KWL Craft of Writing Series: It’s All in the Retelling

Retellings! At any given time in publishing, there is a retelling of a classic tale on the marketplace. There has been an ever-growing interest in retellings that work to broaden representation in classic novels and fairy tales by implementing more diversity via both characters and themes, as well as changing up the setting, historical period, or central subjects of a familiar story. Retellings are a fun and exciting way to use a myth, fairy tale, piece of folklore, or narrative that is in the public domain in your writing practice and an interesting way to tailor a familiar story to suit your own expertise, experiences, and needs as a writer!

Why do we love retellings so much? For a myriad of reasons, but author USA Today bestselling Demelza Carlton sums it up nicely here:

“You see, fairy tales are stories that never die. Storytellers breathe new life in them, but the essential tale is the same, because we love those stories so much.”

Read on if you are considering writing a retelling of your own; we can offer some advice on how to get started, and how to go from writing your retelling to putting it out into the world.

  1. Choose the narrative(s) you want to retell – there is a breadth of stories out there that you can adapt without copyright-related issues; from the entire collection of Jane Austen to, more recently, Winnie the Pooh, the public domain is a great place to start. If you have a novel, play, or fairy tale that is close to your heart, consider retelling that narrative. Make sure you reread – and research, of course! But that can come later. For now, settle on a story you feel strongly about.
  2. Consider your authorly angle – think about what direction you want to take the retelling in: are you looking to set in the modern era rather than in the past? Do you want to reimagine the main character? Are you looking to insert fantasy elements into a period piece? The ideas are endless.
  3. Research your narrative (and additions to it) – other than rereading the narrative you want to retell, it is important to research – the time period it is set in (or the one you are setting it in), the origins of the story, the background of the author, and so on – whenever possible. Make sure you do the work before you begin so that you don’t have to stop writing to Google something in a panic! Your future self will thank you later.
  4. Edit, edit, edit – after your writing, make sure you edit. Look for any inconsistencies and ensure you haven’t missed anything key to the retell. Read your work, and then read it again, and once you’ve read it one more time, look into getting others to help you finalize your edits.

    Consider hiring a sensitivity reader once your first draft is finished, especially if you are including or focusing on underrepresented characters and their narratives in your retelling, or any character who has lived experience that you are not personally familiar with and may need the careful eye of an expert reader with said experience. Likewise, find an editor who has worked with retellings before or who has a vested interest in narratives based on other works of fiction. And, of course, don’t underestimate the work of a copy editor and proofreader: this essential part of the editing world is just as important as a content editor!

  5. Publish (with the all-important comps in place) – next, get to publishing! Once you’ve gotten your cover, summary, and blurbs in place, perhaps most important is your inclusion of comps. In the case of a retelling, it is a must to mention the story you are retelling in your marketing endeavours (unless it is totally obvious, as indicated by the title or subtitle). Comping your title to the narrative you retold, as well as other retellings, is essential. It grounds your book in the retelling space and can be easily pitched to others.

Don’t underestimate the art of the retelling! It may seem deceptively easy, considering the plot and essential characters are already available for you to shape into your story. But there is a lot of work involved in making a retelling successful, compelling, original, and true to the vision you have for it.

One of the best tips of advice for writing a retelling is to read, read, read! Read the original story again and again, especially if it comes in different forms and translations; read other retellings of that same story, or even those of others; and, of course, watch films and television shows that have been inspired or are even complete retellings of that story themselves. All of this engagement will help you get in the best creative mindset for writing a successful retelling.

Check out this episode of the KWL podcast, featuring bestselling author of Neon Gods (a Persephone and Hades retelling), Katee Robert, to hear more about the art of writing a retelling!

Are you writing a retelling? What story are you using as your inspiration? Share with the KWL community below, and as always, happy writing!


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