Familiarity and Strangeness: What Makes a Good Retelling?

Rumpled - Lacey LouwagieBelow is a copy of my guest post featured on Corey’s Book Reviews:When my husband told one of his friends that I’d recently released a book that was a retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin,” his friend asked, “When is she going to start writing her own stuff?”I wanted to tell him it took me over fifteen years of writing “my own stuff” before I finally felt ready to tackle a retelling.


On the surface, it seems retellings should be easier than creating something “from scratch.” But a retelling must be more than merely embellishing the details. It must strike that just-right combination between familiarity and strangeness. These elements led me to ask two questions of each retelling I read:


  1. How true does it stay to the original story? A reader should be able to spot the threads of the source story within the rich tapestry of the retelling. This is that delicious familiarity. Marissa Meyer’s Cinder features a cyborg Cinderella, with only one evil stepsister—the other is kind. But the evil stepmother is there. The long-shot love affair with the prince is there. So is the lost shoe … except this time, it’s a whole foot. Disney’s Frozen, on the other hand, while a delightful movie, is not, in my opinion, a true retelling. Aside from a beautiful woman with wintry powers, it bears almost no resemblance to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” from which it came. I think of it as a story “inspired by” rather than retelling Andersen’s tale.
  2. Does it bring anything truly new to the story? This question is the one that kept me from writing retellings for so many years. I knew to write a retelling, I would need an “angle” that somehow made the story different from all the iterations of it that had gone before. This “angle” couldn’t be forced, which must be why it took over a decade for my subconscious to give me some answers. Now that that particular door has finally been unlocked (open Sesame?), I can’t write fast enough to keep up with everything waiting inside.


Fairy tales and myths in their “original” forms (that is, their most well-known written versions) come to us in the language of dreams, where suspension of disbelief must reach much higher levels than we’re used to employing. We must believe that a girl can grow hair 72 feet long, or that a little girl and old woman eaten by a wolf could still be alive if someone freed them from the wolf’s belly. Yet modern readers yearn to know the “how” and “why” in their stories, and modern retellings answer these questions by situating the familiar stories within more fully contextualized worlds. It is in the way authors answer the “how” and “why” of fairy tales that brings out the second crucial element: newness.


Some people still feel a bit miffed at Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm for writing down the stories they collected and making them “stagnant.” In the past, telling the stories orally allowed each storyteller to cater them to his or her particular audience, to infuse the stories with the messages and morals important to a specific time and place.


It is in the tradition of retelling these stories that we prove writing them down hasn’t made them stagnant at all. They are still being born every day, with new things to say to new readers.


In “Rumpled,” you will find many things you recognize: straw that turns to gold, a bargain for a first-born child, the all-important pronouncement of a name. As for what is new—you’ll have to read it to find out.