by Suzanna E. Henshon, Ph.D.
How do you update an old story? Fairy tales have been popular for hundreds of years, and recently Red Riding Hood, Beastly, and Juliet Immortal have dominated young adult fiction. Meanwhile, girls ages 8-12 love books like Ella Enchanted, Just Ella, Princess Academy, Snow in Summer, The Wide-Awake Princess, and Once Upon a Curse. Why are fairy tales so popular? Can you write a modern fairy tale with a twist that will enchant young readers?
To a certain extent, the plot of the fairy tale is established by the original story, yet you have the capacity to stretch the tale beyond its original sphere. And you have the advantage of starting with a well-known story has brand-name recognition for millions of potential readers.
Here are some tips for writing modern versions of fairy tales.
1. Reread the old story. No matter how familiar Cinderella might seem, you still need to reread the Charles Perrault version (not the Disney film). Or you need to rediscover Hans and Gretel through the Brothers Grimm. When you reread the old story, you’ll see there are layers of meaning that you missed years ago as a child reader.
2. Study how other writers have modified and worked with the fairy tale. If you want to rewrite Cinderella, read Ella Enchanted, Just Ella, Cinder, Cindy Ella, and Cinderella (as if you didn’t already know the story). If you want to retell the Trojan legend, read Nobody’s Princess and Troy High. Not only is it fun to see what other writers have done, you’ll be able to market your work more effectively if you understand what’s already out there.
3. Think honestly. Do you have a new version of this story? Why would someone want to read another version of Sleeping Beauty? When you read Alex Flinn’s Beastly, you will discover it is a wonderfully modern blend of Beauty and the Beast, complete with a computer chat room. When you read The Princess Diaries, you’ll discover Mia Thermopolis suffers the modern angst of adolescence (5’9″, flat-chested, with poor grades in math) while trying to assume her new role as a ruler of Genovia. Be honest, and ask yourself if you are trying to cash in on an old brand—or if you have a new and wonderful story to tell.
4. Sketch out a plot. Even if you are using an old tale, you’ll need to add new twists and turns to transform it from a fairy tale into a novel. For a great example of how to transform an old tale, read Red Riding Hood by Catherine Hardwicke.
5. Sketch out the characters. You’ll also need to do character sketches. Using the old characters as a launching point, you must be innovative and creative as you breathe new life into Rapunzel, Snow White, or Beauty.
6. Write with a twist. Whether this twist is telling the story through the princess’s voice (Ella Enchanted) or crafting your own fairy tale (Once Upon a Toad), you’ll need to draw the reader in through vivid details. Or you could allow your character to visit fairyland as a tourist (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making). Whatever you decide to do, remember you can’t just retell the old tale. Change the setting, the age of the characters, or the time period. In short, give it your own twist!
7. Finish writing your story. Then sit down and read it. Does it follow enough of the original story to justify a connection? Or have you written so far off the track that you should give your story a different title?
8. Edit to perfection. When you write a modern fairy tale, the stakes are higher than you think. You are not only writing in the tradition of an ancient tale, you are competing with modern rewrites that are currently on the marketplace. Whether you craft a modern princess (Letters to Rapunzel) or a historic princess (Nobody’s Prize), you need to write with vivid details, bringing your favorite characters to life upon the page in a way she’s never been seen before.
9. Study the marketplace. How does your story compare? Have you written a story that girls 8-15 will fall in love with, or have you simply tried to cash in on a familiar story? If you have written a unique work, submit your piece. Then, see if your dream of your fairy tale of getting published comes true!
Dr. Suzanna E. Henshon teaches full-time at Florida Gulf Coast University and is the author of several young adult and middle grade books, and two collections of writing exercises. Her newest book, Andy Lightfoot and the Time Warp, is available for the Kindle on Amazon.
Tags: fairy tale, modern fairy tale, writing fairy tales