How to Fracture a Fairy Tale in 5 Easy Steps
I was a fan of revisionist fairy tales long before the publication of my own Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom books, which feature, among others, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Snow White, and no fewer than four Prince Charmings. What makes fractured fairy tales so much fun is the way they shatter expectations. They’re rooted in age-old stories and characters that pretty much everybody is already familiar with. It’s virtually impossible to enter into a story starring Goldilocks, Gretel, or the Big Bad Wolf without your mind calling forth preconceived notions of those characters. So when an author thoroughly destroys your ideas of these archetypes, it’s all the more entertaining. There are, I’m sure, loads of different ways to go about creating a revisionist retelling. Here’s how I do it.
1. Choose a version of your fairy tale to be your starting point
Since Disney’s fairy tale movies are pretty much already revisionist versions of Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Andersen stories, I’d suggest sticking to the original tales as the foundation for your new retelling. Even still, you’ll have plenty of choices. Since these stories originated out of oral tradition, it’s sometimes difficult to decide which version is the true “original.” Read the same story in five different fairy tale books and you’ll find all sorts of changes in the details. So you’ll need to decide: Do you want your starting point to be a Cinderella in which the wicked stepsisters simply grumble with jealousy at the royal wedding, or one in which they get their eyes pecked out by angry birds? Read as many versions of your selected tale as you can and then pick your favorite. Or combine versions. Remember: You’re hoping to turn this puppy into a wholly original piece by the end anyway, so messing with the source material is the name of the game.
2. Find the questionable story elements
This will not be difficult. With any version of any fairy tale, there is going to be at least one thing that makes you go “hmmm.” More likely, you’ll find several. And they won’t just be plot holes; they’ll be plot canyons. Seriously, if you can read through an entire fairy tale, get to the end, and say, “Nope, everything in that story made perfect, logical sense,” then you’re probably already mentally revising the plot as you read.
So, read and question. For example: How in the world does Little Red Riding Hood fall for the wolf’s disguise? We can assume this girl has met her grandmother before, right? She knows what the woman looks like. And yet, when she walks in on a huge, hairy, slobbering beast in a nightgown, she’s all, “Yep, that’s my granny!”
Or take “Rapunzel,” the story that sparked Hero’s Guide for me. If logic were being used, “Rapunzel” could have been a three-line story.
Once upon a time, a girl was kidnapped and imprisoned in a tall tower. One day, a prince came along and saw that the girl was trapped. The prince got a ladder. The End.
But that, of course, is not the way it happened. So we need to ask: Why does the prince never get a ladder? Or a rope? A big net, a trampoline, a bungee cord? Anything to get Rapunzel down! Why does he, instead, make the boneheaded move of climbing up into her prison with her?
Come up with a reasonable explanation and you’ve got a whole new plotline for your revisionist Rapunzel.
3. Answer your own questions about the story
This is where it gets really fun. Why did Little Red think that wolf was her grandmother? There are a gazillion possible answers and none of them are wrong. Maybe Red lost her glasses, due to some overzealous skipping on her trip through the forest. Maybe the wolf is a magic-user and has cast a very convincing illusion upon itself. Maybe Little Red Riding Hood is a wolf herself, and therefore much more likely to mistake another wolf for her lupine grandmother. Whatever your chosen explanation, it is filling in details unaddressed by the original authors, and thus, it will change the story.
4. Answer all the new questions your answer brings up
When I asked myself why Rapunzel’s prince never got a ladder, I decided it was because he was the kind of guy who doesn’t think before he acts. So then I asked myself, why he would be so impulsive, and I decided it was because he was so desperate to be a hero that, when he saw an opportunity for a heroic deed, he felt compelled to dive in, headfirst and plan-free, before any other wannabe saviors got in on the act. So then I asked myself why this guy would be so desperate to prove his chops, and I decided it was because he had sixteen older, bigger brothers, all of whom were adventuring princes who liked to rub their derring-do in their little sibling’s face. The deeper I went, the more complete and complex a backstory I’d built for this Prince Charming, and the more I knew how this character would think and behave through the remainder of the story.
5. Blend your new stuff into the old
Simply by answering all these questions, you’ve given yourself all the tools you need to revise your fairy tale. Now you just need to layer your new story and character elements onto the old tale. Some bits will fall neatly into place, adding much needed detail to the original plot. Others will contradict or negate stuff that happened in the classic version. And that’s when you’re truly earning your revisionist badge.
If your Big Bad Wolf is a powerful wizard, say, he won’t be so easily felled by a nosy woodsman. So you’ve got to rework the “lumberjack saves the day” ending of the original. Which maybe you’ve already done when you asked yourself how this random woodchopper managed to hear the muffled complaints of a girl being swallowed whole in a cabin far away. Because maybe you’ve decided that your woodsman must have bionic ears. And that he has those tech-powered ears because he is a cyborg superhero. And he’s about to face off against a talking wolf sorcerer. Wow, this story sounds cool already!