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Writing Excuses 8.6: Retellings and Adaptations

Writing Excuses 8.6: Retellings and Adaptations


Key points: Retellings take a story, event, or myth, and do it in a new way. Take something familiar and tell it in a new way to make it fresh again. A reinterpretation. It allows you to think about the story different ways. Adaptations over something to a different medium, and do it in a different way. Fanfics use familiar characters, often with a new story structure. All of these allow you to use plot structure, characters, thematic elements that you are familiar with, and still write a new story. Retellings deliver the familiar and the strange. Just don't forget the donkeys.

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode Six.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Retellings and potentially Adaptations.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] Okay. Retellings. Retellings are very popular in the YA and to a lesser extent, the middle grade genre. But they happen in all genres. Usually in adult, they're a little more hidden then they are in children's.
[Dan] Well, unless it's a Hollywood movie.
[Brandon] Unless it's...
[Dan] Which is about 60% remakes today.
[Brandon] Yes. A retelling...
[Howard] Or unless it's a Shakespeare retelling, in which case they use it as a marketing...
[Brandon] Yeah. A retelling is taking a very specific story or historical event, often a story or a myth, and doing it in a new way. Sometimes you paint over completely. For instance, The Lion King is a retelling of Hamlet, quite famously in story circles. But if you say that to the average person, they say, "Whuh?" It goes all the way to the various Snow White adaptations we've had come out this year, which are really retellings. We're retelling Snow White, taking something familiar to people and we're telling it in a new way to make it fresh to them again.
[Mary] Or the Terri Dapling... Terri... Listen to me. Terri Windling, Ellen Datlow fairytale series. Those were wonderful, where they really did take these mythic figures and reinterpret them.
[Brandon] Right. A really good retelling is a reinterpretation like that. Like Mists of Avalon is a perfect example.
[Mary] Very much so.
[Brandon] Re-view. Let's look at the Arthurian myth, but we're going to do it through the eyes of the women involved. These sorts of things. They're engaging. They build off of common ground. They're usually a very interesting way to go. You can go all the way to doing something like George R Martin, who has said before Game of Thrones is a retelling of War of the Roses in a secondary world fantasy.

[Mary] Which then brings up the question of why would you do this? Which is actually something that one of our listeners asked me, because he was complaining... Not complaining. He noted the similarities between Shades of Milk and Honey and Pride and Prejudice, and felt that I had done a retelling, and wanted to know why anyone would bother retelling a story that already existed. Which gets back to the question of originality.
[Howard] Well, the answer to the question is because that's not the story that you're telling, in the retelling.
[Mary] Well, I... It's...
[Howard] In many cases... Well, I mean... Shades of Milk and Honey isn't a retelling.
[Mary] It is not a retelling.
[Howard] So, putting that to rest. But what I'm saying is when you do a retelling of some things, what you're exploring is characters or aspects of the story that really aren't explored.
[Mary] Yeah. I would argue that both Shades of Milk and Honey and Pride and Prejudice are both retellings of Beauty and the Beast.
[Brandon] Okay. You could definitely make that argument. Beauty and the Beast. Yeah.
[Mary] Which is a retelling of Cupid and Psyche.
[Dan] So, there's a lot... What I love about retellings is the sense of play. This is not present in all of them. But, for example, the movie Clueless with Alicia Silverstone, which is a retelling of Emma by Jane Austen is... It's a fun movie on its own, but if you're familiar with the source work, it's at least 10 times as fun. Because you get to see how the author is playing around.
[Howard] In raising the specter of Hollywood retelling, many of the things we see in Hollywood now are retellings, re-imaginings, adaptations in which they want us to know that they are retelling this story because it's a marketing thing. They think it will build the audience. I think as authors that's probably not a great reason to do a retelling. We want to... We can afford to experiment. We don't need to justify the expenditure of $100 million. We're going to write a book that's interesting.
[Dan] Well...
[Mary] But I think...
[Dan] Go ahead.
[Mary] I think one of the reasons that Hollywood uses it as marketing is the same thing that will often draw a writer to it. It's the nostalgia for that story, and the comfort and the... This is something that I love. I'm thinking specifically of Scalzi's retelling of Little Fuzzy. Which is a reboot.
[Brandon] Right. But that's a classic retelling. I mean, reinterpretation, rather than... A lot of the Hollywood quote unquote retellings are not so much retelling. They're doing the same thing, just again. An example of this would be the Harrison Ford Sabrina versus the old Sabrina, which is kind of basically the same story. It's not adaptation and retelling, it's more like an update.
[Mary] Yeah. Then there's also Tad Williams Caliban's Hour.
[Brandon] Yes. I really do like that.

