Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Ever considered writing a fairy tale retelling? Many authors have, and most of them have shied away from the idea, putting other projects first. Perhaps that was the right decision, but it’s also one that’s worth reconsidering – fairy tale retellings are big business, and they could be the key to establishing yourself with a huge readership.
In this article, I’ll be looking at why authors who want to build their reader base, increase name recognition, and expand their brand might want to consider making a fairy retelling their next project. I’ll also explore some options for making a fairy tale your own, and investigate why fairy tales are so resonant for readers. In fact, let’s start there.
Everyone loves a fairy tale
In How To Create New Stories By Adapting Famous Books, I talked about how you can use the structure of existing stories to create something that’s new but has a tried-and-tested structure – how The Lion King uses Hamlet like a map, deviating at key points to turn a tragedy into a comedy.
It’s a great method for authors – especially those who are just starting out – to tell complex, unique stories while allowing historical successes to do the heavy lifting. There’s a certain rhythm and structure to such stories that instantly engrosses most readers, and tapping into that can free authors up to get inventive elsewhere. It’s also a form of constrained writing, where you task yourself with creating characters that fit within a set narrative: Scar, Timon, Pumbaa and Zazu are all great characters, and each one of them emerges from their role within an existing narrative. When you know you need a lecturing adviser to keep an eye on the prince, you’re free to start thinking about the best form of that character.Adapting fairy tales is a form of constrained writing – a great way to surprise yourself.Click To Tweet
This advice is even purer when it comes to fairy tales. Their structure isn’t just reliable, it’s the gold standard. These are stories that have survived generation after generation, the process of telling and retelling stripping them of everything inessential. They are, basically, fossilized stories, and they tell authors so, so much about how a narrative works and the purposes a good story serves for the reader.
You’d therefore be pretty smart to use a fairy tale as the basis for your story, but here, you can go much further down the rabbit hole. Fairy tales don’t just suggest a beneficial structure – they’re stories that are known inside and out by the vast majority of readers. We know the characters (their actions and motivations) and we know both the path and message of the story. That’s a huge amount of information for the reader to have already accessed, leaving them an expert on the context of the story you want to tell.
This shared cultural knowledge provides an instant bond that you won’t find anywhere else. You’re not just on the same page as the reader, you’ve both read the same book. Most stories involve an intense investigation of a character or set of themes, but the author has to establish that character or those themes before taking them apart. In a fairy tale retelling, you can dive straight in, granted an unprecedented level of freedom to experiment without losing your reader.
The merits of a fairy tale retelling
This is apparent in many fairy tale retellings, including Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Carter uses fairy tales as entry points into stories of human violence, sexuality, and compassion, sometimes staying close to the originals and sometimes leaving them in the dust. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how two stories ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ and ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, appear one after the other, both retellings of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast.
On its own, this is odd – to retell the same story twice seems strange, but it shows what the reader’s comfort with these stories can do. Carter isn’t worried about retelling the same story so quickly, partly because she has different things to say in each, but also partly because the story is so ingrained as to be already familiar. No matter how long it is since you heard a fairy tale, you know it well enough to recall the key details. Why, then, worry about it becoming ‘too familiar’?
In fact, the two stories take opposite angles on the baseline stories. In ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, the protagonist’s love humanizes the beast.
And then it was no longer a lion in her arms but a man, a man with an unkempt mane of hair, and, how strange, a broken nose, such as the noses of retired boxers, that gave him a distant, heroic resemblance to the handsomest of beasts.
‘Do you know,’ said Mr Lyon, ‘I think I might be able to manage a little breakfast today, Beauty, if you would eat something with me.’
Mr and Mrs Lyon walk in the garden; the old spaniel drowses on the grass, in a drift of fallen petals.
‘The Tiger’s Bride’, however, goes the opposite route, with the beast’s love turning the protagonist into an animal.
He dragged himself closer and closer to me, until I felt the harsh velvet of his head against my hand, then a tongue, abrasive as sandpaper. ‘He will lick the skin off me!’
And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.
