How to Fracture a Fairytale

I sometimes ask my social networks for suggestions of classic fairytales to retell as steampunk stories. I thought it might be interesting to talk about my creative process, and exactly how I take these very familiar tales and turn them into something new and often unexpected.

Several people have suggested I do a retelling of “The Princess and The Pea.” So if I were going to write a steampunk version of that tale, here’s how I would go about it.

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1. Find the heart of the original story. The heart of the story is the metaphysical or philosophical underpinning of the plot. It’s not what happens in the story, it’s what the story is really about at a deeper level. Or at least, a valid interpretation of what the story could be really about at a deeper level. In our example, “The Princess & The Pea,” the heart of the story is a search for authenticity. You have a seeker (the prince) and the valuable quality he’s seeking in another person (nobility).  The valuable quality is hidden, and the seeker has to encounter several counterfeits so the reader, and the seeker, will recognize the real deal when it comes along.

So if I’m going to put this into a quasi-Victorian steampunk story, we’ll need a hero who is from an old money family. His mother wants him to marry a “real lady.” He’s looking for a woman of quality. But what quality? What makes someone a worthwhile partner in life? Our hero’s mother will parade a series of frivolous, superficial fakes past him. He’ll find something wrong with each one.

2. Twist things a little. If you follow the original plot too closely, you run the risk of boring your readers. So look for ways to fracture the fairytale and add unexpected twists and complications. In the original story, it was the Queen, the hero’s mother, who found fault with all the fake princesses. In this story, we’ll have our hero be the nitpicker–not because he’s mean or hypercritical, but because deep down, he doesn’t want to be married to someone silly, vain and frivolous.

We’ll also shake up the identity of our “noble princess.” In the original story, the “true princess” was a fragile and sensitive creature. While sensitivity isn’t a bad trait, in our new story, we’ll have our prince look for another noble trait.

And instead of a dainty, if bedraggled, princess, our heroine will be a tomboyish mechanical whiz.  Since this is a steampunk story after all, we’ll need some whiz-bang mechanical devices. So a mechanically-inclined heroine is a good way to both tweak the class-privilege theme of the original story, and work in elements of our new genre.

2. Look for the key recognizable details. Lots of stories are about the search for something real and authentic. Heck, all romance stories are about the search for “true love.”  To make this story a retelling of “The Princess and The Pea,” we have to determine the key details which will jump out at the reader and help them recognize the original tale buried in the new setting. These are images which are indelibly connected to the original tale. If you include the right key details, savvy readers will recognize “The Three Little Pigs” even without talking farm animals, and they’ll recognize a Snow White who’s also person of color.

In our example, we have to have a bed. Since we know that we’re going to need some mechanical wonders, and our protagonist is from a wealthy family, they’ll have a marvelous clockwork bed. We’ll add lots of quasi-Victorian wording to make it sound like a “modern luxury device” intended to rock the sleeper gently off to dreamland, while playing a soothing lullaby. Except this one will be malfunctioning. Instead of playing a soothing melody, it will make a horrible racket, and instead of gently rocking its occupant, it will fling them across the room!

(That ought to make for a funny scene if we have one of the “fake ladies” trying to impress our hero, and getting unceremoniously dumped onto the floor!)

So we’ll have to bring in our “princess in disguise,” the lady mechanic. She’ll get right to work on fixing the clockwork bed, and discover the problem is… a set of faulty ball-bearings, no bigger than a few peas.  And now we’ve managed to work in our second easily-recognizable detail.

She will have noticed the problem because she was good at being quiet, listening carefully, and paying attention to details.  We will have established earlier on in the story that this makes her exactly the right kind of woman for our hero. She has demonstrated that she is the real thing, an authentic woman of quality. At least, the qualities our protagonist values.

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So there you go. That’s how I’d fracture that particular fairytale, to turn it into a steampunk story. This is just a thumbnail outline; in the full story I might add more twists and tangents. But whatever original tale I was starting from, I’d use basically the same process.

  1.  Find the heart of the story.
  2. Twist the particulars to make it fresh and to fit the new genre.
  3. Work in the key recognizable details.

If you’re looking for a good writing prompt, take a classic fairytale, folk tale, fable or nursery rhyme and retell it in a genre you love or just would like to try out. Cinderella as Space Opera. Humpty Dumpty as Political Thriller. The Three Billy Goats Gruff as Pulp Fiction Noir Detective Story.

Have fun!

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