[Mary] Which is a wonderful book. It's a retelling of The Tempest from the point of view of Caliban. It also takes us past the end of Tempest. So that's... One of the things that I particularly like about retellings is that it allows you to think about the story in different ways. Particularly if you pick a familiar story, and not all retellings have to do this. But if you pick a familiar story, and then you tell it from the point of view of a different character, the knowledge that our readers bring to the story from the original can add tension and... That sense of fun sometimes, a sense of dread sometimes, because you know what's coming.
[Dan] Yeah. Such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
[Mary] Exactly.
[Dan] Which is... Or also Ender's Shadow, which is a retelling of Ender's Game from a different character's point of view.
[Brandon] From the same author.
[Dan] Yeah. He's doing a retelling of his own story. It does add a lot of tension in both of those books. [Garbled] and play.
[Howard] The hope that I had for Snow White and the Huntsman was that we would follow the Huntsman's POV, that Snow White's... The beginning of Snow White's story, the origins of the stepmother, were irrelevant. That the Huntsman gets pulled into this thing, and the story unfolds from his point of view, and he realizes, "Oh, my gosh. I'm embroiled in... Wow, this is huge. I guess I'm going to help this girl."
[Brandon] This is...
[Howard] That would have been fun. You know what? That story is still available for you to retell.
[Brandon] That's right. This is why Wicked has been so popular. Wicked is a very famous version of a retelling... It's retelling, obviously, the...
[Dan] Wizard of Oz.
[Brandon] Yeah, Wizard of Oz, but through the evil character's viewpoint. Yes?

[Mary] Which brings up the question. So we talked about retellings. But we're talking about both retellings and adaptations. Some of the things we've talked about are in fact adaptations.
[Brandon] Yes, they are.
[Mary] Like Clueless is an adaptation, I think, arguably.
[Brandon] Which is where you're moving one thing to a different medium completely, and doing it in a completely different way. I would say, yeah, you could... This line is going to blur, though, because at what point... Where's your definition... In which way... I think looking at it for writers, we should maybe talk about using it to take something from the past, use it as an inspiration to tell your story. Whether you do it overtly or not, how can this help you?
[Mary] For a new writer, one of the things that I found really helpful when I was getting started, and I was trying to figure out plot and character... There's all of these different things to learn. The thing that's really nice about taking a classic fairytale and retelling it is you already have your plot structure just sitting there. You know it's a successful one because the story keeps getting retold.
[Brandon] It's the reason why fanfic is so appealing is you have set characters... It shrinks the scale of what you have to do. Sometimes what you have to do in telling a story, it seems so daunting to a new writer... We can shrink the scale, and we can tell a story, focusing on the parts we don't have to invent.
[Mary] If you look at... I believe that I... This is a story that I have online. It's Carbo en Vitra ujo. The secret to that one is, if you know it's there, it is a retelling of Snow Queen.
[Brandon] Okay?
[Mary] In space.
[Brandon] Snow Queen... Like... Oh, yeah.
[Mary] Hans Christian Andersen's.
[Brandon] For a minute, I was thinking Winter Queen, which is Joan Vinge.

[Mary] It's a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson's Snow Queen in space. I did that actually because I needed to write the story fairly quickly. So I was like, "This is a story structure I know and a very familiar with." And I am familiar with the thematic elements of this story. Setting it on a space station allows me to play with these thematic elements and update it for a modern audience and make it still accessible and hopefully write the story a little faster.
[Howard] I would like to point out that the principal difference between... I mean, I agree with what you said, Brandon, about...
[Brandon] Yeah. About the line blurring?
[Howard] Retellings and fanfics. A fanfic gives you characters that you're familiar with that you can play with and build a new story structure under. Retellings give you a story structure that you can put completely different characters on top of.
[Brandon] That's a very good point.

[Howard] I think a good exercise for writers is to take a story structure or... Excuse me, take a story that you know, but that you haven't really analyzed. For me, a good example would be Midsummer Night's Dream. I remember parts of Midsummer Night's Dream. But if I sat down and watched the play or read the play or watched one of the remakes, and forced myself to outline it, forced myself to look at it in terms of the seven point story structure or Hollywood formula or something like that. If I forced myself to look at it in those terms, then that would suddenly be an incredibly powerful tool for me to write a story with completely different characters, completely different setting, that I know will work because...
[Brandon] Okay. That's straying a little bit into what we've talked about before, using inspirations. I think this is actually more... You're stripping it down to its bones. We only want to go to its muscles with the retelling.
[Howard] So I have to keep the donkey?
[Dan] Sorry.

[Brandon] We're going to stop for our book of the week.
[Dan] Yeah. Our book of the week this week is a retelling of Cinderella. It's called Cinder by Marissa Meyer. It is science fiction about cyborgs. Cinderella is a cyborg. Cyborgs are a second-class citizen, kind of a slave cast in this society. It's very fun. It's part of this new wave of young adult SF. It is a great retelling of Cinderella, so... Melissa Meyer, Cinder.
[Howard] I've told you this before. Now I shall retell you.
[Howard] I'm so sorry. You can start a 30 day free trial membership and download Cinder by Marissa Meyer absolutely free and then go find something else that you know you'll love and pick it up for 30% off.

