How to Write a Fairytale Adaptation: A Tutorial Comprised of Five Faulty Assumptions
- Start with a tightly crafted storyline that has stood the test of time – a fairy tale!
Look, I love fairytales as much as the next person (possibly more), but if there’s one thing a fairytale is not, it’s tightly crafted. It may have stood the test of time but that likely has more to do with the fears it speaks to and the themes it deals with than the lack of plot holes. Take the story my novel Thorn is based on (The Goose Girl): we open with a loving queen who sends her only child off to marry some Unknown Dude They’ve Never Met. Say what? That’s your only heir! Why not let her inherit your land? Why not at least vet this guy you’re sending her off to marry, if you love her so much? And… how come her only companion is a maid who triples as her bodyguard and personal diplomat? Yeah, if you’re writing an adaptation, keep an eye out for all the plot holes. The more you side eye your chosen tale, the more you’ll find.
- If you have proven plot, you’ll automatically write a great book.
Nope. I literally almost fell asleep reading the first draft of Thorn, it was that boring. Just because I’d managed to deal with the above-mentioned plot holes doesn’t mean I knew a thing about emotional tension, or dialogue, or anything really. But what I really got wrong? My plot hole fixes did little for the overall tension of the story, because I didn’t really understand it. I had to take a step back and assess what the heart of the story truly was. Fairytales are rarely about the most obvious thing (Hansel and Gretel not getting eaten! Cinderella getting a pretty dress and a prince!). Rather, they’re about deeper, more subtle fears and uncertainties, and if your plot doesn’t tap into those? Well, take it from me. It will take a lot of revisions to fix.
- Fairytales are about lurrrrvvvvvvv
I know we all think Cinderella is about falling in love with the prince, but excuse me? He doesn’t ask her name? Can’t remember enough what she looks like to even describe her in his hunt for her? He has to instead stick a shoe on her foot to make sure she’s the right lady? He rides off with her step sister thinking he’s found her – not once but twice??? Yeah, that story is probably more about Cinderella recognizing that if she wants to get out of the prison of her life, she’ll have to put up with a man who wants to marry an idea of her rather than any actual reality. But she does it, because achieving financial security is the ultimate goal there, folks.
Admittedly, we’ve often focused on the love aspect of fairytales, and built that up, and that’s okay. I’m not really sure a mercenary Cinderella who marries Prince Schmuck in order to escape The Evil Stepsies would really resonate with folks, at least not in a way they might like. But as you’re looking at your fairytale of choice, remember that so many other emotions can drive us, and sometimes love is less about sparkles and blushes and more about respect or even hope. And sometimes you’re actually just trying to escape the witch that wants to eat you, and the love in the story is that of you for your brother.
- There are certain inalienable aspects of any fairytale that Thou Shalt Not Alter
I’m not even going to argue this one, I’m just going to say no. Nope. Uh-uh. The moment you pick up your pen / start tapping on your keyboard, this story becomes yours. You can play with it however you like. Yes, people expect certain things if you’re billing it as a particular tale. For example, at some point in your Cinderella retelling there should be a ball—but Cindy doesn’t have to end up there at all, if it suits your plot for her to be up to other mischief. Just give it a nod!
One of the major issues I struggled with in my retelling was the final punishment of the villain – it was pretty gruesome. (Refresher: being closed into a barrel pounded through with nails and dragged behind a brace of horses until dead.) I literally spent months agonizing over this, and it didn’t once occur to me that no one even remembers that Cindy’s step sisters are supposed to be blinded by birds who peck out their eyes at her wedding. Yeesh. But the real issue for me was that allowing that punishment to go forward literally undid my heroine’s character arc for the whole book. There was no way to stick to the fairytale and not betray my own story. So, I’ll save you the agonizing: don’t betray your story. Do what it needs, and give a nod here or there as necessary. You got this.
- The best villains are inherently evil!
Fairytales are populated with unapologetically horrible villains, without morals and compassion, and their inhumanity makes them exceptionally easy to, um, close into a barrel pounded full of nails and… *shudders* But let’s be real for a moment: the “bad guys” aren’t usually bad in order to be bad. They’re not eating children because they love the taste, they’re eating them because there’s no other food to be had, and if someone has to die, it’s not going to be them. Quite frankly, the most terrifying villains are the ones we can see ourselves in. The ones that might have been us, if we’d just been hurt a certain way, or allowed our selfishness or greed to grow stronger than our moral compass. The ones that could be us, because they’re the hero of their own story, and are just trying to get their own justice, or stay ahead of crippling mortgage payments (evil stepmom?), and end up hurting others in order to achieve their own definition of good.
When we create complex and nuanced villains, our stories begin to grow in strange and unexpected ways. It challenges our protagonist to deal complexities that create incredible tension and uncertainty. And it reminds our readers that we live in a nuanced world, where everyone has their story. And even if a villain deserves punishment at the end, they are still human.
And that’s it! You’re all set to write a stellar adaptation. Well, kind of. Because, at the end of the day, writing is both grand fun and hard work. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you discover a great deal about yourself, the stories you love, and your craft.
About the Book
Princess Alyrra has never enjoyed the security or power of her rank. Between her family’s cruelty and the court’s contempt, she has spent her life in the shadows. Forced to marry a powerful foreign prince, Alyrra embarks on a journey to meet her betrothed with little hope for a better future. But powerful men have powerful enemies – and now so does Alyrra.
Betrayed during a magical attack, her identity is switched with another woman’s, giving Alyrra the first choice she’s ever had: to start a new life for herself or fight for a prince she’s never met. But Alyrra soon finds that Prince Kestrin is not at all what she expected. While walking away will cost Kestrin his life, returning to the court may cost Alyrra her own. As Alyrra is coming to realise, sometimes the hardest choice means learning to trust herself.
Inspired by The Goose Girl fairytale by the Brothers Grimm.
About the author
Intisar Khanani grew up a nomad and world traveller. Born in Wisconsin, she has lived in five different states as well as in Jeddah on the coast of the Red Sea. She currently resides in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and two young daughters. Prior to publishing her novels, Intisar worked as a public health consultant on projects relating to infant mortality and minority health, which was as close as she could get to saving the world. Now she focuses her time on her two passions: raising her family and writing fantasy.