Once Upon a Plot: Retelling Myths and Fairytales
OhmygoshitisWednesdayandthatmeansitistimeforMEEEEE!!!!! In other words, it’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday with me, Cait Reynolds. Today, I’m going to talk about the fact that there is nothing new under the sun.
And, by that, I mean that every variation of story has been told before. Every culture from every time period has its version of Cinderella, its Aladdin or Jack, its greedy kings and tricky old witches. No matter how many magical mice, talking mirrors, or transportation-challenged pumpkins dress up the tale, every story has at its heart the most basic, most fundamental truths about the human condition and human relationships.
Myths and fairytales appeal to our innocence, our belief in justice, and our sense of history. The fact that most of them have happy endings doesn’t hurt, either. The past two years have seen a kind of renaissance in retellings and modern interpretations of these classic stories. A handful have been very well done. The rest have been inconsistent efforts that show very little thought and research has been put into understanding the nature of both mythology and fairytales and how to translate them into contemporary settings.
Celebrity Death Match: Myths vs. Fairytales
So, is there a difference between the two?
Absolutely, and it goes beyond their definitions. But, let’s start with definitions for the sake of clarity.
- a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (such as fairies, wizards, and goblins)
- a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending
- a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon
- parable, allegory
- a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone
Here are some other differences between fairytales and myths:
- Myths are not obligated to have a happy ending;
- Fairytales do not have to have a moral or philosophical agenda;
- Myths are often closely tied to world creation stories, religion, and attempts to explain natural phenomenon prior to scientific understanding;
- It is understood that fairytales have never been believed to be real, whereas myths were frequently accepted as fact.
There are more differences and finer distinctions, but I’ll just add in one more. You can always tell it’s a real fairytale because people/animals/magical creatures are cheerful and sing when doing housework.
Research is a Myth…or is it a Fairytale?
Okay, so say we have this great idea retelling ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ We’ve seen the Disney movies, and we are happily humming ‘Be our Guest’ as we open the blank Word document. We know the story cold, and we may or may not have a picture of Luke Evans as Gaston tucked away on Pinterest.
We are ready to start writing. Except, we aren’t.
If all we are doing is using the movie as our guide, we have missed out on the fact that the historical fairytale has variations that include a father who was a merchant, a sudden loss of fortune, two wicked sisters, and a pretty sharp lesson about the costs of indecision and not keeping your word. If we haven’t done any research, we wouldn’t know that the the fairytale actually has origins (at least in Western culture) in the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, or that another lesser-known fairytale – ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’ – spun out from that myth.
It may seem silly to do research on something that is fundamentally untrue and is by nature fluid and adaptable to time period and culture. Yet, without knowing about the people who wrote the stories, the system of beliefs that the myths came from, and the history of the time when a particular variation was recorded, we are losing out on a chance to delve into subtleties, textures, interpretations, and details that take a retelling from blasé to blazing.
One of the topics I cover in my Once Upon a Plot class is how to go about researching a myth or fairytale, what to pursue, what to set aside, and how to analyze the story in a more complex, contextual way.
World-Building for ‘Then’ and ‘Now’
When we do a retelling, one of the first things we have to decide is the setting. Will it be contemporary? Will it be historical? Will it be futuristic, steampunk, or some medieval-ish time?
This impacts what characters we decide to use, the deeper intricacies and devices of the plot, and the way we represent significant objects from the myth or fairytale (is that a pumpkin or a Porsche?). This is also, sadly, where most writers tend to take short-cuts. They use the generic ‘faux-medieval’ setting that is a haphazard mishmash of culture, technology, and clothing, or they set the tale in today’s world, not really thinking through the implications for characters, decisions, and objects.
A lot of writers use the ‘timeless’ setting in order to avoid doing historical research or any real world-building. Ideas for behavior, costumes, servants, food, castles come from whatever historical drama is on at the time (I’m looking at you, ‘Reign,’ ‘The Tudors,’ ‘The White Queen,’ and ‘The Borgias’). While those medieval-renaissance-ish shows do provide a lot of striking visuals and demonstrate how to make archaic-sounding dialogue accessible to modern listeners/readers, they are NOT to be used for world-building. Ever.
Even for fairytales and myths.
As writers, we are responsible for creating our own worlds, and it is our obligation to the reader to provide a setting that is detailed, well thought-out, and consistent.
Here are just a few of the questions writers should ask when picking a ‘timeless’ setting:
- What is the level of technology, industry, medicine, and transportation?
- What is the political structure of the ‘kingdom’?
- What kind of social mobility or stratification exists within the ‘kingdom’?
- What is the kingdom’s primary religion? Are there secondary religions? Competing or conflicting faiths? Holidays and celebrations?
- What is the geography, geology, and climate?
- What is the overall cultural feel (i.e. generic British, generic Scandinavian, generic Central European, generic Mediterranean?)
That’s just the tip of the iceberg for a timeless setting. If we choose a contemporary setting, that brings a whole other set of issues into consideration, including normalizing any magical abilities within a greater social context, secrets vs. open practices, modern equivalents of historical objects or accessories, and how to maintain a character’s original attitude, purpose, and decisions while grounding him or her realistically in the here-and-now.
Bibbity Bobbity BOOYAH
You guessed it. I’m teaching a class on this very topic. All the details below!
Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $45 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: WEDNESDAY, August 9, 2017, 7:00 p.m. EST – 9:00 p.m. EST
Myths and fairytales are as fundamental to human existence as communication itself. We grow up hearing these stories, being formed by them, and often rebelling against them.
One of the hottest trends in publishing right now is bringing these stories back and giving them new life with creative interpretations and retellings. Done right, a retelling can capture the public imagination, give us new insights into our society and ourselves, and sweep us away to a time and place where everything, including justice and happy endings, is possible.
Done wrong? A retelling is nothing more than a yawn-worthy yarn full of two-dimensional characters floundering through an unremarkable story with a bland, generic setting.
This class will cover a wide range of topics, including:
- How to research a myth or fairytale, from origins to variations;
- How to analyze in order to develop a deeper, richer understanding of the stories;
- How to pick out the key elements, from characters and attitudes, to objects and settings;
- Creating contemporary settings for retellings that are accurate, believable, and flexible enough to accommodate ‘magic’;
- Creating ‘timeless’ settings that are unique, consistent, and immersive.
A recording of this class is also included with purchase.
You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus one hour of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story.
You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus two hours of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story and bonus worksheets. These worksheets will efficiently guide you through in-depth world-building and research, providing you with consistency for your writing and an excellent reference/style sheet for your editor and proofreader.
About the Instructor
Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and four-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, rock climbing, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.
****And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! So scroll down and sign up!