Six Degrees of Retelling

Welcome back, everyone, to the return of the folklore blogging!

So last year (yikes), we were discussing the characteristics that mark a folktale out: plot grammar, aesthetic style, and so on. As I said at the time, modern retellings may conform to those characteristics to a greater or lesser extent.

I’m not terribly concerned with drawing boundaries around what is and is not a retelling. What purpose would that serve? The interesting part is looking at how a given story mimics or alters the original, and how that affects the way we read it.


Meredith Ann Pierce’s novel The Darkangel, which has been a running example of mine this entire time, shows how a story can feel like a fairy tale even when its plot is wholly original: we read the connection in the style. Conversely, you might write a “Sleeping Beauty” story with all the diagnostic components of the tale type, but tell it in a psychologically realistic style, with the story set in the inner city and the spindle replaced with a hypodermic needle. The more you change, though, the more distant the resemblance gets. If your “Sleeping Beauty” story is not only psychologically realistic and set in the modern day, but also features such plot twists as your heroine trying to find her father’s murderer . . . well, you can say it’s a retelling, but don’t be surprised if people aren’t convinced.

What do we get by changing things up? If you’re an old granny sitting by the fire, telling stories to your grandchildren, you don’t need to change a thing; the kids may even be annoyed if you try. But once you start talking about the publishing industry, novelty becomes more important. What does your version bring to the table, that all the other versions out there don’t?

Plot alterations are common because we’ve got a cultural prejudice against predictability, which is a real problem for a genre where everybody knows how the story ends. By throwing in a twist — the prince, Cinderella, and her two step-sisters settle down polyamorously! The Beast turns out to be an alien! — you can escape those expectations. (Whether or not the twist is a good one . . . that’s harder. One person’s fresh idea is another person’s cheesy gimmick.) Another common approach is to shift the story to a new setting: out of the generic, nameless kingdom of the original and into the Old West or Meiji Japan or outer space. Done right, this puts a different spin on familiar elements. Done badly, it’s a decorative paint job that adds nothing to the story.

It’s very common for retellings to add psychological depth to the source, because we expect that out of our fiction nowadays. A flat character with no real motivation and no emotional reaction to events gets boring very quickly. But as soon as you do that, you send other elements out of balance: actions that seem reasonable under the weird logic of a folktale become a lot more bizarre when supposedly normal people undertake them. Do you say Cinderella’s sisters injected themselves with anesthetics before carving up their feet? Do you realistically depict their agony? Or do you just leave that element out entirely?

Finding a new angle can be hard, when there are so many retellings out there. Some people get around this by just choosing a source less well-trammeled: a more obscure story from the Brothers Grimm, or a tale from a different part of the world. All of these and more are valid options; the interesting part — at least to me — are the patterns.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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Six Degrees of Retelling — 12 Comments

  1. One problem with retellings is that if you want the reader to recognize the original and how you are playing off it, you have use one of very few tales or face a substantially smaller audience who get it. Other readers may like it — and praise your striking originality — but that will be lost on them.

    • True, and if your story’s effect depends on knowing the original, that can be a problem. On the other hand, stretching the boundaries of the tales people recognize can be useful in the long run — keeps us all from being shackled to Disney. 🙂

  2. Oh man, oh man, oh man. My FAVORITE sleeping beauty retelling is the one in the “The Rose and the Beast” collection by Francesca Lia Block, which both involves hypodermic needles, is psychologically realistic, and is set in LA, and yet still ENTIRELY has a fairytale feel, just through its use of language and imagery.

    Style is so important for this. I love Jim C. Hines’ fairytale series, and they’re set in a magical world that feels like a real place, where as Francesca Lia Block’s are set in a real world that feels like a magical place – even if most of it is dark magic.

  3. Thanks, Marie.

    One thing that I noticed my friends did in retelling stories to their daughter is to gender-flip or gender change the stories, so that its a heroic girl, instead of a boy, in the stories they told. The girl rescues the prince, instead of the other way around.

    • Very true. Also “dark” retellings — though in a lot of respects those are also plot-change retellings, since part of the darkness is usually tied up in having things not go so well for the characters.

  4. I was delighted with how Sue Lange put a modern twist on the Twelve Dancing Princesses. I also really enjoyed Robin McKinley’s BEAUTY. Re-dos of fairy tales are hot these days. An award-winning graphic-novel spin is over in FABLES, from DC comics.

    • Plus Once Upon a Time and Grimm on TV, yeah. There particularly seems to be a big market right now for stories that mash all the fairy tales together as existing in the same framework. (For values of “all” that equal “all familiar European” — usually.)

      • Although FABLES centered on European fairy tales for a while they’ve branched out considerably. Their current spinoff, FAIREST, is set in Japan, past and present, but Rapunzel is the protagonist.

      • “All half dozen familiar European ones” — sigh.

        I once was on a panel where a mother recounted how she had read her daughter the Paperbag Princess and the daughter was so angry with it that the mother had devise her own fairy tale where the princess rescued the prince, and he was grateful and married her. I pointed her to some sources where she could find plenty of such fairy tales. Like Kate Crackernuts.