5 ways to retell a classic fairy-tale

5 ways to retell a classic fairy-tale

As humans, we have been loving fairy-tales since forever. Oftentimes they follow a simple structure, which makes them easy to remember and repeat. Almost as long as there have been fairy-tales, we have had retellings. Cinderella alone has a dozen different versions all over Europe and Hans Christian Andersen has written some of the most beautiful retellings, such as “the wild swans”. Fairy-tales’ simple elements are the perfect base for current topics, perceptions and inspirations. Keeping with Hans Christian Andersen here, almost all his tales are deeply religious, which is not the case with the originals. Today, we wish for emotions, depth and complex characters. That is the beauty of retellings: a mix of the well-known (and well-loved) and timeliness.


Five types of fairy-tale retellings

In the Märchenspinnerei, we have mostly chosen to produce modern fairy-tale retellings. Basically, you can roughly divide fairytale adaptations into those taking place in a magical world, like Fallen Queen by Ana Woods or A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, and those anchored in reality, may that be the modern world, another culture or a historical epoch. Beyond that, there are five more approaches that I want to introduce to you.


1. The basic retelling

Fairy-tales are often short. The characters remain one-dimensional and can be characterised by only a few words: the clever farmer’s daughter, the lazy spinner, the brave little tailor. The plot is told plain and simple. There is no explanation for magical interventions and logic will be sorely missed more often than not. For example, where does the little house come from that the little brother and little sister find in the forest and that nobody ever visits?

Characters of fairy-tales do what they want and when they want it. For a short good night story back, when you came together at the feet of a storyteller, that’s all right. But today we want more of a story. We want character background, big feelings, and exciting action scenes. This is exactly the spot where retellings begin.

They turn a short fairy-tale into a proper novel, provide identity to the characters and pretty up the plot. By doing so, they stay true to the original fairy-tale and leave the relationships between the characters intact. There is often a huge amount of world building though: there‘s geopolitics, new plot elements, and a closer look at the society.

Examples: The Wild Swans (Jackie Morris), Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast (Robin McKinley), Fallen Princess (Veronika Mauel)

2. Another perspective

We heard fairy-tales from the hero’s perspective: the poor children that got caught by an evil witch, or the motherless girl that makes a life for herself by being industrious and of good heart, or the good natured youth that goes out in the world and gets lucky. But what happens to the witch, whose house is vandalised and who bakes damn good gingerbread? Or what is the prince thinking, taking home a corpse in a glass coffin?

These are exactly the kind of questions these fairy-tale retellings deal with. They retell the fairy-tale from the perspective of the villain, the love interest, or a common bystander. By doing so, they unearth interesting facets of the main characters that aren’t shown in the original fairy-tale. Some rewrite the story completely. Others stay on a well-known path and give depth to people that remain one-dimensional in the original.

Examples: The Six Swans (Annabeth Leong) – told by the king, The Sleeping Maid in „Beyond the Briar“ (Shelley Chappell) – told by a villager that has been separated from his true life by Briar Rose’s curse, Confession of an Ugly Stepsister (Gregory Maguiere) – told by the evil stepsister

3. The experiment

Often enough you read a fairy-tale and think about what would have happened if the princess hadn’t waited for her rescue but instead saved herself. Or is Rapunzel still working as a story if it is a young man with long hair that is sitting in the tower? Or what if Cinderella is actually a cyborg?

Many fairy-tale retellings start off with such thought experiments. They take the old material and rework it completely. For example, gender bender stories are very popular. Other likely takes are those that expand on the plain main character and give them some bizarre hobby or job.

Examples: The Lunar Chronicles (Marissa Meyer), Aschenkindel (Halo Summers), the other stories of Beyond the Briar (Shelley Chappell), Thorn (Intisar Khanani)

4. Inspired by

Many times, it’s a particular element that fascinates us about a fairy-tale. Maybe that it is timeless, that it still carries a relevant message, or that it has a really cool twist. The story of Beauty who falls in love with the ugly Beast alone has spawned a thousand different adaptations. Cinderella as well – the original industrious girl that gets rewarded in the end – appears in countless stories. It is not necessary for these retellings to be recognisable as such.

