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Retelling Stories: A Useful Addition To Your Toolbox

Whether it’s for training, improving, or relating, retelling stories can prove a useful addition to every writer’s toolbox.

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Retelling stories: Of course you’ve heard this before. It’s the plot of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice. But it’s also the plot to a whole host of other books, including Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, The Love Match by Priyanka Taslim, Debating Darcy by Sayantani DasGupta, Pride and Papercuts by Staci Hart, and Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev, just to name a few. Each book offers a slightly different take on the classic tale. In one, the Elizabeth Bennet-styled protagonist is a successful neurosurgeon; in another, she’s a high school debate champ. Every work shares the same basic structure, but the details differ enough that each functions as its own unique story.

Austen’s work is hardly the only one to be retold. Writers have used classic stories as a vehicle for their own world-building for centuries, but recently we seem to have entered a renaissance for these retellings. Recasting a classic has many advantages. People are already familiar with the story, so you spend less time setting up the plot. And you earn automatic buy-in from fans of the original. Another, increasingly important reason to retell stories is to do it with a more diverse cast, allowing more people to see themselves in the tales that shape society.

It’s the universality of a story that keeps it relevant as time goes on. And that appeal draws writers back to the writing device again and again. “We as readers enter a text in complex ways,” says DasGupta, who has written two young adult books inspired by Austen texts. “And so, what appeals to me about Pride and Prejudice appeals to someone else differently. That’s what makes these authors timeless is that their stories do have so much nuance that readers can enter at different points.”

Retelling Stories vs. Tropes

Reusing ideas is certainly nothing new in literature. From Biblical stories to Homer’s Odyssey, concepts get adopted and tweaked for the audience. This is different, though, from another literary practice many writers rely on: using tropes. Tropes are plot devices deployed repeatedly throughout literature, such as friends to lovers in romance novels or a red herring in mystery novels.


While retelling stories and tropes share commonalities, like relying on a set piece, they are unalike in other ways. Writers enjoy more freedom with tropes, which can be interpreted in different ways or reimagined to fit the setup. Tropes have no specific characters or plotlines, whereas retellings do. And while writers can reinterpret classics in ingenious fashion – see, for example, Melissa de la Cruz’s clever recasting of the dwarves in Snow White as child laborers in the mines in Snow & Poison – they must stay within the confines of the already-established storyline.

Retelling Stories: Why?

Writers retell stories for many reasons: to honor a work that made a big impact on them; to amplify an important message; to explore a theme from a new direction; to add diversity where there had been none. Retelling is often one of the first forms of storytelling a writer encounters. Who didn’t imagine themselves as Cinderella, the prince, or the fabulous fairy godmother while growing up? Those machinations can lead to new ideas based on our own interests and our own timelines. What if Cinderella’s stepsisters weren’t actually that bad? (Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire.) What if the prince didn’t go knocking on doors to find Cinderella but instead uploaded a blurry picture of her to Instagram? (Sometime After Midnight by L. Philips.) What if Cinderella were Black and queer and trying to figure out why a slew of girls went missing? (Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron.)

Retelling also has another value. It forces readers to rethink things they may have taken for granted. While many of us read the classics in high school, we may not stop to re-examine them, and the “truths” they peddle, as we grow older and gain perspective. Retellings help us see ideas in a new light. “When we look at a story we know well – or know of – we tend to see what we expect to see,” says Amanda Sellet, whose Belittled Women wittily reinterprets Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women. “‘Romeo and Juliet, how romantic!’ Little Women, how sweet!’ Giving a familiar story a makeover lets you view it in a new light. Maybe that classic you thought of as wholesome is actually kind of weird. Or toxic. Or ridiculous.”


Retelling to Right Wrongs

Classics exert such influence over our education. They serve as foundational texts – who, after all, hasn’t taken a class involving Shakespeare, Austen, or one of the Brontë sisters? These stories form building blocks for our understanding of other works. And for writers, they show how plotting, characterization, and craft should work…or reveal why they don’t.

