Path2pub Debate: On Research For Writing Retellings

Welcome to the third Path2pub debate of the year! Today, we’ll be debating our stances on:

Must writers read/watch the main source of a story before putting their twists on it in form of a retelling? Or should writers write retellings based on a general knowledge of the main material?


Amber

Look at us being controversial! Personally I think the devil is in the term “retelling”. Publishing these days likes to pitch books as “retellings” because it’s trendy to draw on mythology/historical material, but as the word implies, if you’re retelling a story then you should know the original story – right? I can’t retell Little Red Riding Hood if I don’t even know what Little Red Riding Hood is about! Personally I think you need to have a good working knowledge of the source material if you want to pitch your book as a retelling. That said, there is nothing wrong in writing stories that are loosely based on myths/history, that only draw on small parts of these material, or that extend and spin existing material in wildly different directions. Just don’t pitch it as a retelling (here’s looking at you, PR folks of publishing houses) because that term alone gives readers a certain expectation that will then need to be met.

Lucia

Haha 😂 Amber @ “look at us being controversial”. I do feel like the publishing landscape does push writers towards the retelling mold, because 1) it’s super easy to write a pitch for your book when it’s a Little Mermaid set in France 1867, and 2) because publishing has grabby fingers for easy-to-pitch books, aka high concept. And this is me speaking major time from experience. I believe many writers would be writing wholly original stories if they weren’t striving to get traditionally published, but then again it’s a matter of trends. Years ago, retellings were looked down on in the publishing scape.

That said, I believe it’s necessary to be familiar with the source material when writing a retelling. Because that word retelling comes with a fair amount of expectation, and you could be setting yourself up for backlash if you fail to meet that expectation to an extent. *passes mic*.

Briana

Okay let’s just be honest here. Stories have been retold for generations. I mean, the greatest playwright in history “retold” stories and tales that already existed. Romeo and Juliet was based off of two stories, one in Italian told in verse and the other in prose. Shakespeare’s Histories are retellings of people who did exisit. So retelling is not something new to publishing.

However, a lot of people have started to think the retellings are actually the true stories. So many people do not know the orginal ending of The Little Mermaid because they adore the Disney version so much. (But that is an entirely different can of worms to get into with the Disney Renaissance.) I think the term “retelling” needs to be changed into “reinterpretaion” because that is what stories are: they are your view on something that is very real. *pases the mic*

Alex

I love this topic! And hear me out I completely agree with Lucia in the fact that is easy-to-pitch if you want to get traditionally published. But, I think the entire re-telling should be re-phrased similarly to what Briana mentioned. I do believe that you need to have a basis to know the story, but the problem is which one? For example: If we are talking about Sleeping Beauty there are at least 3 ‘original’ versions, and two of them are quite gruesome… or when we talk about re-telling are we talking the Disney which is the most popular version? I think we just have to be careful and specific when we talk about re-telling because we could say oh I am working on a Beauty and the Beast re-telling which is really inspired in ACOTAR that is a re-telling of the re-telling. Or maybe we should stop saying re-telling altogether and say loosely inspired by, since there are many versions unless is a true specific re-telling of an original version. *passes the mic*

As someone who likes reading and watching “retellings” (I’m a huge Disney movie fan) I believe that for an author to write a story and call it a retelling, there definitely needs to be enough knowledge about the original material. Research should not only be done regarding the “original” piece, but it also should include all the other versions that came after it. In this way, the author will be able to identify the heart of the story, the core that stays the same in spite of all the elements that might change from one version to another (like setting, time, characters, plot, etc.).

Only by doing extensive research, the writer will be ready to come up with a creative story based, to some extent, on the previous ones; while at the same time offering a fresh take on the well known narrative that will still make readers interested in reading it. I think Lucia and Amber are right when they say that calling a story a retelling creates expectations that need to be met. If the readers can’t find enough similarity and connect your story to the previous versions, how can you call it a retelling? In this sense using terms such as reinterpretation, based on or inspired by (as Brianna and Alex suggest) might be a good idea to allow more creative freedom. *passes the mic*

Lucia

While it’s prudent that the original source is studied before a retelling is done, I think a writer can write a retelling without being intimate with the main source. Some stories are so popular that without even reading the book/watching the movie, you have an idea what it’s about. This makes it possible for writers to craft retellings on a general knowledge—and I’m sure there are writers who do. So perhaps what really makes this topic controversial is whether writers should declare this fact to the world or keep it to themselves, that they wrote a ‘retelling’ without research. Because once you say ‘I wrote a Pocahontas retelling, but I never watched it’ then readers will instantly start rooting out flaws in the work. Or might even call you lazy. In the end, I feel for me this makes it necessary to just say ‘screw it’ and read the main source, haha.

Briana

The Humanists had a phrase they used all the time: ad fontes, which in Latin means “back to the source.” I still think it is important to study the original text or work first, but also look and dive into the history of when the text/work was written. Being a history major, I am biased towards studying history and making sure it makes sense with the context of the story. But if we are trying to update a story for the modern audience, I think we should also be mindful of when the original story was written and the why. That being said: sometimes you ad fontes and other times you throw caution to the wind and go “screw it.”

