Remember those first stories we heard as children? “The Three Little Pigs,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and so many more? We could listen to them over and over again. Each time, we were delighted with the end. The main character defeated the villain, found true love, and—my favorite—lived happily ever after. These stories transcend time, extend to all cultures, and resonate with all generations.
We call them fairy tales.
They were meant to teach lessons and life skills while entertaining us, but they are more than that. As authors, we can use fairy tales as a foundation to recreate or retell stories. An entire genre has been constructed for this purpose.
In 2021, Midnight Voss’ Romance Writers of America (RWA) workshop, “Reinventing Fiction: Adapting Fairy Tales and Public Domain Classics Into Original Fiction,” offered authors advice on how to navigate the genre. Author Shonna Slayton (https://shonnaslayton.com) has also written several books and blog posts on the subject over the years. They are just a few of the great resources available for authors who are interested in these stories. But before we go diving into writing with fairy tales, an aspiring author should know some basics.
At the top of the list is this: When an author uses a fairy tale as the structure for their story, it is considered a fairy tale retelling.
Methods of Retelling
There are several methods of writing a retelling. First, the fairy tale reinvention honors the original story, but the author presents the tale in a new way. In other words, they are capturing the feelings of the original story. Some elements may be changed, but otherwise, the author remains true to the story premise.
“Little Red Riding Hood” is a classic example. The original version of “Little Red Riding Hood” written by Charles Perrault was a cautionary tale of what could happen when a young woman divulges too much personal information to a stranger. While the message is still relevant, the author may choose to present a different theme. In contemporary retellings, Red or the wolf are the main characters with a story arc showing the conflicts they bring to the story and how they grow through their obstacles.
Next, the recreation of a fairy tale tells the tale in a different setting. It will have the same outcome as well as several icons to connect the readers to the original story.
Lastly, the “kitchen sink” method of retelling brings several stories together. The characters interact with each other and add to the story arc. This method comes with a warning. Don’t be fooled by the abundance of material. Of the methods for fairy tale retellings, the kitchen sink has the most demands. The magic systems or setting parameters within the different story worlds cannot compete with one another. Braiding plotlines in the kitchen sink method requires asking questions about the story concepts and planning on which elements will enrich the plot and which can fall to the wayside.
Here are a couple of things to remember when retelling a fairy tale: Readers of this genre have expectations. Some parts of the adaptation need to reflect the original story. Think Snow White and the mirror, the seven helpers, the quest on behalf of the prince, and the awakening brought on by true love’s kiss. This isn’t meant to be a limitation; it is a way to have fun with the material.
With all three methods of retelling, setting is also a character. It dictates the rules of the story world, expressing limitations on the character as well as adding potential for outcomes.
Fairy tale retellings are fun for readers and writers alike because they touch on themes that elicit delight and the feeling of already knowing the story. However, the retelling is that much more fun because it combines the comfort of the familiar with the excitement of a new approach.
Common Retelling Tropes
Bargain: The character makes a deal as a means of negotiation to save oneself or a family member
Betrayal: A person the character trusts tries to kill them
Evil Stepmother: Sometimes referred to as the bad parent trope, the new family member who brings unjust misery to the main character
Disguise: A side character pretends to be an ally, but their intent is to bring harm to the main character
Friends Are Family: The character fleeing their circumstances meets a band of friends that becomes their support system
Love Conquers All: True love’s kiss will remove the curse, and the royal in search of love will find it with the main character of the story
Poverty: The character lives in circumstances where they are starving or lack finances, which drives them to seek assistance from someone with magical powers
Transformation: The character changes into their true self
Trials: The character must complete a task or otherwise reckon with severe consequences