Marissa Meyer is one of the most talked-about debut authors of the season, and it’s easy to see why. She’s rewritten one of our favorite fairy tales into a kick-ass steampunk/alien adventure. Cinder, which you can begin reading for a limited time on Figment here, is a re-imagining of Cinderella, about a cyborg treated as a second-class citizen and caught in an otherworldly battle against a vicious intergalactic people. Below, Marissa offers some tips for re-imagining a classic story of your own into something fresh and readable. When you’re done reading, go enter our Cinder contest–which Marissa herself is judging!
Taking a classic story and changing it into something new and exciting is a great challenge for modern-day writers to take on. Ideally, enough hints of the original will remain that readers will latch onto their familiarity and enjoy rediscovering those things that made them fall in love with the story in the first place. At the same time, though, the reinvented work will offer something entirely unique. It will make the reader feel as if he’s stumbled across something brand new, yet inevitable–as if this reinvented tale is the true story, finally revealed.
Whether you’re working with fairy tales, Greek myths, Shakespeare’s plays (Shakespeare being, himself, a well-known borrower of other works), or any other famous story, here are some techniques to make the old shine like new.
Playing with Setting
Who says that a Greek myth has to take place in ancient Greece? Or that a fairy tale has to be set in a land far, far away? Or that any of Jane Austen’s works are meant to live for all eternity in Regency England? When writers are free to choose their own settings, their choices are truly endless, both in time and location. We can take the same bones of a story and set them down anywhere, from the times of barbarians (Viking fairy tales, anyone?) to high-tech space colonies in the distant future (say, Romeo and Juliet between warring alien species–why not?).
Playing with Characters
The life of a story is often found in its characters and how loveable, or despicable, they are. But just because most of us have preconceived notions of the characters in classic stories, it doesn’t mean a writer can’t change that. Take Wicked by Gregory Maguire, which took a character we all thought we knew (the Wicked Witch of the West—as wicked as wicked could be), and turned her into someone completely different. Maguire did such a brilliant job that his re-imagined witch has almost overridden the original in popular culture! So just because Rumpelstiltskin was a conniving elf and Hamlet was a whiny prince doesn’t mean they have to stay that way. Give yourself permission to write the characters you want to write.
Playing with Plot
Then there is, perhaps, the trickiest part of reinventing a famous story—changing the story itself. After all, if you change it too much, the story will become unrecognizable, so it’s important to retain those elements of the original that you consider necessary. In my debut novel, Cinder, I wanted to keep the overall trajectory of the beloved Cinderella story: a downtrodden girl meets a prince and is lifted out of her low social status. Typical rags-to-riches. But within that story, which I set in the future, I added many elements of my own. There’s a deadly plague creeping toward the cities, a broken android with a secret, and an entire Lunar civilization being ruled by an evil queen.
These things don’t change it so much that it’s not a Cinderella story, but they hopefully make the reader feel as though he’s reading something he’s never read before. Which is the greatest thing we re-inventors can hope for.