#5onFri: Five Tips to Ace the Art of Retelling

by Disha Walia
published in Writing

A hot trend in publishing right now is retelling. From the poetry of stars to the chords of the dreamland, even in the echo of tales once told, inspiration is everywhere. Whatever inky thoughts decorate the several hundred pages is a unique journey of fresh perspective. But sometimes a pair of novel glasses are put on to dive deeper into what has already been told.

Rainbow spines of bouquets of books are drawn from the classics. Imagination sprung from classic mythologies, romantic fairytales, and sublime stories can have a powerful effect on readers. Done right, readers would simmer in the feelings of profound nostalgia and freshness combined. Done wrong—oh well!

If a world of magic has pulled you in, and you want to offer your readers a happy ride with a few extra layers of imagination, there is nothing wrong with it. Only if the approach is right. Let’s dive into understanding the art of retelling and how to ace it in five quick tips:

What is retelling?

Contrary to popular belief, you cannot just pick a story that fascinates you, sprinkle the fairy dust of your imagination, and call it a retelling. Take this mini-checklist to know if the story you are brewing in the secret depths of your creativity is good to go:

  • Battle of fair use: A story is ripe for a retelling only if it’s a public domain work and not someone’s intellectual property. Fret not, there is a whole gold mine of works to choose from!
  • Clichéd cliché: Steer clear of overused works, including cliché tropes. A retelling is less likely to make it big if all their versions are already out there. Unless you still have a new trick up your sleeve.
  • Shot in the dark: On that note, avoid stories that are virtually unheard of, unless you want your readers to go in blind. But that defeats the whole purpose of retelling.
  • Change it all: It is less likely to be considered a retelling if the only recognizable part of the story is that one tiny detail or one clichéd trope while everything else changes.

If you think I covered all the bases of what not to do and now left you unmotivated and frustrated, I offer five quick tips to help you ace the art of retelling:

1. Moments of truth

Your favourite story passed the test, now what? Hop on to find the moments of truth. A retelling must have the key points of the original story to make it recognizable. Your retelling should have the major moments from the original story for readers to instantly pick up on which original story you are retelling without you needing to point it out to them.

Let’s explore this idea with one of the most popular fairytales of all time—Snow White. Everyone knows the basics of the story: A drop-dead gorgeous princess, evil stepmother-queen, hunter chasing through the woods, shelter with seven dwarves, poisoned, kissed to life by the prince. That’s it! Those are the moments that make Snow White recognizable.

2. My Mains 

You have the major events drawn out from your favourite story, it’s time to flesh out your mains. These include your protagonist, antagonist, love interest(s), and secondary characters.

Like any other story, give them motives, fears, quirks, background—a whole character arc! From this point on, let your creativity run wild. You have an outline to work with, it is time to bring in a fresh perspective to make this a real retelling. These characters don’t need the same names or careers, as long as they resemble the original characters in some way. Spice things up as much as you like, just make sure they stay true to character.

Continuing the Snow White example, let’s make her an apothecary’s daughter in the mid-1400s. This makes her stepmother’s access to poison more feasible. Maybe their relationship was not stained at all in the beginning. Only when Snow White continued to retain her youth, while her stepmother began losing hers, did she grow jealous. As the daughter of the most renowned healer of the village, Snow White’s profession was misunderstood. Fuelling the fire, her stepmother aided in her witch hunt.

3. Stakes and Details

Most often than not, the original classics have almost zero to minimal stakes. It is no surprise that such simple tales are hard to weave into a novel. You must raise the stakes. An easy way of doing that is to add more details. Not only does this help the dangers look more eminent but also retains the authenticity of the time and place your retelling is set in.

Snow White has death looming over her head. If she chooses shelter with one of her friends, she is signing off their death warrants too. Not to mention, being close to her stepmother up until then makes all her hideouts a hunting spot. She is left with two choices: Let them burn her or escape to the forest from where sinister laughter is heard every night.

4. A new world

This is the part where you can let all hell break loose with your creativity—the world building. First things first, remember the genre you want to write. It helps pace the tone and mood of the world building. List out the basics of the world—culture, language, history, laws. Don’t be afraid to draw from real-life sources, even multiple inspirations are acceptable.

Just remember: don’t lose yourself in your creativity in a way that your world starts looking fake. The willing suspension of disbelief should still be believable!

If you have noticed in my example up till now, I am fleshing out Snow White’s world based on the witch hunts from the 1400s. That is the tip of the iceberg of my world. In the forest, Snow White can encounter multiple mythical creatures long forgotten alongside the girls who escaped the witch hunts like her. And of course, the precious dwarves who provide her shelter!

5. Too many choices

We are, after all, the amalgamation of our choices. So are our characters. All those what-if moments in the stories make the stories interesting. If you want to carve out a complex story, give your characters multiple choices. Hard ones. All their choices should have consequences of almost equal importance. And make them choose actively between them.

A retelling shouldn’t be so straightforward that readers don’t want to flip the next page. Add as many twists and choices as you want. Change the choices from the original story, but stick to the plot.

Snow White with all her adventures can still land in the same dilemma to face her stepmother. What choices lead her there is a different story. Maybe she wants to fight back because of the utter betrayal. In the end, she still ends up with a bite of the poisoned apple as she goes on to negotiate a deal to keep the hunters her stepmother keeps sending after her in the forest, away from her forest friends.

The possibilities are endless! Pick your favourites, sprinkle your imagination, add your unique touch, and watch your readers immerse themselves in a unique journey of reminiscence and brilliance combined.

Disha Walia

Disha Walia is a one-part lifelong storyteller, one-part elf helper to those who have trouble putting their thoughts into words, and one-part Labrador pup stuck in a human body. With stepping stones of achievement in the world of non-fiction and fiction alike, Disha loves to spend even her free time daydreaming about what’s next to write. Connect with her on Instagram (@quillinary) or connectwithquillinary@gmail.com.

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