It may be true that there are no truly original story ideas, but there are always new ways of looking at old subjects. From Romeo and Juliet in space to Snow White in Silicon Valley, retellings of classic legends and literature are a fascinating way to jump-start your imagination, continue storytelling traditions, and connect old tales with new audiences.
- The Spark. If you’re searching for the right starting point and coming up empty, consider what you already love. Norse mythology buff? Gatsby groupie? Read or reread source material and keep your writer’s eye peeled for the sentence, scene, or dangling plot thread that intrigues you. Seek out the ‘what if’: what if Anne from Persuasion knew of the existence of aliens, but, as usual, no one listened to her? What if Rapunzel was a drag queen in Harlem? Hold on to your ‘what if’ and continue reading; the story will start to shift in surprising new ways.
- The Structure. Now that you have your ‘what if,’ you can start to construct your retelling with the pieces of the original. Which characters transfer the best, which themes can have a double meaning? What familiar elements have been done to death in previous (if any) retellings, and how can you offer a fresh take—or eliminate them altogether?
- The Story. The most important aspect of a successful retelling is that you make it your own. Which doesn’t mean you have to abandon the time period or even the setting of the original. Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle stays within the recognizable “fairy tale realm,” but creates a feminist mash-up out of two familiar fairy tales and some modern sensibility. A good retelling can even be as simple (and complicated) as a fleshed-out, novel-length version of a page-long entry in the Green Fairy Book. Let the story retell itself to you.
Stories have been retold, reused, and recycled into new material for centuries. Every story ever read is retold every time someone new reads it. There have been cross-dressing Petruchios and Vasilissas trapped in 24-hour convenience stores. The field of retellings is as wide as our imagination can make it. Only you can tell your version of the story, so pull up a chair, pull out your laptop, and start spinning a new tale from old gold.
Leah Merrill is a Kansas City native and author of more than six impossible things. Follow her on Twitter @la_mer92, where she will happily chat with you for hours about her plans for a Steampunk Beauty and the Beast retelling.