Why and What If? The Art of Writing an Adaptation

It’s no secret that I love fairy tales, both in their “original” form and adaptations. Whether it’s a modern adaptation that takes place in a big city like Los Angeles, or a more traditional retelling, I love reading – and writing – them all. One of the main reasons is that it’s both fun and challenging to really delve into a story and ask two super important and magical questions: Why? and What if?

Why?

The great thing about so many of the earliest versions of these tales is that there is hardly ever a character motivation stated for anything. Every now and again a villain hates a heroine because of their great beauty, but usually the reader is just left wondering why in the heck someone did what they did. That is, if the reader takes the time to wonder…we accept most of these stories at face value because we’ve heard them so often.

An example of this is the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. I recently decided to do a short story adaptation of it and went back and read the original convinced those princesses were dancing because they were enchanted. I finished re-reading and thought “What in the holy hell is wrong with these chicks? They enslave these poor princes and keep them underground just because they like to rave all night?”

Creating a motivation, delving into the characters and trying to figure out why they tick they way they do, is such a fun challenge. And it’s more challenging, I think, than creating character motivation for characters you’ve created out of whole cloth because when it’s a character of your own making you can change their actions. With adaptations you have a certain set of actions and you have to tailor the motivation to meet the preexisting criteria…

Unless you then also ask…

What if?

What if you took these same characters and put them in different situations, time periods, or settings? Does it change their motivation, does it change their actions? What will make this plot work with a new twist? What if, for example, Sleeping Beauty had never woken up? What if characters from two different stories met? What if all the fairy tales were actually historical fact and not just stories we were told at bedtime?

Here again the challenge is to work within the existing framework, to analyze the story and decide what core elements make it “it.” If you stripped everything else away would the story still be recognizable?

Really digging in and finding the whys and what ifs can change the way you think about a story. It’s thought provoking to see different authors take completely different paths to the same story. Adaptation is a great writing exercise, whether it’s of fairy tales, classic novels, or a piece of fan fiction, because of the way it stretches your brain, the way it forces creativity within parameters. So if you ever find yourself in a writing funk or in need of strengthening those characterization muscles try putting your own twist on a tale!

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