Mom, why is she fat?” I was a very inquisitive little girl and asked lots of questions, most very loudly (some of them innocently inappropriate, as you might have guessed). While this tendency did not make grocery store visits any less challenging for my mother, the asking of questions, however, has helped me as a writer. Madisyn asked me to talk about writing fairytale retellings with twists, stories which require the author to ask lots of questions.
To get started on a fairytale retelling, we have to ask two questions of the beloved fairytale that is to be retold. The question of most importance is, what do you love about the fairytale? Next, what are the bare bones of the story that must be retained for it to be recognizable as the same tale?
Only when those aspects are decided can the twists be added to make it fresh. Twists are fun because the reader has the pleasure of wondering how the author is going to pull off the bare bones; they’re more engaged in the story than if everything went along like the original, only with a different window dressing, so to speak. After all, why read a retelling if it follows the original so much you might as well read the original, your first love?
An essential thing to note here is that the retelling should be a great story on its own, whether or not the reader knows anything about the original fairytale. As just mentioned, they need a reason to read your story rather than stick with the original.
The purpose of the post isn’t to discuss the first two questions, so let’s get started on twists. There are many ways to add twists to a fairy tale, but for the sake of time, I’ll focus on some of those used in two of my retellings: Midnight for a Curse, a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, and Wrought of Silver and Ravens, a “Twelve Dancing Princesses” retelling. Disney’s fairytale adaptions are treated like original fairytales by many, so I can’t use them for examples of retellings with twists, and to avoid spoilers for others’ books, I’m going to use my own.
To start, here’s a list of the bare bones of “Beauty and the Beast,” or what occurred to me as the bare bones. The mirror, rose, and so on are important elements and useful to twists, but are not part of the structural backbone.
“Beast and the Beast” Bare Bones
—Cursed, isolated, unattractive man of greater means than heroine
—Virtuous, self-sacrificing, beautiful young woman facing difficulty on behalf of family
—Woman forced to stay with the man
—Antagonistic relationship to begin with
—Change of heart and growing of relationship between them
—Conflict external to curse
—Girl leaves and returns
—Beast dies/in trouble as she returns
—Girl admits love for Beast and curse breaks
—Happily ever after
Midnight for a Curse is a humorous “Beauty and the Beast” retelling. When I started it, I knew I wanted it to be light-hearted and surprising, with Beauty’s character being a part of that. Since the comic relief was more the servants in the Disney version, choosing to have Beast and Beauty’s interaction as part of the humor was already something of a twist. So choosing a different tone or genre (like making it into a mystery or epic fantasy, or more humorous or darker) is one way to add a twist. Since I chose a humorous tone, having Beast force Beauty to stay with him wouldn’t work so well for that—but Beauty forcing herself on him as an uninvited guest would (to escape an unwanted suitor). The “unwanted guest” is also a common component in humorous stories, so this twist fit with the tone I’d chosen for the retelling. However, I wanted to stay true to the bare bones, so I added something that forced Beauty to stay with Beast, something Beast could have warned her of but didn’t. As a result, Beauty shows up at the castle for a unique reason, her reasons for staying are also different than the original, the timing of her wanting to leave is different, but the bare bones are all there—Beauty and Beast are stuck at the castle together, and it’s Beast’s fault. The reader has experienced something new but still something familiar and is (I hope) satisfied.
For other twists, I looked around for ways to swap things up until I found them. It takes a lot of planning to come up with good twists, of generating ideas and sorting through and tossing them out to find the right ones. (For me, this also involves hand washing my dishes, driving, and going for walks.) Let’s look at some of the twists I kept. These generally go back to the bare bones.
Beast is trying to get rid of his curse in the popular versions, why not have a Beast who wants to keep his curse and Beauty must talk him out of it? This opens the intriguing question of why Beast would want to keep his curse. A good question like that is priceless to a book. (Note: In some retellings, Beast is hopeless and resigned to his curse, not actively trying to keep it. These are different twists.) In the end though, Beauty is key to Beast breaking his curse, and she leaves, comes back, and saves him. —Something unexpected and yet familiar.
There is also a battle of wits going on as Beauty tries to figure out Beast’s identity and convince him to give it up while Beast strives to keep his secret and his curse. The battle of wits is a popular story element, especially in light-hearted stories, so it fit the tone of the retelling and is something generally liked.
For other twists, why not make Beast bookish and Beauty a bit of a tomboy? The library/reading aspect was so well woven into the fabric of “Beauty and the Beast” through the Disney version, that Beauty loving to read and scenes in the library are essential to a retelling. So I made Beast bookish and Beauty a dyslexic girl who wants to read better, and who gets a spell for it from the enchantress. She also has other sneaky business in the library, and Beast makes use of books for his own plans. The details aren’t the same, but there’s still a love of literature and a great library.
In the Beaumont version, “La Belle et la Bête,” and Robin McKinley’s Beauty, Beast must ask Beauty every night to marry him. Since, in my version, Beast doesn’t want Beauty to say yes, this opens the door to humorous situations and, of course, the question of will he ever stop dissembling in his proposals? The proposals weren’t in Disney’s version, which is treated rather like an original. So blending versions is one way of adding twists to a story.
Belle, in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, knew she lived in an enchanted castle, and though it was never stated she knew Beast was cursed, she should have suspected. So I decided Beauty in my story knew about Beast’s curse, but not who he was. There was still mystery, something for her to figure out, but still the fun of Beauty pretending she thought Beast was truly a Beast.