The stories don’t just exist separately – their proximity and shared heritage creates a relationship. The reader is asked which version of the story really appeals to them – do they want civilized mastery or wild surrender? Which is the more authentic experience? This duality depends on the reader’s pre-existing understanding of Beauty and the Beast. If the first version of the story was the original, and the second a divergence, then their relationship would be different – instead, they’re two paths, and the reader is left at the crossroads.Fairy tale rewrites exist in a constant dialogue with the originals. Fertile ground for creative expression.Click To Tweet
This is just one example of the complexity that fairy tales allow, but the benefits take on an almost infinite variety. Bill Willingham’s Fables focuses on Bigby Wolf as a protagonist, presenting him as a man looking for redemption through service to his community. His past as the Big Bad Wolf is frequently hinted at, with many characters uncomfortable in his company. Willingham skillfully matches the reader’s knowledge of the Big Bad Wolf with the shadowy, taboo way in which the subject is discussed by the characters – it’s not something that any of them really want to vocalize, which is fine by the reader, since they already know the score.
Willingham uses this device to flesh out many characters, presenting famous fairy tales and fables as ‘gossip’ which misunderstand the more complex truth. The reader begins the story in a complex state of knowing, and yet not knowing, the characters, just as they only partially know each other. This constitutes volumes of context on an array of characters, and yet it takes little effort to establish.
So that’s why a fairy tale retelling can be a great creative decision, but what does that have to do with your career?
The market for a fairy tale retelling
The shared understanding of fairy tales doesn’t just give you creative options, it gives you commercial ones too. Recognition is a huge drive of buyer behaviour. It’s what many adverts are actually about, making sure you recognize a brand on the shelf so you’re comfortable buying it. This is the target for authors who want commercial success: becoming known enough that readers will buy a book just because it has your name on it. It’s how a lot of people buy books.
It’s also a slow process, and something that authors at the beginning of their careers can’t just magic up, or even pay for. Fairy tales offer a different kind of brand recognition, giving the reader something they recognize, even if it’s from someone they don’t. The crossover is obvious – tell a good story and the increased number of people who bought the book will now know your name.
The fairy tale is neutral ground, somewhere an otherwise cautious reader will feel safe to investigate who you are and what you’re about. This means a fairy tale retelling is also a great place to play with risky ideas, as Helen Simpson explains in her introduction to The Bloody Chamber.
Also, as dissident writers have so often found, the indirection and metaphor of fantasy can be helpful when airing controversial subject matter; not that Carter would have minded causing offence, but, whether she minded or not, by using the time-sanctioned form of fairy tales she acquired readers who would not otherwise have read her.
This isn’t just true of political or social commentary. Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Stories is a children’s book with an anarchic spirit. The characters know they’re in a book (the Little Red Hen complains about a blank page), are drawn in a brilliantly repulsive fashion, and their stories are sometimes cast off or abandoned. Little Red Running Shorts and the wolf walk off after the narrator accidentally spoils their story, and the rabbit and the tortoise’s story is based on a single pun and has no real ending.
This odd, subtly complex style might have put many parents off buying the book, but the presence of fairy tales offers a familiar point that invites trust and further exploration. As Carter uses fairy tales to discuss sex and violence, Scieszka and Smith uses them to deconstruct the nature of story and the book as a physical object (for children, no less).Fairy tales invite the reader in – where you take them next is up to you.Click To Tweet
This isn’t a trick or scam, and neither author has fooled the reader by promising something that doesn’t exist. The fairy tale is a valid, often crucial, bastion of familiarity. It orientates the reader and lends them the assurance to try something new. If you’ve got an idea cooking but you’re worried about finding an audience, it’s a great idea to consider whether it could be married to a fairy tale or two.
This is a financial as well as creative truth – people buy fairy tales. It’s no coincidence that media giant Disney put their fairy tale retelling front and center in both output and public image. Yes, they do great work, but they’re also smart enough to recognize a sure thing.
Making a fairy tale your own
So that’s why you should write a fairy tale retelling, but how can you get started? Well, the first thing to appreciate is that you don’t need a new angle. Fairy tales are powerful stories that we love to hear – just telling them in your own voice can be enough. That’s the route Philip Pullman took in his recent Grimm Tales for Young and Old, as he explains in the introduction.
