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Retellings: Giving the Classics New Life


What if the Pied Piper lured all the adults away instead of the children? What if Pride and Prejudice took place on a spaceship? The possibilities are endless with story retellings! Read on to find out what retellings are and how you can incorporate them into your own writing.


Some Background

Writers generally look to well known, classic stories to retell, as well as fairy tales or creation stories. There is a huge well of content available to draw from: hundreds and even thousands of years’ worth!

A lot of your favorite stories are actually retellings and you might not know it. Most people know that many of the Disney princesses are actually based on the more gruesome Grimm fairy tales. James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, considered one of the greatest books of the 20th century, is based on Homer’s The Odyssey. Even Shakespeare pulled from other stories for his plays. But many other modern stories also draw from the classics. There are dozens of modern Shakespeare retellings; the most well-known ones are surprisingly typically teen movies like Ten Things I Hate About You (based on The Taming of the Shrew) or She’s the Man (based on Twelfth Night). And Clueless is based on Jane Austen’s Emma! These examples just show that you can take a story with one genre, context, or scholarly level and bring it into an entirely different genre, setting, or context to make it your own.

It can be daunting to engage with old stories, especially if retellings of them already exist. But it can be creatively engaging and fulfilling to enter conversation with writers of both the past and present through retellings.


A note: Generally, in order for an author to publish and profit off a retold story, the original has to be in the public domain, or else it is considered fanfiction or will be flagged for copyright infringement if the original writer did not consent to their work being retold. Works tend to enter public domain after about a century, or when the writer’s family fails to renew the copyright. For example, The Great Gatsby just entered the public domain last year—maybe that will spark some ideas!


Retellings are everywhere

As an editor for a college literary magazine, I also see many retellings written in poetry, especially of Greek myths or fairy tales. The poet can use a third person perspective or choose to write in persona, adopting a character’s voice and exploring their story in first person. There are so many ways to retell stories!

Sometimes, aspects of other stories enter our own without us realizing through our use of tropes. Tropes are common plot or character devices that many writers put in their stories to help the reader make connections while reading. But tropes have to come from somewhere! It can be helpful to trace a trope’s timeline in the canon in order to better utilize it in your own writing. Understanding how a trope was originally used can help you find ways to either play to or subvert reader’s expectations. Usually, if you’re unsure where to find a trope's origins, look to Shakespeare or Greek mythology.


Retelling Brainstorm!

What do you feel is missing? What characters do you want to give a bigger voice to? What can you add to the story to make it more complex or challenging for the reader? Here are some ideas to get you thinking about ways to retell a story:

  • Keep everything the same but change a single event, almost like a “What if?” story. For example: What if Jo from Little Women married Laurie?

  • Add to the original story by writing from a side character’s POV, or even a villain’s POV and see how things shift

  • Genderbending is always a fun time! Take time to think about how a different gender would affect the chosen character and others’ perception of them. What would be the same? What would they do differently?

  • Combine multiple stories and create your own story universe (think Into the Woods or Once Upon a Time!) What new questions can you open up for the reader?

  • Pick up the story where the original left off, imagining the characters’ future

Feel free to combine any of these ideas to make an even more creative retelling premise!

 

About the Author: Lindsey is currently working towards her BA in English and Creative Writing at Brandeis University. She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. She is also an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, watching Marvel movies, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.

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