Book Talk: What Makes A Great Retelling?

08:36 Cilla P 28 Comments

image source: moonchild-ljilja @ DeviantArt

(I chatted with my dear friend, Corissa, while I was drafting this and drew inspiration from the points she brought up. She deserves half the credit for this post, so thanks Cor!)

I am a fan of retellings. If my love for The Lunar Chronicles hasn't betrayed this fact, then all you have to do is look at the line-up of Simon and Schuster's Once Upon A Time series on my shelf. More recently, I read The Book of  Lost Things by John Connolly (review here). My interest is not just limited to fairytales; I adore the television show Elementary, and A Study in Charlotte is one of the releases I'm most looking forward to next year.

It's hard to create a compelling retelling. While I'm drawn to the stories mentioned above and more by my familiarity and love for the original tales, what makes a retelling stand out for me is the element of surprise.

A Change in Perspective

There are two sides to every story, and through retellings we are getting the other point of view. More and more stories are being retold through the eyes of the villains. This kind of retelling is intriguing to me, because it turns the things we know about a story on their heads. Who's good? Who's evil? Are the villains really just people who made bad decisions? Retellings that can make me think about these questions often win my heart. Wicked by Gregory Maguire comes to mind, as well as Fairest by Marissa Meyer.

Not Only Skin Deep

Changing certain characteristic about a character is potentially a great way to do this. Most of the people I've talked to frown at the idea of an Asian-American Joan Watson of Elementary. I, on the other hand, love it.



A character's cultural roots and gender affect the way they look at the world, if only because the world looks at them differently first, and so the story they'll tell won't be the same. I can't think of a bookish example for this at the moment other than Winter, but let me know if you do!

Fill in the Details

Obviously, a retelling with the same exact story will be boring (and not a retelling at all). I love it when all the familiar elements should be there, but the bits in between are different. Snow White should be beautiful, with a problematic relationship with her stepmother and apples, but if we already have the story where she basically plays mother to seven dwarves. Take her time-travelling, cross-dressing, armed with a bow and arrows to lead a coup against her stepmother (*coughs* Once Upon A Time *coughs*) - go crazy. :D


Really, no matter what twists an author puts, the best kind of retellings make me stop looking for the similarities with the original story. I should get so absorbed in the new story and then get pleasantly surprised when a familiar element appears.


Let's talk! 

What do you think makes a great retelling? What do you think ruins one? 
Tell me about your favourite retelling!

28 comments:

  1. I'm a huge fan of retellings -- if retellings become a dead genre I will legit be out of writing ideas :'( To be honest, I think a change in perspective alone still isn't enough now -- lots of stories have done that, even Disney's done that! But mix that up with other factors and it would def be cool. Love your conclusion about being absorbed in the new story and being surprised, not looking for, the new elements!

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    1. With retellings like yours in the horizon, I doubt it'll ever become a dead genre :'D Yes, a change in perspective alone isn't always sufficient - the story needs other elements of surprise too! Thanks for stopping by, Alyssa!

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  2. I've recently gotten really into retellings, and I agree that the best are the ones that take the main points of the original but give them completely different twists. The more unique and creative the better! I have one book on my kindle that apparently has Snow White as a zombie, so that should be interesting lol. I like your explanation of getting absorbed but being pleasantly surprised when familiar elements appear. That's what I like too.

    I've also recently found a great series (The Era of Villains by S.J. Valfroy) that's not *exactly* retellings but that takes the villains from common fairy tales and stories and explains how they got to be villains in the first place. Stories from the villains' perspectives are definitely fun to read!

    Great discussion post :-)

    -Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight

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    1. Oh wow Snow White as a zombie sounds like an interesting premise! The stories of how villains become villains in the first place also sound fascinating. I like it when we get to see the origins of villains and perhaps see other aspects of them other than 'evil', as I believe very few people are pure evil from the start. I shall keep an eye out for The Era of Villains then :D

      Thanks so much, Kristen!

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  3. I completely agree with all points! I love retellings, and I've never really stopped to think about what makes one a good retelling. There are so many great ones out there (and also some not-quite-great), and it's nice to have such a variety of retellings to read about :)
    Loved this post!
    ~Erika @ Books, Stars, and the Pages in Between.

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    1. Thanks, Erika! Retellings are a lot of fun, and it's so interesting to think about which ones held my attention and which ones didn't quite manage to. :D

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  4. "A character's cultural roots and gender affect the way they look at the world, if only because the world looks at them differently first, and so the story they'll tell won't be the same."

    Very well said :) - Alyson

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  5. I love retellings! If you haven't read it yet, I definitely recommend Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay :).

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    1. Ooh I haven't read that one yet! I shall look into it, especially 'cause Beauty and the Beast is my favourite :D Thank you!

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  6. I am also a fan of the Lunar Chronicles (how does Marissa Meyer create such amazingness?!?!) I'd say that I definitely think that retellings should have a base from the original story but then they should have tons of twists and turns so you're not rolling your eyes from the extreme amount of similarities it shares with the original.

