A Long Look at Short Stories Retold
When most readers hear “retelling,” they often think about fairytales or old myths—maybe even old stories like King Arthur. What they often don’t think about are short stories. But why are these stories overlooked so regularly when it comes to retellings?
Most children grow up hearing myths and legends. They spend their childhoods watching Disney movies and learning about the classic tales. Perhaps that’s why these stories get retold so often—because they are beloved tales that remind us of our childhoods.
Short stories, on the other hand, are usually something readers encounter when they’re older, when they can read for themselves. And they’re not often made into movies.
But there’s another obstacle that comes into play when writers want to rewrite short stories. Public domain. A story or tale has to be in the public domain, meaning there are no intellectual property rights to worry about, in order for authors to be able to retell the story. So many of the well-known short stories, like “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson and “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner, are not in the public domain because they were written in 1924 or later. This also means that in all but some rare cases, almost every recently written short story is off limits to being retold.
This isn’t the case with so many of the old myths and fairytales because they have their origins long before 1924. Thus, they’re much easier to retell because they don’t have the potential of legal consequences attached.
However, there are some short stories out there that can be retold. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe, and “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant are all well-known examples of short stories that are in the public domain. They all contain intriguing worlds that pull readers in just like any old myth does.
"Most children grow up hearing myths and legends. They spend their childhoods watching Disney movies and learning about the classic tales." - Annie Sullivan @annsulliva #disneymovies #myths #fairytales
Yet, authors may shy away from retelling them is because they are so short. They may be put off by the fact that they don’t feel like there’s enough their to retell. But there truly can be enough their to expand if writers look below the surface.
For example, Frank Richard Stockton’s short story “The Lady, or the Tiger,” which is often taught in classrooms across the world, is barely over three single spaced pages long and even has an infamous cliffhanger ending—cutting the story even shorter.
In the short story, there’s a barbaric king whose princess daughter falls in love with a peasant, which the king deems unacceptable. So he puts her lover in an arena for justice, where behind one door is a tiger (who will eat him if he picks that door) and behind the other is a beautiful woman (who the peasant will get to marry and have a happy life with.) However, the princess finds out that beautiful woman is the woman she hates most in the world, the one she’d never want to end up with the man she loves. The princess then finds out what is behind which door. When the peasant looks up to her from the arena floor, the princess directs him toward a door. He picks that door, the door opens, and the story ends.
It was this story’s cliffhanger ending that got me interested in rewriting short stories. So in my new young adult fantasy book Tiger Queen, I retell this short story by expanding the story beyond what’s contained on those few short pages.
I also give it the ending it always should have had. But I framed the story in a longer context by focusing on the princess in the story and making her a warrior who has to fight suitors in an arena to win her right to rule on top of dealing with water thieves who are making her kingdom run out of water. But when her last opponent in the arena is announced as the one man she’s never been able to beat in a fight, she has to scramble to figure out how she’ll keep her throne, which might just mean teaming up with someone she never thought she’d side with—someone who turns her world upside down. And if she’s not careful, she might just find herself facing tigers in the arena instead of her next opponent.
By adding in these new elements and giving the princess and the peasant character more complex backgrounds, I was able to expand a few short pages into a full-length novel.
When retelling a short story, it all comes down to expanding on the elements that are there already while also mixing them with new parts, characters, or settings that will add depth and side plots to a story that may only have one original narrative. Additionally, as with any retelling, it’s great to add in elements that will appeal to more modern readers. In Tiger Queen, I took the bland princess from “The Lady, or the Tiger” and turned her into a warrior princess who practically was born with a sword in her hand. She’s now a strong female protagonist who can act as a role model for young readers today.
Overall, it’s not hard to rewrite short stories once you find one that’s in the public domain. It just requires authors to really dig into the story to look at the characters that exist in the story and figure out how they can expand upon those characters to create a more robust narrative that will intrigue modern readers.
Visit Annie Sullivan's site!
Which is your favorite short story that you would like to read a retelling of?
Let us know in the comments below!
"In Tiger Queen, I took the bland princess from “The Lady, or the Tiger” and turned her into a warrior princess who practically was born with a sword in her hand." - Annie Sullivan @annsulliva #yaauthor #shortstory #tigerqueen
This article was originally printed in the Fall 2019 issue of Curiositales. If you would like to receive a free digital copy of the magazine, sign up for our newsletter at the top of this page! Then, confirm your email address (be sure to check your spam folder). Once you click the link in your welcome email, you'll get regular news from Curiositales, including notifications when the latest magazine is published. You can unsubscribe whenever you like. Or, you can read it for free here.
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