How rewriting existing stories from different points of view can inspire your next book
Let’s be honest: there are only so many stories in this world, but there are millions (billions?!) of ways to tell them. Taking a fresh perspective on an existing story—writing the same tale from different points of view—is a great way to get started if you’re feeling stuck.
In this roundtable article, our bloggers Mary and Annabelle discuss popular retellings and give some tips and tricks for finding fresh perspectives from which to tell existing stories.
Retellings are popular ways to reimagine classic stories, modernize them for a current audience, and engage with literature’s most beloved and well-known characters. They’re so popular, in fact, that sometimes you don’t even realize you’re reading or watching one. For instance, ’90s blockbuster Clueless is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. Broadway smash hit Wicked practically feels like an original fairytale instead of a new look at the Wicked Witch of the East. I’d never have guessed Bridget Jones’s Diary was a Pride and Prejudice remix either, unless I was told. My point is, retellings can be engaging, bestselling, and dare I say…original, if done well.
The question is, how can an author take well-trodden material and mold it into something unique? After all, you don’t want your retelling to seem like a senior thesis project (clever but redundant) or just plain boring. In other words, how do authors keep retellings or sequels fresh?
Know thy source material
As far as I can tell, publishers like retellings. They practically sell themselves because the hook is built in. For instance, “it’s sci-fi Cinderella” (Marissa Meyer’s hit YA novel, Cinder) or “it’s Twilight fanfiction only with billionaires instead of vampires” (Fifty Shades of Grey). Got it. See, the beauty of a retelling is that the audience already has a frame of reference—and possibly reverence—for a beloved storyline. When there’s a built-in fan base anyway, finding an audience is that much easier.
Think it’s all been done before? Well, yeah, probably. But just as there are only so many ways to put together a chord progression to create a new tune, so too are the building blocks of story telling finite. The challenge is to see these characters or these plot lines in a new way. Can you place a historic tale in the modern era? Can you write it from the antagonist’s point of view? Can you expand the story of a minor character? Can you put it in a different realm or society?
The more you know the source material—and look widely for material that hasn’t been retold a million times—the more you’ll see how rich and varied your options are. For instance, Tomi Adeyemi’s juggernaut YA bestseller Children of Blood and Bone was inspired by West African folklore. Hafsah Faizal wrote a YA fantasy series called We Hunt the Flame because she was inspired by Lord of the Rings…but she set in ancient Arabia to give it a twist. The more you look for source material, the more inspired you’ll be.
Let your imagination run
I wrote a YA retelling of Treasure Island featuring a teenage protagonist in modern-day Florida. I loved the challenge of finding a way to make pirates modern (and set in the United States). I also thought it was fun to find a way to reasonably cut people off from modern communication. All the things that were perilous in the 1800s when Treasure Island was originally published are sort of solved in our modern era by cell phones and the Coast Guard…well, except in my book. Still, that was the exciting part—modernizing it.
Making an old story new isn’t the only way to use source material. You can also put it in a different culture, like the YA novels I referenced above. Or, you could tell the tale of another character, like in Wicked. You could only loosely be inspired, like in the Meyer’s cyborg mechanic Cinderella version. There’s no one right way to keep retellings or sequels fresh, but with exploring new source material and letting your imagination run, you can make a classic your own.
When doing point-of-view retellings, writers are given a unique opportunity: explore a different angle from a world they have created or tell the story of a previously overlooked character from a story in the public domain. Readers love familiar characters—it’s part of the reason that series do so well in publishing. But more than that, readers love to discover new things about characters. As a result, if you’re going to do a POV retelling, it must be a fresh take.
What does that mean? What are some practical ways in which this can be done?
Give the readers new information
One of the most prominent POV retellings came into focus a few decades ago when Wicked by Gregory Maguire was published. This story, a new version of the Wizard of Oz through the eyes of the Wicked Witch, was so popular it even became a beloved Broadway musical. But why did it have such a huge appeal?
If Maguire had simply stuck to the story we all new, Wicked may have been interesting, giving insight into the witch’s motivations for being so evil. But Maguire didn’t do that. He created an entirely new narrative, one in which the true protagonist and hero was the Wicked Witch. In short, he exonerated her completely and then found a way to fit the circumstances of the Wizard of Oz into her story in a way that made sense.
Explore the hidden world of a lesser character
If you look up Pride and Prejudice retellings, the list goes on for pages. There are many, particularly written from the perspective of Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, who are already the protagonists of Jane Austen’s famous work. Though these can be interesting and have become their own genre, a far more interesting approach is to take the perspective of a lesser character.
An upcoming novel Being Mary Bennett by J. C. Peterson does just that—it takes the perspective of the most overlooked Bennett sister and fleshes it out. Other novelists have done the same, picking characters such as Mary or Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth Bennett’s friend. What these novels offer is far more unique: the opportunity to re-enter a world we know and love, but from the perspective of someone who was less important to the first story. This also offers the opportunity to be more creative.
Bring a flat character to life
If you’ve previously written about a set of characters and find the one of them ended up being more closed off to readers or flatter than you intended—why not consider a POV retelling? It isn’t always possible in the original work to give “the opposite side of the story” in a way that people connect with. Because emotions and thoughts are so important to character building, often secondary characters, particularly love interests, don’t have the opportunity to be as well-drawn as the protagonist.
A POV retelling flips the narrative and puts the reader in the mind of that secondary character. Then you can use all those tricks of emotion and thoughts to draw the reader into a new, deeper experience of the story.
Whatever direction you take with POV retellings, remember it should be a fun, fresh take. And the more fun you have with it, chances are, the more your readers will be thrilled with it, too.
Ready to get started?
We hope these ideas have inspired you to look at some of your older stories—or some classics—to see what new perspectives you can add to them. Our own Galatea author Sapir Englard, who wrote the hugely popular story The Millennium Wolves, has recently written her own retelling of the book. The new story is solely from the male love interest Aiden’s perspective and is titled The Millennium Wolves: His Haze.
To read about Sapir’s process for retelling the story, check out the guest post she wrote for us here. And Galatea Unlimited subscribers can read the whole new book on our app. (For more info on subscribing, please visit the app!)