How to Give an Old-time Story an Original Twist

cover smallThere are certain stories we’ve heard since we were kids. Cinderella and her missing shoe, Rapunzel and her miles-long hair, Jack and his beanstalk…most of us can recite the basic plot points in our sleep. Even if you stretch the action out, give the characters exciting new haircuts and special effects, the tales themselves remain as predictable as clockwork. It takes more than a fresh coat of paint to make an old story into something new.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. You just have to stop taking things for granted.

Take “Jack and the Beanstalk,” for example. The title insists that there be a beanstalk and someone named Jack, and you probably can’t avoid getting a giant involved somehow. You can even keep the magic beans, if you want to.
But why on earth does Jack always have to get them by being an idiot? It’s only tradition that insists he gets the magic beans in a terrible deal for his family’s last sellable animal, and frankly it’s the kind of idiot decision that makes a protagonist hard to like. Why not give him responsibility for the beans as part of a sacred trust? Or maybe magic beans aren’t nearly as rare as everyone thinks, and it was easy to get a hold of them. It’s what he does with them that makes the story interesting.

Or try Snow White. A dozen different authors have given perfectly valid reasons for why the queen hates Snow White, but what would happen if she didn’t hate the girl? What if someone else made Snow White fall asleep? Or, to take things a different direction, what if there was a perfectly good reason why she had to fall asleep? There are any number of perfectly valid ways a nicely timed magical coma could save a girl’s life.
These are only a few possibilities. Old stories aren’t like stones – they’re like Legos, or Tinker Toys, able to be taken apart and put back together in thousands of different combinations. The old constructions were fantastic – they’d have to be, to last this long – but they’ve already been told. Use the same pieces to build something brand new, something we’ve never seen before. There’s nothing stopping you but your imagination.
And maybe one day, your story will be the one everyone knows.

Jenniffer Wardell is the arts, entertainment and lifestyle reporter for the Davis Clipper. She’s the winner of several awards from the Utah Press Association and the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. She currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. She has an updated blog, is on Goodreads, Twitter, and Facebook. Look for her debut novel, Fairy Godmothers, Inc. on Amazon or Barnes&Noble online.