Those stories usually don‘t have much in common with the original fairy-tale. The movie Beastly has nothing to do with the original beyond the basic idea and the deadline. For example, the movie focuses more on the character development of the Beast than showing a girl, learning how to love the Beast. A completely different story. Sometimes retellings only pick up one element (a name, a relationship, a message) and develop something of its own. In any case, this makes for an exciting new story that sets off from the original tale.

Examples: Straßensymphonie (Alexandra Fuchs), Rosen und Knochen (Christian Handel), Rotkäppchen und der Hipsterwolf (Nina MacKay), Alice in Zombieland (Gena Showalter)

5. New interpretation

Finally, there is the so-called new interpretation. In this case, the original fairy-tale is used as a guideline. Those stories adapt as many elements as possible but present them in a completely different setting. This would be where our modern fairy tales from the Märchenspinnerei or similar retellings fit in. It also contains those tales that move their story into Ancient Rome or take them to Japan. It isn’t necessary to adapt all elements of the original fairy-tale or stay true to the plot, but the original fairy-tale should shine through.

Examples: Hollerbrunn (Tina Skupin), Meerschaum (Anna Holub), Briar Rose (Jane Yolen), Kindsräuber (Nora Bendzko)

No matter whether you are just adorning the original tale or experimenting, with each retelling, it comes down to the basic question: What if?

If you want to know, how I began my retelling of the Grimm’s fairy tale “The twelve princesses/The worn-out dancing shoes” check out this article:

Retelling the worn out dancing shoes


Note: This article has already appeared in an earlier version within the fairy-tale summer on the Random Poison blog.




Retelling the worn-out dancing shoes

Retelling the worn-out dancing shoes

Like all Märchenspinner, I chose the “new interpretation” type of retelling, when I started to write “Under the Spell of the worn-out Dancing Shoes”. Personally, I love to incorporate as many elements of the original tale as possible. Some of them are barely mentioned and there are those that didn’t fit in the interpretation, but in the end, the original “The worn-out Dancing Shoes” is well recognisable and the plot stays is pretty true to the original one. Nevertheless, it is also completely different and the fairy-tale provides the mere skeleton for the actual story.

What if?

Like most retellings, my story began with this all deciding question. In my case, the question revolved around the twelve cursed princes which remain cursed in the original. Apparently, none of the other characters cared for them though. My retelling focuses on that. Without spoiling you, my what-if question would be:

What if there was a particular reason for the princes to remain cursed?

Continue reading

Geologic Worldbuilding Part 1: The Basics

Geologic Worldbuilding Part 1: The Basics

I had actually planned to write a little about how world-building works for a geologist. Then, I started and noticed pretty fast, how terribly complex the whole topic would be and how I was glossing over facts, just so it wouldn’t get too big to read. That also meant I barely said a peep about world-building. Thus, I decided to make it into a little series and build a world with you. Here are the currently planned topics

  • Part 1 – The Basics
  • Part 2 – Mountain ranges (planned)
  • Part 3 – Rivers and lakes (planned)
  • Part 4 – Climate zones (planned)
  • Part 5 – Volcanoes, earthquakes and other catastrophes (planned)
  • Part 6 – Rocks rock! (planned)
  • Part 7 – Summary: Pointers and tricks to make your world geologically sound (plannedI)

Just, so I won’t bore you with some scientific lecture, I have invited Mobs, my little science communicator.

Mobs, als Wissenschaftskommunikator, (c) Janna Ruth

Geological time

Geologists and their sense of time – apparently a breaking point in relationships. When a geologist says, an earthquake is imminent that may be in 10, 50 or 100 years. Or maybe it happens tomorrow morning. They also talk about the recent ice age as if it were a thing that happened a few weeks ago, when it was over 10,000 years ago.

Mountains don’t appear in a human’s lifetime, not even in our species lifetime, though at least that would be a visible change. Equally, it takes a long while for mountains to disappear. The Scandinavian mountains for example predate Pangea and they are still considerable today though that plate boundary hasn’t been active in ages. So, if you are planning to make mountains appear over night or older characters lament how the mountains used to be higher in their youth, then you should consider adding magic or alternative physics into the mix.

Mobs beim Gebirge aufschieben, (c) Janna Ruth

Lifting mountains isn’t exactly a sprinting discipline.

