1.19 – Retellings: Why do it, and which stories can you tell?

In this episode, I . . .

Talk about one very popular type of story. The retelling. This is when you take the plot structure from a well-known story and use that to tell your own tale, like the movie Clueless did with Jane Austen’s Emma. Or you tell a different version of the same one, like Marissa Meyer did with Cinder. Or you use well-known characters to tell a new story, like Wicked did with the characters from the Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz books.

The biggest examples of this type of story are fairy tales, but there are lots of retellings of classics, ancient myths, and superhero stories as well.


Why do it?

Because readers love them. They’re familiar tales. They bring about nostalgia. Some authors find it fun and challenging to tell them from a different angle. To use a familiar plot with a new point of view character, or to write a familiar point of view character in a new plot.


How do you do it?

  1. Make sure it’s legal. Do this before you get too far writing so you won’t waste time on something that you can’t use. More on this in a bit.
  2. Read the original. If you’re reading one of the Grimm stories, you may be surprised how dark they are and how short.
  3. Make sure you understand the original story. Most classic fairy tales were cautionary tales that made a lot more sense to people during the time than they do to us today. If you’re writing a retelling or a more contemporary story, you still want to know the story well so that you don’t upset die-hard fans.
  4. Read, read, read as many retellings of the story as you can. It’s important to know what’s been done so that you can do something unique. You can’t know that just from reading descriptions on Amazon.com. Dive in and see what’s out there already.
  5. Take notes. As you study the original and the retellings, be thinking. Is there a character or plot point that intrigues you? Was there a question left unexplored? Write down notes as you read so you won’t forget the ideas that come to you.
  6. Write a history of life before the original story and a future telling of life after it. Does this exercise spark any ideas or where you could take your story?
  7. Make a plan. Your retelling must be a solid story on its own. How do you want to come at the story? Which characters will stay? Which will be cut? Do you want people to know it’s a retelling or not? Will you tell a parallel of the original? Or take a minor character and branch off? Which elements of the original story must remain in order to please fans?


What you can and cannot do, legally.

Now for the boring part. You can only rewrite books that are in the public domain. You can’t write your own Superman story or Diary of a Wimpy Kid novel because that material is protected under copyrights. You can write fan fiction for fandoms like Harry Potter and Doctor Who all you want and post it for free online, but if you want to publish a story and sell it for money, you can only use material that’s in the public domain.

I’m no lawyer, but here is what I’ve learned over time and from Googling things. If you’re serious about writing a retelling, you need to do your homework and make sure you’re legal.

Here is what I found:

Works Published before 1923
 No copyright protection. Part of the Public Domain.
Works Published between 1923-1963 without a copyright notice: No copyright protection. Part of the Public Domain.
Works Published between 1923-1963 that had a copyright notice but did not renew the copyright: No copyright protection. Part of the Public Domain.
Works Published between 1923-1963 that had a copyright notice and DID renew the copyright: Copyright lasts 95 years after the publication date.
Works published between 1964-1977 that had a copyright notice: Copyrights on these works automatically renewed for a second term.
Works published between 1978-Present: Copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. If a corporation published the work, the copyright lasts 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation (whichever expires first).

Your brain is probably melting. I understand. Which is why if it were me, I’d stick with the REALLY old stuff, just to be safe.

Where Things Get Fuzzy

Those of you who’ve read the Brother’s Grimm likely know how different those stories are from the more contemporary versions many of us grew up on. Technically, it’s those old stories that are in the Public Domain, not the recent ones. Not the Disney version.

So you might have a story about Cinderella and her fairy godmother, only the original Cinderella didn’t have a fairy godmother. It turns out that the first use of a fairy godmother in the Cinderella story was in Charles Perrault’s version. But he died in 1703. So his stories are fair game. And while the Perrault story had animals that turned into coachmen, the Disney version named them Gus and Jaq.

So make sure you don’t steal from Disney or any other retelling. Go to the original source material.

So What Can You Use?

Here is a list of works that are in the Public Domain. To make it easier, all of these stories were published before 1923. Google the authors to find out what other stories they might have written.

Louisa May Alcott: Little Women. 
Hans Christian Anderson: The Little MermaidThe Ugly Duckling, and Thumbelina.
Jane Austen: Sense and SensibilityPride and Prejudice, and Emma.
L. Frank Baum: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre.
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights.
Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden and A Little Princess.
Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through The Looking Glass.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Don Quixote.
Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales.
Dante: The Divine Comedy.
George Eliot (real name: Mary Anne Evans): Silas Marner and Middlemarch.
James Fenimore Cooper: The Last of the Mohicans, and The Deerslayer.
Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe, and Moll Flanders.
Charles Dickens: A Christmas CarolOliver Twist, and A Tale of Two Cities.

Alexandre Dumas: The Count of Monte CristoThe Three Musketeers, and The Man in the Iron Mask.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov.
Henry Fielding: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.
Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows.
Brothers Grimm: The first to pen many of our classic fairytales.
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter.
Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan.
Homer: the Iliad, and the Odyssey.
Victor Hugo: Les Misérables, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Washington Irving: Rip Van Winkle, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Jack London: The Call of the WildThe Sea Wolf, and White Fang.
Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince.
John Milton: Paradise Lost.
Herman Melville: Moby Dick.
L. M. Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables.  (Though don’t try to sell any Anne dolls. There’s a trademark on that!)
Charles Perrault: The father of fairytale retellings.
Edgar Allan Poe: The RavenThe Pit And The Pendulum, and The Tell-Tale Heart.
William Shakespeare: Romeo and JulietHamletMacbethTaming of the Shrew.
George Bernard Shaw: Pygmalion.
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein.
Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Bram Stoker: Dracula.
Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World.
Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace, and Anna Karenina.
Mark Twain: Tom SawyerThe Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Prince and the Pauper.
Unknown: Beowulf.
Jules Verne: Journey to the Center of the EarthTwenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in Eighty Days.
Voltaire: Candide.
Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest.
Johann David Wyss: The Swiss Family Robinson.

So, there you go. If you’ve been dying to play with some retellings, there is a big list to work from.

You can read Perrault’s Cinderella story here.

Read the laws for yourself. Here are two links I found helpful:
Cornel University Library
Project Gutenberg

What are some of your favorite stories that are in the public domain? Until next time, keep on writing!