Retelling Redux

Agent Jacqui Lipton talks old stories, new stories, and writing the story you need to write.

 A number of editors and agents (including myself) note in our wishlists that we love a good retelling–but what does that really mean? Does that mean I want to hear your version of Pride and Prejudice with the characters’ names changed and maybe set in your own hometown, or your newly built fantasy-world, or on a space station?


It’s definitely a start, but, to my mind, simply changing the character names, genders, and/or the setting does not necessarily a good retelling make.

Pride & Prejudice
A good starting point...

Why not?

Sure, it’s fun to see Pride and Prejudice transformed into a London singleton’s dilemma as in Bridget Jones’ Diary, or to see Emma become Clueless, but these retellings aren’t successful just because they took the original story and changed something about it (names, setting, time period etc.). They’re successful because a good retelling takes the original and makes something new out of it: in a sense, creating something that makes us both reflect on the original and the new themes or insights of the new story.

Bridget Jones’ Diary works in its own right as a story, not just because it’s a P&P retelling. We’d love the hapless Bridget and her increasingly disastrous attempts to find a man, when she really needs to find herself, whether she was facing a Darcy/Fitzwilliam-esque dilemma or not. Same with delightfully preppie but ultimately well-meaning Cher Horowtiz in Clueless. Whether or not you see Emma in her, you can still enjoy the story.

Give the reader another level of engagement.

So why not just tell your own new story and ditch the idea of reworking a classic?

Because the joy for the reader/audience in a retelling is not only engaging with your new story, but also reflecting on what insights your story brings to the original, familiar, material. Bridget Jones’ Diary largely works for the same reasons the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was such as big hit, because it took the source material and presented it in a new way. The BBC adaptation was obviously much closer to the original source material than Bridget Jones because it was a television adaptation of Austen’s exact story rather than a retelling of it in a different genre. But both of them are reworkings of the original.

The BBC production brings the smoldering understated love story between Lizzie and Mr Darcy to life for a more contemporary audience. Think about it: Did Jane Austen include a scene where a fully clothed Darcy dives in his trout stream for a swim to get Lizzie out of his mind, and emerges in a clinging period shirt? That’s dramatic license on the original but it brings the piece to life in a new way for a then-20th century audience.

Bridget Jones takes it a step further and, when we watch good-natured, self-deprecating Bridget stumble and stutter her way through her days, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and making questionable choices, we can compare her to the straight-laced Lizzie and her sisters. Both Lizzie and Bridget want love, are tempted by the wrong man, face pressure from comically unreasonable mothers to get hitched to an appropriate suitor etc. But Bridget is not constrained by the same social mores as Lizzie and her sisters, so Bridget can make even worse choices than Lizzie without fear of social approbation for doing so. In fact, her posse of besties cheer her on from the sidelines. So what Bridget Jones gives us is a new story loosely based on the old, as well as a new lens through which to consider the original. It gives the reader (or viewer for film/TV adaptations) two levels of engagement with the material, giving their experience of the work that much more depth.

Changing a book cover isn't enough.

A brief note about retellings and representation:

As discovered recently by Barnes and Noble, simply changing the race of the characters of classic stories does not an effective, or representative, retelling make. In this situation, it was only the cover designs that were changed, not the actual stories. Kekla Magoon wrote in the Horn Book more authentically and articulately than I could have about this episode and how it missed the point of celebrating diversity. Kekla herself has retold Robin Hood from an African-American perspective in Shadows of Sherwood, and, as I’ve been talking about Pride and Prejudice retellings, take a look at Ibi Zoboi’s Pride for an African-American retelling of an Austen classic. Look at how both Magoon and Zoboi take the classic story and make it their own. They don’t simply play out the classics beat for beat but with a different setting and cast: they use their retellings to reimagine the original and to tell a new story that makes us think about both the retelling and the original in new ways. And if you want to consider LGBTQIA+ retellings, jump into Cory McCarthy and Amy Rose Capetta’s Once and Future (YA) series, which retells the classic King Arthur tales in a galaxy far, far away. See how they reimagine the classic for a new audience.

What story can only you create?

Make it matter.

My wishlist says that I do love a good retelling AND I DO! But I’ve rejected plenty of retellings in my inbox often with similar words: Why are you retelling this story? So many retellings I see simply take the source material be it a fairytale or classical literature or a Shakespeare play and tell the same story with different names in a different world. That really is only half the battle, to my mind at least. There’s always a reason deep down in your (ie the writer’s) psyche why you chose that particular story to retell. The best thing to do when you start out, or when you revise if it’s easier, is to ask yourself:

  • What is it about this story/play/poem/song that speaks to me?
  • Why do I want to retell this particular narrative?

Once you nail that down, you’ll be able to craft a retelling that does what all the best retellings do—create a new piece while expanding our appreciation of the original through comparing your story to the original.

Don’t be afraid to take liberties with the source material. Don’t be afraid to drop entire characters and plotlines. Write the story you need to write based on that original work. If in the end you want to call it “inspired by” rather than “a retelling of”, what’s the big deal? The point is you’ll write a story that is truly yours: a story that only you could have written.

Go forth and (re)tell!

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