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6 Must-Haves to Write a Great Retelling 
Written by
She Writes
October 2019
Written by
She Writes
October 2019

Retellings have become a major part of the entertainment world— whether it’s through movies, TV shows or creative new takes on classic books and stories. With new releases like The Joker and The Addams Family coming out this year, we got to thinking, what does it take to create a great retelling of a story people already know and love? There’s always the possibility to take original source material or other told and retold storylines to create a great new story and with these components, you’ll be writing your own successful retelling in no time.

Presence of the major character(s)

A retelling is nothing without the reappearance of characters that readers know and love. When you're writing your own retelling, make sure you include the major characters who appear in the original work. Imagine writing a retelling of The Addams Family and not including Wednesday Addams. There will always be people who remember the original story and characters and if your work leaves a few of those key players out, you'll have to face a group of disgruntled fans. 

Defining characteristics of the characters

While it's extremely important to not leave off any major characters in a retelling, it's also important to perpetuate those characters' defining features–both physical and intellectual. To continue with the Wednesday Addams example, when rewriting an iconic character like her, you have to determine the characteristics that make them easily recognizable. While you may change her hairstyle or write a slightly older version of her, there are a few things you can't change about her character: her solemn attitude, creepy demeanor and gothic look. Always keep the defining characteristics of the most important characters in mind when writing a retelling to stay as authentic as possible. 

The problem presented in the story

Another important element of a retelling to keep consistent is the problem the characters are facing.

While The Joker has been written and rewritten dozens of times for all kinds of different productions, one thing is always certain: The Joker is the bad guy. Plots like this make it easy for writers to retell the story as there's plenty of ways to put a character like The Joker in an environment where he's hellbent on creating disorder. Maybe he's robbing a bank, blowing up the governor's house or even taking a billionaire hostage. The point is to continue his character arc and make sure he remains the bad guy and the main point of tension in the story.

This is not to say he can't be sympathetic or the anti-hero of a retelling, but for the most part, we expect The Joker to remain and adversarial character. 

The solution to that problem

When a reader picks up a retelling of a book they know and love, they do it because they miss being caught up in the world of the original work. So follow the formula of "give readers the same, but different."

Give readers the bones of the story they know and love while using stylistic choices throughout to make the story feel fresh. If you're rewriting the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), like so many writers have, make sure the two end up together in the end.

Because your story is a retelling and not a reimagined version of the story, you have to round out the ending the same way Jane Austen did. For example, Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice that reimagines the characters decades later but continues the original narrative written by Jane Austen. Keeping the ending of the original will leave readers satisfied.

Events presented in sequential order

As we've discussed, continuity is very important when it comes to retellings. While you have the ability to change up the setting and certain aspects of the most important characters, it's crucial that you put all the events of the story in the right order. Just like keeping the problem and solution the same is important, you also have to get the events leading up to that conclusion correct. If you start messing with the sequence of events, you risk creating a story that feels confused. If you stray too far away from the original story, you may not be able to call your story a retelling anymore.

Including events important to the story and excluding the unimportant events

It's no secret that some scenes within a story are there to help readers get to know certain characters or settle into the story further. While you don't want to take too many risks with the plot, there is definitely room to exclude events you deem unimportant to the overall storyline. At the end of the day, you're still trying to write a clear and concise story and if small plotlines or events don't make sense in your timeline, it's OK to cut them–just make sure you have included the important events that make the story feel whole and complete. You don't want readers to call your story out for missing an important scene that they were looking forward to re-experiencing.

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