    Great post Cilla! =D

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    1. I know right?! I would love to pick her brain about how she came up with Cinder's world. Yess, I totally agree with you. If it's 90% similar to the original story, then there's not much of a point of retelling it anyway.

      Thank you, Faith! :D

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  7. THIS. I completely agree with you 110% Cilla. I think that's what's so great about retellings - you can have some creative liberty with them and explore some things that maybe weren't discussed in the original. Thanks for sharing and, as always, fabulous discussion! ♥

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    1. Exactly! :D With retellings, you can ask 'what if' and create something exciting with it. As always, thanks for the lovely comment, Zoe! <3

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  8. Villain perspective based retellings are really some of my favorites! I think it takes a skilled author to make the approach work, but I've found it refreshing amidst the large amount of "hero" retellings I've read. I think the only one I've read so far is Fairest, but I am interested in reading more!

    Cristina @ Girl in the Pages

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    1. I agree, Cristina - villain perspectives are more difficult to pull off than hero retellings! I want to see them as flawed human and not just pure evil-cackle-and-world-domination kind of caricature, but at the same time, I don't want them to be made out to be soft at heart. They are villains after all. It takes a good writer to achieve that kind of balance!

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  9. I'm also a HUGE fan of retellings, and I agree with everything that you have listed here. While the main elements need to be there in the background, the story and characters should be fresh. And pleeeease no cliches. :P

    Thanks for stopping by Thoughts By J!

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    1. Haha definitely no cliches! Though if one must appear, it should be handled well. Like, it's predictable that the 'prince' and 'princess' would get together, but the build-up of their relationship should totally be fresh. :D Thank you for visiting, Joy!

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  10. This is a great discussion! I actually haven't read that many retellings, and none of the really well known ones in YA at the moment. I adored Wicked and how it completely challenged what we know of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and I loved the background and explanation Prince of Shadows by Rachel Caine gave to the story of Romeo and Juliet. Like you said, it's the added elements given to an original story, a new twist, a different spin, that make them so intriguing. I have quite a few retellings on my TBR pile, so I've created the Retellings Reading Challenge 2016. Sign up is still open if you're interested in participating :)

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    1. Thank you, Jo! I actually never finished reading Wicked, though I loved the musical. Maybe I'll go back to it this year! Ooh I've never heard of Prince of Shadows, but that sounds interesting - I shall add it to my TBR :D

      Thank you for letting me know about the challenge! I think 7 challenges is my limit for 2016, but I'll be keeping an eye on your blog for retelling recommendations!

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  11. I love retellings. I like when the characters are different in some way gender or culture. When the setting is different. My fav is when you don't really notice it is a retelling unless you are really paying attention or because is loosely based on the fairy tale. I almost always like the villain so I'm surprised with myself that I haven't read more of those. You've made me go on a hunt to add those to my evil queen tbr list this year. mwa ha ha

    Bunnita @ Worth Reading It?

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    1. ahaha yayy! I hope you find lots of villain retellings, and I'll look forward to reading your thoughts on them. :D Thanks for stopping by, Bunnita!

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  12. I'm such a huge fan of retellings and I love them in pretty much all forms. But I agree that I especially love them when the author puts a new spin on the story. I'm currently bingeing Once Upon a Time (while on the elliptical) and I'm loving it!!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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    1. *highfives* Once Upon A Time has done pretty well with their retellings! I've been hooked on that show since Snow pulled out Charming's sword on Regina haha. Thanks for stopping by, Nicole!

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  13. This is an interesting post! I agree with all of the points you made about what makes a good re-telling. One of my favorite things is to see the Villain's point of view, like you said, but I also like to see the guy's point of view (if it's a retelling of a classic from a girl's side of things). My IDEAL retelling would be told from an iconic side characters point of view. What was THAT guy doing while the two main bozos were traipsing around on their adventure??

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    1. Oooh having the guy's point of view would be fabulous. I'd love to have Sleeping Beauty from Phillip's perspective. Haha you posed an excellent question there! Hopefully someone will write your ideal retelling in the near future :D

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  14. i loved this post so much! i love fairytale retellings, they're so much fun because you get more than the original tales. i love how you learn more about the villains (what they're like, what motivates them, etc) i think it's really cool how they're becoming quite popular these days because we get to see how people interpret each fairytale based off their own personal experiences.
    also, the joan watson thing (not really retelling related but): i liked the idea of making john a female but at the same time i was a little worried they'd ruin the story (romanticising it), but they didnt! i was so surprised when i started watching elementary because i'm easily annoyed by the constant relationships between characters. i'm not too sure how far i got (i've moved house and lost track of a lot haha), but i liked that they were friends and have a very close relationship without making it sexual. i also like what they did with moriarty.

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    1. Thank you, Chelsea! I agree - retellings add more substance to the story. I'm so glad you like what Elementary did with Watson! I keep telling people to watch that show haha. I'm about a season behind with it, but I believe they're still maintaining the platonic love between Sherlock and Joan, which is the strength of the show I think. The Moriarty twist was brilliant, wasn't it? I didn't see it coming at all.

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