use the character of Aladdin, the genie(s) he encounters, the villain, the princess, and the general plot of the story. 

However, you must be aware of copyrighted retellings. In this case, many people may be more familiar with the Disney retelling rather than the original story. So, Disney would have a copyright on a character such as Princess Jasmine, and she would not be available for a retelling. You must know your story well enough as the original and be wary of other retellings to avoid copyright claims from their creators.

Know the Story Before You Break It

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You can’t just “know of” a story to retell it. You have to live and breathe it.

Knowing the original story well is the first step in creating a retelling. It is important to know the story inside and out. Every story has integral key points and themes that need to be kept, but many things can be changed, as well. When you know the story thoroughly, you will understand how the plot and characters will work in the modified version as you make tweaks.

To find the key themes and elements, you must break down the story. Let’s return to our original example of Aladdin, which is basically a “rags to riches” story. The evil sorcerer seeks power, but our hero, Aladdin, finds the magic lamp (and ring, in some versions), encountering the genie(s) that ultimately help him conquer the evil sorcerer. 

A major theme in this story is good conquering evil, which would be a good element to consider keeping. Many of those characters, such as Aladdin, the genie(s), and the sorcerer, are integral to the plot. But there are also many opportunities for characters to be added and plot points to be changed. Breaking down a story in this way is a great early step to take before making the narrative your own.

Moreover, it is a good idea to look at existing retellings of the story you are working with. They will each have a common thread (usually an overarching plot, theme, and/or message) which you will need to identify and incorporate into your own writing. 

As you read existing retellings, you can identify what you would like to see that other authors have not done. Another important thing you will find is what worked and what didn’t. Taking note of these things will give you the promise of a well-thought-out story.

Something else that proves helpful is reading the reviews for existing retellings. Readers will expect certain things from tales they are familiar with, so take note of what they did and did not enjoy across an array of retellings. Additionally, search for reviews by your target audience.

How To Craft a Retelling

There are several different ways to retell a story, but the three major ones are making slight modifications, providing a fresh look, and revamping.

A slightly modified retelling will keep the major focus of the original, although it will include different elements and plot points. It is not a remake but a retelling that is easily recognizable compared to the original story. Sometimes, these tweaks will include things like gender-bending characters, giving a different tone, or even switching the villain of the story.

An example of this kind would be the Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller, which is a retelling of the Iliad. While the plot of the story is very close to the original, Miller chooses to put the greatest focus on the characters, particularly Patroclus and Achilles. 

Another example would be Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, a Cinderella retelling. While this fairy tale has been told many times, Levine offers a new spin. In this book, Ella has been “gifted” to be obedient to anything she is told. She journeys to free herself from this bond. The story keeps many recognizable elements, however, such as the slipper left behind, the fairy godmother, the ball, and the wicked stepsisters.

The second way to retell a story is to give it a fresh look, usually done through a new point of view. This perspective could come from a side character, a villain, or any other character typically not considered the protagonist of the original. A fresh look could also be an opportunity to use alternating/multiple perspectives.

One example of a different point of view would be Susan Fletcher’s Shadow Spinner, another retelling of the One Thousand and One Nights. Instead of the readers seeing the story from Queen Scheherazade’s perspective, this novel is from the point of view of a girl not even in the original. Scheherazade runs out of tales and is desperate for more. She brings into the palace a new girl who knows even more stories than she does. 

Another example would be Disney’s movie Maleficent. It is a look into Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s perspective, bringing the plot and characters into a whole new light.

And finally, you can revamp. To revamp is to turn the original on its head. It will be recognizable by a few key elements, but these stories are usually in a different setting or genre from the original or a crossover between multiple stories.

One of the most popular revamps is The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. This series takes many classic fairy tales, like Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel, but thrusts them into a new genre—science fiction. The books take a few details from the original stories but majorly change them up. For example, Cinderella doesn’t have a glass slipper to lose, but a cyborg implanted leg. 

A famous example of a crossover would be the musical Into the Woods. This story takes several different fairy tales and joins them together, so while their beginnings are close to their originals, by the end, each story has derived vastly, creating a very different tale from what we are all familiar with. 

While crossovers can be done well, there is a danger of losing too much of the story you are wanting to retell. It is recommended you begin with one story and develop it from there instead of trying to tackle several at once and losing the core meaning of them all in the end.

And They All Wrote Happily Ever After

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For the love of the story.

That warm September night, I knew I had a story that needed to be shared with the world—an already beautiful show of dance and music that I could expand upon through writing. And there are still countless other stories aching to be retold. 

Find a story that you sincerely connect with. Only from there will you be able to inspire that same enthusiasm in your readers. Don’t shy away from the “what if”s—embrace them! Never be afraid to try things out; you just might find the key plot point you’ve been searching for.

Do your research, and get input from people you trust to give honest, helpful critiques. Two (or more!) heads are better than one, especially when you’re bouncing off ideas and trying out new things in your writing. It can be an intimidating step to share and receive feedback on what you have, especially in a first draft, but an invaluable resource to take advantage of.

Most importantly, keep hold of that original spark of inspiration that made you fall in love with the story in the first place, and tend it until it becomes a dazzling flame. With enough work and perseverance, your readers will be able to experience the old stories they adored in an entirely new, enchanting way, your own pen leading the adventure this time.

About the Author Charis Negley

Charis Negley is from Wilmington, Delaware, currently studying at Taylor University to complete her degree in professional writing. Aside from writing and editing, you can find her reading and trying every kind of coffee there is to have. See more on her website.