There are, however, geological processes that go quickly. An earthquake can lift or lower the land within the time of its rupture, though that’s only a few metres at most and then not for a while. Volcanoes let whole islands appear from under water during an eruption or they collapse into each other and form crater lakes. Any coast processes are extra quick. Within a person’s life new beach easily forms. At the same time other coasts degrade and break away. With the accelerated sea level rise, this becomes an even faster process.


Plate tectonics

Let’s start with my favourite topic: plate tectonics. As you surely know, the Earth’s crust is broken into many small and large plates. These plates swim upon the so-called asthenosphere, the upper part of the Earth’s liquid mantle. This process leads to plates colliding, tearing apart or passing each other by. The mantle’s convection cycles are the main player in deciding which way the plates go, but that would be looking a little to deep for a place to start.

plate movement, Bucknell University

Bewegung der Platten (c) Bucknell University (www.bucknell.edu)

The reason I’m starting with plate tectonics is that the most impressive feature of any landscape, the mountain ranges, only form where two plates meet. Oceans, meanwhile, develop when a plate tears apart upon two conflicting swimming directions. One of the youngest rifts is the East African Rift which also coincides with the Red Sea.

Mobs Plattenbewegung (c) Janna Ruth

Plates can crash into each other or tear apart and drift away

The second most-important thing is that plate boundaries are THE centres of volcanic activity and earthquakes. Ignoring hotspots like Hawaii, volcanos are only found along a plate boundary. The famous Pacific Ring of Fire, that spans from Japan through Indonesia and New Zealand to the Americas, contains 70% of the world’s volcanoes and hosts 90% of all earthquakes. The latter isn’t so surprising if you think of it. Things colliding always leads to shock waves.

About every half billion years a supercontinent forms. Almost everyone knows Pangea where the dinosaurs roamed. Before Pangea there was Rhodinia and scientists have already projected a future super continent. The Pacific will close eventually and acquaint the Americas and Asia. Going from Los Angeles to Beijing – possible with plate tectonics. If you want to know what these several states of plate assembly can do for your world-building, make sure to come back for the climate part.

Novopangäa, Reiner Olzem

Novopangäa, die mögliche Zukunft der Kontinente. (c) Reiner Olzem (www.reiner-olzem.de)

Jigsaw worlds

If you look at the world map, you quickly notice that Africa and South and Central America fit together really well. Sure, the coasts look a bit different and everything is distorted, so it’s not exactly a perfect fit, but you know immediately that they did belong together some time ago. Other continents fit well together as well, though they have been separated a while longer, so have eroded more.

At the beginning of my geology studies I had planned to build a world from the very beginning. I want to continue this project together with you. Thus, here are the plates of my world. On this map, you notice that a few continents and islands fit together. Thalin, for example, still has this little peninsula that fits perfectly well into the East Coast of Fehnis. Sibenia, however, is just separating, while the islands of Werden and Taro could be assembled back into Fehnis’ and Kryos’ western coasts with a little effort.

Weltenbau: Die Kontinente

Building my own world – starting with some continents.

You can also see how the coasts don’t fit together perfectly. Parts are missing while others would be overlapping. That’s okay, because remember: The tearing apart happens over the course of millions of years, while the sea level rise (and fall) and coast erosion processes work much faster. Thus, I distorted some of the parts and made the coasts look a bit more natural.

And now, it’s your turn.


How to build yourself some continents

  1. Think about how many continents you need and in which size you would want them.
  2. Decide whether you want a bunch of smaller continents or one mega-continent. A little tip: When a supercontinent breaks apart, the temperature rises considerably as there will be a lot of volcanisms and thus CO2 in the air.
  3. Now scatter your continents across the world map.
  4. Pick which continents move towards each other and which move apart. How to the «sides» of your plates relate to each other?
  5. Shape the continents that move apart from each other so that they could fit into each other. The closer they are together the more they need to assemble each other. That doesn’t have to include each coast line. Just take a few of them and make them stand out enough that once could push them back together if they wanted to.
  6. At the boundaries where continents move against each other, we will start building mountain ranges. But more on that in part 2.

Little tip: Since the earth is round, your plates and continents should reappear in the same spot on the other side, when they reach the map limits.This isn’t true for any disc worlds 😉



P.S.: You can download the basic coordination system here.


Disclaimer: Of course, fantasy worlds do not have to follow our laws of nature and authors do not need to complete a geology course in order to build a working fantasy world. However, I hope you have fun and maybe I can sharpen your view a little.