Amber

Lucia’s question about whether or not we should declare the fact that we have/haven’t read the original text triggered some thoughts. I do think we need to ask ourselves why we get upset when we find out that an author wrote a retelling without a certain level of source text expertise. If we were none the wiser and said author did not declare this, the reader could have given the book five stars because it was truly a well-written story that could stand on its own two feet, yet that same reader might downgrade the rating to one star just because they learn that the author re-told a story without reading the original. Why? The author’s book has not changed – yet that little bit of context can make someone’s opinion of it change drastically. Is that fair? Doesn’t change the fact that the author wrote a damn good book and poured in a whole lot of effort to write it, so should we be so harsh in our judgement? I haven’t come up with an answer to that myself to be honest so I’m happy to hear what others think, although I do feel that the community can oftentimes be very critical – and as a baby author, that is quite scary to me!

Alex

I wholeheartedly agree with Amber and Lucia. As a baby author myself I hesitate with things I should disclose. As far as re-tellings, I am more lenient when the author mentions in the book that is a re-telling (even though it truly might not be) since I already have set my mind that this will be loosely based on and not a true *character by character* name exact re-telling. I think with more access to internet, if you are going to disclose that you haven’t read the source material it’s almost as fair warning to expect some criticism.

Mariana

In my opinion for a story to be “considered” a retelling, it would need to include several “links” the original one, so that it has enough resemblance that the readers would recognize it. If this doesn’t happen, then why would someone say the story is a retelling? That would be setting you up for bad criticism, as Alex suggests. Just keep it to yourself and find another way to advertise it.

In my personal case, if I were to write a retelling, I think I would do the research, not just on the “original story” but also other versions that came after that. I’d look for the similarities and the differences that make each one of those retellings unique in their own way. Then, I’d try to come up with my own story based on my findings. I completely understand that other writers might not do the same, and I respect that; but I would feel more confident on calling my story a retelling, knowing I did the work.


We hope you’ve enjoyed this 🙂 We’re eager to learn your thoughts!

Published by path2pub

From The Trenches To The Shelves

15 thoughts on “Path2pub Debate: On Research For Writing Retellings

  1. Oh yes debate!! I hadn’t known one was coming up! What a fun surprise. These are one of my favorites features on Path2pub —in case that wasn’t obvious haha.

    I love that you ladies addressed this topic in this conversation and have had so much fun reading your point of views on it. I think writers can write Retellings without reading the main source, it’s not impossible. But I also happen to think that they’re shortchanging themselves when they do because they have limited info to play with. When you study the source material, you get so many angles to play with to give your story so much color and life. It’s just like Cinder with Marissa Meyer, and how it’s so different because it’s set in a futuristic world, yet enthralling because of the Cinderella parallels it pulls.

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    1. We’re so happy to read your comment, Gina! It’s very encouraging. Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I loved the example you provided with Cinder. 👍🏻

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  2. Look at you ladies being controversial indeed ahahaha. But I love that you tackled this topic! I 100% think writers should read a source material before writing a retelling, if not to be well educated so you don’t end up screwing the storyline up and making a joke of yourself in the process, then out of respect to the main material.

    Why are you writing a retelling of a story, if you can’t spare the time to *learn* that story? (Drops mic)

    I really enjoyed reading your POVs!

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  3. I absolutely love the passing of the mic 🎙 😁

    I agree with all of your points because you’ve all explained it so well, and I think have a mostly general consensus that reading a source material is the best way to go. I’m happy to see you feel like that!

    There’s also a need for accountability in publishing. Traditional or self publishing. And if you write a retelling, someone will doubtlessly ask you about your thoughts on the source material. It could be why it inspired you enough to write a spin on it. What you like/dislike about the source story. Etc. And the truth is that a person has to be incredibly naive not to be prepared to answer such a question. I think we all just never really realized how much such answers can actually make or break until recently!

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    1. Savanna, you’re so right about the fact that when writing a retelling, the question of why you decided to do it will definitely arise. That was a great addition to the discussion. Truly doing the research and being prepared before you write the story is best. We’re glad to see you share this same POV. Thanks for reading!

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  4. Fantastic debate, and great contributions in the comments! I hopped right here once I got the notification of a debate in my email😍

    For me, based on whether or not to share with the public that a writer isn’t intimate with the source material is tricky. Because the last thing you want to do is LIE to your readers. Worse, that you read a story when you didn’t. That sort of lie is bound to come back to bite you in your behind, and when it does the scandal/drama would probably be worse than telling the truth that you didn’t read the source material. So as said above, just say ‘screw it’ and read it! If you decided to base an entire book on it, then it can’t be THAT bad that you can’t just read it!

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    1. Maddie, thanks for reading and for your comment. You’re so right, the discussion going on in the comments is spot on. We’re so glad that you enjoyed the debate.

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  5. Path2pub, you have very fast readers. Look at this comment section only few hours after the post is published. I’m just here, enjoying this raining midnight and reading this post like a novel while enjoying the atmosphere. Thanks for providing us solid content 🙂

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    1. Forley, our readers are the best! We feel so grateful with the participation and engagement that our posts and debates get. We hope you keep on supporting us.

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  6. I love the points made in the post and comments. Makes This discourse more interesting and enlightening over here than it is on Twitter haha. Also kudos to addressing this topic. Cheers to the third Path2pub debate 🍻

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  7. “I believe many writers would be writing wholly original stories if they weren’t striving to be traditionally published”. One of the truest statements I’ve seen concerning publishing in a while.

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