You may have noticed that fairytales are hot right now (putting the "Hansel" in Hansel & Gretel, if you will). Hollywood, after dabbling in Wonderland and red riding hoods, is currently fighting over who will release versions of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty first, fall TV line-ups are including several magically realized dramas, and the buzz around Bologna was fairytale, fairytale, fairytale.
Personally, I am thrilled over this. I've always been a huge fan of fairytales, the more fractured the better. They are strange and fantastic and wonderful, and the real, folklore kind are dark. Why we ever decided children would love them is a strange, sadistic mystery.
But now they are back, and thank goodness for that. There is a downside though. Fairytales are now that dreaded word: trend. With trends comes lots and lots of competition, and if you haven't noticed, it's already pretty rough out there.
I would never, ever, ever recommend to any writer that they jump on a trend bandwagon. But, if you have a story that wasn't right at a certain time, or one that you've been putting off writing for whatever reason, then now might be the time to put it back on your priority list.
With great competition comes great responsibility. How will you stand out in a sea of thousands? Well, the short answer is simply to have an amazing story. But like all good followers of the publishing industry, we know there is always more to it than just that. So before deciding to marry the prince, walk into the woods, or whisk your characters off to lands far, far away, consider the following.
Pick a fairytale you love and know well.
Like with any topic, if you write about something you are passionate about, you are more likely to get others passionate about it too. Choosing a favorite fairytale will have the same effect. Knowing a story inside and out means you are more likely to find whatever specific element is necessary to make it stand out.
For example, lots of little girls take away one of two things from Cinderella - feeling like an outcast who wants a different life or wishing for fancy gowns and becoming a princess. The average reader would take away those same things. The unaverage reader, the one who knows and loves Cinderella and continues to revisit it is able to find something deeper in the story that's worth exploring. Maybe ol' Cindy isn't even the real star. Maybe the evil stepsisters are misunderstood. Maybe they need someone to tell their story and the "average" reader just isn't qualified.
Decide why that fairytale is still relevant today.
Fairytales originated in ancient folklore and were the science fiction and fantasy novels of their time. And like all good sci-fi and fantasy, they are rooted in either social commentary or cautionary tale. Fables are there to teach lessons and fairytales like Snow White and The Little Mermaid, when not in the hands of Disney, reveal the exploitation of women and the compromises they make (even if those morals weren't even intended at the time).
Given the tragedies of the world lately, it wouldn't be hard to reimagine natural disaster, war, oppression, and the stripping of civil liberties in a fantastic setting. Making these realities as fictional as possible not only softens the blow, but it also allows you the artistic freedom to make your own outcome. Will we have a happily ever after? Or will our rabbit hole be dug so deep that we never get out?
Choosing a fairytale because it was popular, or even choosing one because no one else has thought of it yet, can be dangerous if you're querying during Trend Season. In terms of catching the industry's attention, the "what" ends up becoming far less important than the "why." Sure, agents and editors will want to see something other than Little Red Riding Hood because that's already been done, but if your Red reveals something new and reveals it in an inventive way, then she will still have a place on the bookshelves.
Will your book be a fantasy or a contemporary one?
One of my favorite recent retellings is Malinda Lo's Ash (yet to read Huntress, but can't wait!). She twisted the Cinderella story and made her damsel, well... not a damsel at all. Her story wasn't set in modern times and it still employed uses of magic, but she managed to make it her own.
Before writing your fairytale, decide what yours will be. Do you need it to be fantasy-based? Do you want to create your own, completely new fairy tale without "retelling" anything? Or do you want to take a classic story and set it in modern, realistic times? There is no right answer here; only the answer that will allow you to tell your story in the best possible way.
If you decide to go the contemporary route, consider the MacGuffin. That is, decide what the original characters wanted (love, acceptance, freedom, or something more tangible like, say, a poison apple). None of these things are pertinent to the plot, but they help drive the plot. Without these things, the characters would have no purpose. Rapunzel wanting to flee the tower is really no different than a disgruntled teenager wanting to graduate from high school. Or a woman in an abusive relationship wanting to run away.
Fairytales are fun and exciting, but boiled down, they are all just metaphors. And metaphors can translate to any genre and to any time period. They just need to be used in the right way. Trends can be overwhelming and scary, and you may feel like it's hopeless to even try. There is always the right time for the right story, no matter how overloaded the market becomes. Just remember that getting someone to notice that "right story" gets a lot harder, so choose wisely, write well, and get ready to kiss lots and lots of frogs.