[Brandon] I think, getting back to our roots, we really want to talk about this type of story. Because we've talked about... Adaptation is one direction, where you're... You're not taking on very much at all. The other direction is stripping it down to its bones and learning and using that core. This retelling is in the middle. You are wearing it usually on your sleeve. You are saying, "This is what we're doing." You're going to follow the plot structure exactly. You're going to add something new to it. This is a creative exercise, I feel. It's really exciting to do, actually. People may say, "Why would you do it?" I find it exciting, because you get to... You get to do fun things with a shared, common experience.
[Mary] One of...
[Howard] Let me ask the... Or answer the question that I think this whole cast grew out of. Why would you retell a story that's already been told? The answer is, why would you... Well, ask a different question. Why would you read or watch a story that is a retelling of something that has already been told? Lots of us do it. If you've ever done it, ask yourself why.
[Brandon] Oh. That's a great... Yeah.
[Howard] Why did I want to see Snow White and the Huntsman? Why did I want to see Mirror, Mirror? Why did I want to see... I can't think of another example...
[Brandon] Wicked!
[Howard] Wicked.

[Mary] It is exactly the same reason that small children watch Teletubbies again and again and again. We are attracted to the familiar. But as we get older, what we want is the familiar and the strange. That's what retelling allows us to deliver. Just... I mean, that's what it is, right out of the gate.
[Dan] Exactly.
[Howard] That's why the troll in Snow White and the Huntsman had that television in his stomach.
[Brandon] Exactly.
[Mary] That's exactly right. [Squeaky] Again! Ha ha Ha ha ha.
[Dan] I love watching every new edition... Err, every new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that comes out. I mean, there are dozens, I think. Every one that comes out approaches that classic story in a different way and teaches me something new about it.
[Mary] Yes. Someth... Approaches the classic story in a different way is something... I actually want to contradict something you said, which is that a retelling is where you do the plot structure exactly point by point by point. I think that sometimes that is valid. But what is... Another thing is to look at what the plot elements are, and have it play out in a different manner.
[Brandon] You could. Changing the ending only. I mean, Wicked does this. Wicked is a different ending to Wizard of Oz. A happy ending for the Wicked Witch. It is fundamental to why that piece works. So, yes. There... You're going to make changes, but the...
[Mary] There is a core essence. I mean, the bread-and-butter of puppet theater is going to elementary schools. Which means I am doing retellings all the time. When we did a retelling of Pinocchio, we did not want to do Pinocchio, but we had to. So what we did was, we broke it apart and looked at what the elements were that the audience needed to see in order to feel satisfied that they had seen Pinocchio. So they needed to see Pinocchio turn into a donkey, they needed to see his nose grow, they needed the great shark, they needed the cricket, they needed the Fox and the Cat, they needed Geppetto. But then we told the story of Pinocchio as a young man remembering his puppethood, and we made sure that we hit all of those plot elements. So it was a retelling of Pinocchio, but it was not...
[Howard] It was Pinocchio retelling Pinocchio. That's very meta.
[Mary] Yes. It was very, very meta.

[Howard] I like the way we got donkeys into this podcast twice.
[Brandon] Very nice. Okay. Well.
[Howard] Sorry.
[Brandon] You killed that one, Howard. Nice job.
[Howard] I did not mean to.
[Dan] Ruined all the energy we had.
[Mary] I actually just thought about doing a donkey...
[Brandon] Donkeys?
[Mary] Heehaw. Then I was like, "No, we've gone too far."
[Brandon] [laughter] Well, you know...
[Mary] I have that in my repertoire.
[Brandon] Some of them in with a bang, some of them end with a heehaw.
[Mary] Heehaw! Heehaw.
[Howard] Heehaw.
[Mary] I can't do it anymore. I used to do this all the time.
[Brandon] Somewhere out there, one of our listeners is listening to this, like at work or something...
[Mary] [laughter]
[Brandon] It's like I'm going to get some great writing advice from these people.
[Howard] Honk, honk.
[Brandon] Their boss...
[Dan] Dear first time listener. I apologize for this one.
[Brandon] The boss walks by. "What? What are you? Never listen to that again! Get back to work."
[Mary] Also, sorry for any of you that just did a spit take.

[Brandon] All right. I'm going to give you your writing prompt. I'm going to say, you're going to do a retelling. I want you to do a retelling of a Bible story, but I want you to set it in a science fiction space setting.
[Dan] Cool.
[Brandon] That is your last excuse. You have no more excuses. Now go write.
[Dan] Write a story about the Chewbaccamic covenant.
[Brandon] The what?
[Howard] The what?

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