So for this retelling, many of the twists were chosen partly to suit the humorous tone of the story and because they were fun in and of themselves (unwanted guest, battle of wits, for example). I looked at the bare bones of the story and, for many, both reversed them and yet filled them, all in unexpected ways—Beauty both invites herself to the castle but is forced to stay. I blended aspects from popular versions and add well-liked story elements (battle of wits, for example).
The story is the same and yet isn’t. It’s not just a change of style of dress with a few little additions. That is to say, you can’t just change the setting, not if that doesn’t change much more than the style of dress. Setting, as we’ll in the next example, can be a big twist, depending on how unique the setting is and how it influences the story.
For my “Twelve Dancing Princesses” retelling, Wrought of Silver and Ravens, two decisions led to its twists: I wanted to focus on the guard with the invisibility cloak rather than on the princesses (so like the original rather than most of the retellings), and I wanted it set in my Magic Collectors story world. But, for the latter, I didn’t just want it set in the world, I wanted it to tell something essential to that story world: how the legendary half-magics (also known as Magic Collectors) re-entered the world after leaving their hidden land. So the setting had its own story to be blended into the retelling. That story lent the retelling more of a high fantasy or epic fantasy feel, so also a change in tone.
The bare bones of the “Twelve Dancing Princesses” are a king with twelve daughters whose dancing slippers are mysteriously worn out every night, a competition to find the truth and in which many gentlemen die, and an old soldier (the main character) who is given an invisibility cloak and who follows the princesses to a hidden, jewel-filled underground realm where they dance the night away. He, a clever man, reveals the truth and weds the oldest princess.
In the original, the princesses are actually cruel, tricking the competitors and letting them die for their failure. I love Lea Doué’s retelling, The Firethorn Crown, where the girls are nice and are cursed by a cruel prince. She twisted the story by making it sweeter and focusing on the girls instead of the soldier. I chose to use those twists as well, but to have both the oldest princess and the soldier (a young man in this story) as POV characters. (As a note, Doué’s use of a curse on the princesses and an evil prince is another example of a well-liked story element used as a twist.)
The soldier, however, because this was also a story set in my Magic Collector world, has his own troubles, goals, and conflict. He isn’t a minor character to the princesses. He is likable in his own right as a lonely wanderer with secrets, lion cubs (guy who loves animals—generally increases likability), and a need to accept love and love in return (found family and friendship, not just romantic love).
The villain’s reason for the dance, the method of him forcing the princesses to come and how they travel are heavily tied into the magic of the story world. All of these made the story so much more than a simple fairytale retelling.
So adding depth to characters, changing characters’ personality, changing the POV character or adding one or more POV characters, creating a bigger story around the tale, and choosing a unique setting are ways to twist a fairytale.
In conclusion, there are many ways to write fairytale retellings with twists, but, I think, the most important thing is to recognize what readers want in a story (the bare bones are necessary) and give those things, but not in expected ways. And those unexpected ways should be loved ways in their own right.
ABOUT E.J. KITCHENS
E.J. Kitchens loves tales of romance, adventure, and happily-ever-afters and strives to write such tales herself. When she’s not thinking about dashing heroes or how awesome bacteria are—she is a microbiologist after all—she’s enjoying the beautiful outdoors or talking about classic books and black-and-white movies. She is a member of Realm Makers and lives in Alabama.
Social Media Links
Group blog: http://www.landsuncharted.com
Facebook group Faith and Fairy Tales: https://www.facebook.com/groups/585858426143754/
Amazon Author Central: https://www.amazon.com/E-J-Kitchens/e/B00J7C53XG
ABOUT Wrought of Serpent and Snow
Half-magic Athdar Owain Leonidas has grown to love his new home in Giliosthay, and its crown princess in particular. But when he learns his mother and grandfather are alive and are slaves to the raven-eaters in the Mountains of Terror, he sets out for a deadly land he’d hoped never to see again. Even if Athdar and his companions, including fellow Silver Guards Galen and Bane, survive the journey and defeat the raven-eaters, he fears they may not be able to free his family from the magic of the raven-eaters’ enslavement.
Princess Thea of Giliosthay and her sisters may no longer be forced to dance with dragons each night in the Realm of Caves, but the enchantress sisters aren’t free from their curses. Prince Cerav has disappeared, taking with him the miniature, magic-wrought crystal city and glass castle they need to free themselves and their kingdom from his influence, but to follow him would be foolish until they know how to fight the mysterious abilities of the half-magics. Ever practical, Thea focuses her efforts on strengthening her Realm Walking abilities and on deciding how she feels about the young Silver Guard her father has betrothed her to.
While Athdar is struggling to rescue his family, strange attacks begin in Giliosthay that target both Thea’s family and her Realm Walking abilities. Athdar once chose Giliosthay as his home and helped save it; now, he’s inadvertently split the Silver Guard and left Giliosthay vulnerable.
Wrought of Serpent and Snow is book 2 of the Of Magic Made series, a clean high fantasy retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Wrought of Silver and Ravens should be read first.
A big thanks to Elizabeth for providing this wonderful guest post that will be helpful not only to fairytale writers, but those retelling other classics, myth, and legends. And I can’t wait for Wrought of Serpents and Snow to release. Book One was fantastic, and I’ve no doubt Book Two will be just as good.