That uneasy relationship with a classic text inspired both Sellet’s Belittled and Betsy Cornwell’s inventive YA novel Reader, I Murdered Him. The latter draws inspiration from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre but rearranges many of the elements of the story and incorporates a queer romance. Cornwell says their book is more of a response to Eyre than an actual retelling, but they use some of the same characters and plotlines. They felt their reaction to the book evolve as they grew older. When they first read it with their mother at age 10, they felt scared of Edward Rochester, the brooding head of the manor where Jane works. Later, Cornwell became more and more bothered by the character while revisiting the book. When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave testimony about her alleged assault during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings several years ago, Cornwell channeled their frustration into creating Reader. “I just felt so much anger about how her story was treated,” they say. “And that just sort of resonated with these thoughts I’d had about Jane Eyre and Rochester and the little girl and the story and what her version of events might be. All those things came together for Reader.”

Sellet felt similarly conflicted about Women. In Belittled, the protagonist, Jo, has a complicated relationship with the text that provides her namesake. Jo’s mother is obsessed with Alcott’s work, but her daughter sees its flaws and tires of all the comparisons to the book that her name invites. “Little Women loomed large in my consciousness from a young age, but it was a more complicated relationship than pure fandom; there were always things about the story that bugged me,” Sellet says. “That didn’t prevent it from being a foundational text – something I’d quote from with my mother and sister on a regular basis.”


Sellet used her book to embrace the universality of Jo’s experience (the writer calls her protagonist “a churning bundle of want,” and who among us isn’t?) while critiquing the problematic aspects of Alcott’s vision. “A hundred and fifty years after Little Women, there may be less emphasis on being ‘ladylike,’ but the pressure to conform hasn’t gone away. And if someone tries to make you small and silent and subservient or to take away your freedom, it’s important to ask why, even if it means getting labeled difficult or rude,” she says.

De la Cruz relished turning a trope that she has never liked on its head in Poison, her retelling of Snow White. “I loved reworking the evil stepmother angle. I think stepmothers have such thankless roles, especially in fairy tales. And in real life, all the stepmothers I know are the loveliest mothers – and I wanted to honor that love. The myth of this evil stepmother is just this terrible trope we’ve had in our culture,” she says. Retelling provided an avenue for reinvention. “In reality, stepmothers are just as loving as mothers and will die for their children.

Retelling to Add Diversity

Publishing gatekeeping has been going on since way before the 20th century. Most classic tales center on white, cis, straight protagonists. Retellings bring new viewpoints to a story, plus a chance for people of color, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community to see and center themselves.


That opportunity attracted DasGupta to Austen retellings. She grew up a fan of the author, reading her books repeatedly. But as much as DasGupta loved the stories, she also knew they presented a limited point of view. She didn’t see herself or her family represented in them. “I’ve been thinking about doing an Austen retelling with multicultural characters forever, mostly because I grew up loving Austen, I’m an Austen fanatic. But also, I never saw myself, obviously, in any of those stories, and I really wondered what it meant to insert Brown and Black characters into these classic stories,” DasGupta says.

She even had a bit of meta fun with the insertion. In Debating, her two main characters discuss the merits of swapping diverse characters into what they term traditionally white stories. As a writer of color, DasGupta believes in the importance of writing new stories but also revisiting and revising the old. “Do we, meaning marginalized authors, write our own stories? Do we insert ourselves into these classic tales? Do we do both? And you know, I think my answer is, obviously, we do both,” she says.

De la Cruz has penned retellings of several classics. She looks for ways to help everyone see themselves in the main character. “We all want to be the heroes of the story – and seeing and centering non-‘mainstream’ characters in familiar worn fairy tales is very powerful. It sends a message that anyone can be a princess, a warrior, a knight. That’s a huge message,” she says. “In my latest retelling for Never After [a series of fractured fairy tales], I had a lot of fun turning King Arthur, Merlin, the Lady of The Lake into a funny, warm, Latino family. Why not?”


Retelling Stories to Learn

Finally, you can’t overlook the value of retelling stories as a vehicle for learning craft. Cornwell retold fairy tales in many of their earliest writing exercises. “I could kind of use them as plot training wheels for myself, and that is still an assignment that I give to my students as a writing teacher is to retell a fairy tale because I do think it is very good training to look at how these very durable stories work,” they say.

Whether it’s for training, improving, or relating, retelling stories can prove a useful addition to every writer’s toolbox.

Toni Fitzgerald is the copy editor for The Writer as well as a freelance writer. She was recently both delighted and appalled to discover a retelling of the classic movie Grease that she wrote at age 15. She promises never to publish it. Web: