The Infamous Retelling of An Old Story (7 Tips!)

The meme is right, but I’m going to talk about retellings more than remakes.  Is there a difference?  At first glance, I thought there wasn’t.  Then I considered the nuances a bit more and realized it was subtle.  A remake/reboot is when an idea is totally overhauled almost to the point where it’s only related to the original by a few scraps.  These are left to retain the minimal level of connection for nostalgia purposes.  Retelling is when much of the original is kept, but is changed to suit the new narrative.  Perhaps the perspective is being done from the villain’s side or it changes the time period.  The audience can still identify many similarities while getting a sense of new.  Not an easy thing to pull off, so what are some thing to do?

That’s right . . . I’m going back to the post title and making this a 7 list.  Mostly because my brain keeps going into that layout.  Damn thing has gotten bossier ever since I cut back on the rum and vodka.

  1. Read the original and as many retellings as you can.  Do not go in with only a general idea of the source material.  You might think that knowing too much many influence your own take too much.  I’d say that isn’t as possible as being ignorant and botching the delicate union of new and old.  You may find some unique angles in the plot that haven’t been explored or discover minor characters that can be flushed out.  There’s no telling what might happen, but at least you will know enough of the past to show it the respect it deserves.
  2. Do NOT badmouth the source material and act like it’s an inferior product that should be honored by your attention.  Seriously, I’ve seen people do a retelling, remake, or reboot then spit on the original.  This makes you come across as an asshole who wants the built-in nostalgia and possible money of the original, but thinks very little of the fans and story.  Again, you need to demonstrate some respect unless upsetting people is part of your marketing scheme.  That’s entirely possible in this day and age.
  3. Ask yourself questions about the original.  This can lead to covering plot holes in your own version.  It may be something that other people are curious about, so you can help to give an analysis of the original.  With it being in your story, it won’t be true canon, but it fits into the fun of discussing stories.  These questions can be about characters, plot, setting, or anything that will help you build your retelling.
  4. Any major changes need to be thought out beforehand.  If you’re going to retell ‘The Little Mermaid’ and put it in a desert then you’re going to need to explain yourself.  It can’t be done on a whim since her being in the ocean is pretty central to being a mermaid.  Maybe they’re sand mermaids or live in an underground sea.  Just imagine this issue like you’re working with dominoes.  When you knock down one, a few more are going to go.
  5. Don’t be obsessed with originality to the point where you’re barely touching on the source material.  The goal is to tell a known story with a new twist instead of something entirely fresh.  If you’re that focused on being 100% original then retelling isn’t the genre for you.  Even if you’re hoping to get a foot in the door, you need to realize that there are major limits here.
  6. Please take notes.  Whether it be on the original or your ideas, this can really help you keep things on track.
  7. Accept that you will be compared to the original and other retellings.  Some people won’t like what you do.  This is the nature of the beast and some is better than everyone hating your work.  Don’t get into fights after publication.  You can explain why you made some decisions, but be respectful even in the face of venom.  Stepping into the arena of beloved stories means you’re going to make enemies, so the sooner you realize this, the easier it will be.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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11 Responses to The Infamous Retelling of An Old Story (7 Tips!)

  1. I always like your 7 tips. Retelling is something I have not done but I can see where it would be a lot of fun. These tips would make it safer too. Thanks, Charles.


  2. L. Marie says:

    Like John, I enjoy your 7 tips. series. What do you think of fairy tale retellings. I’ve seen books where the author claimed to really hate the story and wanted to retell it, which points to tip 2.


  3. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from Charles Yallowitz with The Infamous Retelling of An Old Story (7 Tips!)


  4. One time, on Wyrmflight, I re-told a traditional tale called Margaret and the Dragon. A young girl is allowed to roam in the forest alone, which of course would not be acceptable these days. In the end, though, her dragon friend is killed. At that point, I had the knight who killed the dragon take her home. It was a change to the narrative based on contemporary parenting beliefs.

    There will always be factors that need updating, and sometimes completely upending. Your example of Maleficent is a good case of that.

    Although it’s up to the author to be respectful and certainly be aware of other authors’ versions of a work, it is also true that fans can come ridiculously unglued over one specific thing: race. A black woman cosplaying Cinderella was widely reviled, and a black woman being cast as Ariel recently got a huge backlash. Some fans really need to grow up.

    At the same time, if you’re playing with that racial aspect, you need to brace yourself and prepare for the blowback. You might not believe it’s right or fair, but you can predict that it will happen.


    • My biggest issue with the race and gender swaps is that it’s being done in place of creating new characters of diversity. I would much rather see a new franchise be built around a diverse character than get a reboot because it feels like the latter is done specifically to cause fights. You get free marketing if the internet gets angry because then the media runs with it and people buy tickets to support the cause. Quality of story no longer matters.


  5. Neat post. I’m generally against remakes, but when the original is obscured anyway because it was a verbal story for centuries, they can be fun. Reimagining seems like a challenge. My favorite was Oh Brother Where Art Thou.


    • It’s definitely a challenge and you make a good point. Some stories have been around for ages, so they’re muddled enough to allow for a lot of versions. We do run into a problem when one remake is placed as the new standard because it can overshadow the fact that public domain is free for all to us.

      The movie was a variation on ‘The Odyssey’, right?


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