All I set out to do in this book was tell the best and most interesting [fairy tales], clearing out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely. I didn’t want to put them in modern settings, or produce personal interpretations or compose poetic variations on the originals; I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water… Any changes I’ve made have been for the purpose of helping the story emerge more naturally in my voice.
Of course, there are lots of reasons to approach fairy tales from a new direction. As Pullman points out, this can be done via both the narrative and the form of a story. You could adjust the period, change the characters, and even reverse the story’s outcome, as in the books I’ve talked about so far. You could introduce a new character into a familiar world – as DreamWorks did with Shrek – or introduce a familiar character into a discordant setting – as Disney did with Enchanted.Fairy tale rewrites offer the author an unparalleled ability to play with form and content.Click To Tweet
In terms of form, there’s no reason to stick with a short story format. Carter uses The Bloody Chamber to experiment with length – the titular story is more than thirty times longer than the shortest, and twice as long as any other included – offering up everything from short stories to flash fiction. Into the Woods uses these stories as the basis for a musical, while Roald Dahl approached the fairy tale retelling in the form of poetry.
Again, though, the fairy tale allows a lot of leeway. It’s not a case of making one narrative change, or even of making either a narrative change or one that’s structural in nature. You don’t even have to be consistent between stories. In Revolting Rhymes, Dahl approaches the fairy tale retelling via poetry. Some stories play out as usual, though in his unique voice, while others veer wildly off-track. Red Riding Hood, for example, is so successful in dispatching her wolf that when the three little pigs run into trouble in their own story, they call her for help.
“My darling Pig,” she said, “my sweet,
That’s something really up my street.
I’ve just begun to wash my hair.
But when it’s dry, I’ll be right there.”
A short while later, through the wood,
Came striding brave Miss Riding Hood.
The Wolf stood there, his eyes ablaze,
And yellowish, like mayonnaise.
His teeth were sharp, his gums were raw,
And spit was dripping from his jaw.
Once more the maiden’s eyelid flickers.
She draws the pistol from her knickers.
Once more she hits the vital spot,
And kills him with a single shot.
Pig, peeping through the window, stood
And yelled, “Well done, Miss Riding Hood!”
Ah, Piglet, you must never trust
Young ladies from the upper crust.
For now, Miss Riding Hood, one notes,
Not only has two wolfskin coats,
But when she goes from place to place,
She has a PIGSKIN TRAVELING CASE.
– Roald Dahl, ‘The Three Little Pigs’, Revolting Rhymes
Characters crossing the boundaries of their own stories to end up in another is a common trope when writing a fairy tale retelling. This is a recurring theme of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Stories, which also includes amalgam stories such as ‘Cinderumpelstiltskin’, and is the entire point of Fables, where it turns out most fairy tales were set in a universe parallel to our own.
It’s another device you can play with in your own fairy tale retelling, though it has limitations of its own. Imagining all fairy tale characters as of a similar nature may limit your ability to find what’s at the core of their story, or your version of their story. Part of what makes The Bloody Chamber work so well is that Carter explores the stories on individual terms – ‘The Snow Child’ is haunting, whereas ‘Puss-in-Boots’ is bawdy fun. Maybe a shared tone works for your project (it did for Fables and Shrek), but it’s something to consider before you begin.
The happy ending
It may be that you’re not ready to rewrite a fairy tale yet, but hopefully the information above should get you thinking in the months and years to come. It’s by no means a definitive path for authors, but it is a canny way to build a readership and even tell complex stories in an approachable way.
In fact, writing a fairy tale version of your story might even help you get a clearer idea of its non-fairy tale aspects. Ready-made characters and plot give you lots of room to experiment. It’s been said that the greatest literary characters are so consistent that you could drop them anywhere and they’d still be themselves. If you want to get a good idea of your characters, drop them into a fairy tale and see what they do. Even if it’s not for publication, it might give you a clearer idea of who these people are when stripped of their natural context and setting.
For more on using existing works to structure your next project, check out How To Create New Stories By Adapting Famous Books. If you’re looking for inspiration in a more general sense, try Five Experimental Novels That Will Inspire Any Writer, which talks further about constrained writing and how it can enhance your craft.
Are you always up for a fairy tale retelling or are you sick of seeing them? Let me know in the comments.