Breathing New Life into Old Tales
The idea of taking a well-known story and putting a new spin on it is nothing new. If you look at Shakespeare as an example, very few of his plays were truly original in terms of plot. Romeo and Juliet draws on an earlier poem by Arthur Brooke as well as other stories (Tristan and Isolde, Orpheus and Eurydice) that follow the same tragic lovers arc of R+J. Hamlet is based on a Norse legend. Othello is said to be an adaption of an earlier Italian work, 'Un Capitano Moro.' Shakespeare borrowed stories from all over the place and put his own spin on them, and so it seems fitting that his own work has been so often adapted and re-imagined over the years. From West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) to Forbidden Planet (The Tempest) to The Lion King (supposedly based on Hamlet) plenty of films and musicals have turned Shakespeare's plots into something new. In literature, 'New Boy' by Tracy Chevalier is a re-telling of Othello as is 'Chasing the Stars' by Malorie Blackman. 'Brave New World' by Aldous Huxley borrows more than its title from The Tempest and 'Hagseed' by Margaret Atwood retells of The Tempest's story as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project.
All that is just focusing on one single playwright. When we open things up, we can find re-imaginings of Austen, Conan Doyle, Dickens, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Victor Hugo, fairytales, mythology, religion, nursery rhymes; stories that reevaluate people from history, give a new lease of life to side characters from plays, novels, comic books, films, TV series etc. There is a whole world of possibilities out there.
As always, in this blog, I'm focusing on flash fiction pieces that I've read and loved. I think these shortest of literary works lend themselves really well to the idea of reinventing something that has gone before. There are so many angles that can be taken and the brevity and intensity of flash means that the stories will always feel fresh, always add something new to the original. In terms of approach, the story can be kept as the narrative we all know but in pocket form - there's a lot of power in this as one of the below examples demonstrates wonderfully well. Alternatively, the story can be twisted into something new. What if Cinderella's step-sisters weren't as ugly as we are made to believe? What if the Greeks and the Trojans had made friends rather than waging war? Stories subverted in this way can be just as enchanting as their source material; they can be more relevant to our modern world; they can ask questions about tropes and norms. Finally, we can dig beneath the surface of stories, to examine them from a new perspective. Would the Little Mermaid really have been so easily tricked into giving up her voice? How does Jafar, an otherwise highly intelligent man, not predict the consequences of becoming a genie?
There are so many ways of interacting with well-known characters and stories that really lend themselves to flash fiction and when this is done well, the resulting creations are something to behold. The six pieces I've picked out today draw inspiration from the bible, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Rapunzel and the Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. They are lyrical, full of humour; they ask questions of their source material, pay homage to the originals but ultimately break free. Once you're done reading, you'll hopefully start to wonder about the characters that appear in other well-known tales. And, who knows, maybe you'll even want to breathe new life into an old story of your own.
Christopher James | Atticus Review
Having had my own The-Old-Lady-Who-Swallowed-A-Fly story published earlier this year, I was immediately intrigued to find this take on things on the Wigleaf longlist. It really is a beautiful piece of writing, a masterpiece of sentence construction, light and shade. I lost count but I reckon that third sentence between 'Was it an accident' and 'was that why?' is over a hundred words long. At that length, it could easily have become unwieldy but there's a lot of craft here. Notice how the phrase length expands and contracts to create a pleasing rhythm. There is tonal contrast in the narrator's knowing asides - 'because she knitted' and 'that bit stood up well, as dad said.' And the long, loose phrasing gives way to shorter two/three-word phrases with the effect of making things feel more intense towards the final question - 'was that why?' Later on, there are more long sentences, this time using lists in an almost hypnotic effect. There are nods to the original - 'why oh why? Why did she swallow that fly?' - which pay homage to the genesis of the story but, like all great pieces inspired by other tales, this piece is in no ways shackled by its source material. It is all about questions - how? what would it feel like? why all the others? - that dig beneath the Old Lady's skin to add a depth to the story, use what is essentially a nonsense poem to explore the themes of loneliness and old age in a unique and wonderful way.
Ashley Burnett | Jellyfish Review
I've seen the modern re-working of the fairytale princess story quite a few times. There are some great examples out there but this is a favourite. It's so full of references to Snow White, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince and other tales beautifully woven together with the skill of the story's protagonist. We are often told in flash fiction to keep the number of characters to a minimum but this piece is able to throw that convention out the window because we, as readers, feel like we already know something about each character. I like how each interaction has a slightly different tone to it. The wicked witch's voice is pitch perfect; I love the genie's explanation of why there's only one wish - 'Not in this economy.' There's a wonderful humour here. It is never forced and the lightness of tone is maintained all the way through. Dialogue tends to be quite sparse in flash fiction but here it is given space to breathe. It is used to carry the story forwards whilst also giving splashes of back story and revealing character details. The characters are fleshed out in a way that is often missing from the fairy tale stories they are taken from. And I like that there are glints of a message below the surface, about conventional tropes and female agency. This, for me, is what retelling a well-known tale is all about, crafting something new out of something old, enhancing, subverting, giving us a different spin on the source material.
Stephanie Carty | Dear Damsels
This is one of those pieces that I could read just for the words of it. Straight away in the first sentence, we have two lots of alliteration and there is a brilliant bite to the words that echoes something of the subject matter. This bite is created, in part, by the use of consonance, lots of words ending in 't' - 'caught sight', 'that exquisite beast.' There is some lovely foreshadowing here in the inclusion of 'that exquisite beast' - for the sake of concision, it could be left out but I'm a firm believer in not being shackled to concision for concision's sake. Take the next sentence - it is wonderfully wordy and brilliantly evokes something quite stately in the way it is allowed so much space. Another thing that I really love in this piece is the attention that has been given to verb choice - 'I start to unwind my stiff body', 'Papa folded forward over his plans for war.' In the next paragraph, there are three fantastic images in quick succession - 'as the earth pulls rain', 'light as a fern', how she leaves behind her name 'in the cobwebs.' Sometimes, too much imagery can feel like each image is competing against the others but here everything is balanced. And the same can be said for the piece as a whole - rhythm, sound, imagery, tone of voice all working together to enhance that wonderful subversion of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.
Lucinda Hart | Retreat West
Quickly creating atmosphere is a really tricky thing to do. Some novels spend whole pages simply setting the scene but, of course, you don't have that luxury in a piece of flash. Here, the title does a lot of grunt work. It is so foreboding and that is carried through in the ominous opening. 'He knows where he's going' - no messing about; we are right in the story. In that third phrase - 'a jagged dark mark on the cliff edge' - I love the use of assonance and internal rhyme. Further down, the description is used to add emotional weight to the journey - that wonderful phrase, 'a path formed by countless feet over the years' - and to create a sense of pause. There is a clever build-up of remorse in the references to how 'the city's pale roofs sting his eyes' then 'tears' from the scent of the 'grey-green herbs.' Given this, the 'grit and sand' from the following paragraph do more than just build description; they build emotional weight. We also see how the rhythm of the writing speeds up here, slows down towards the short sentence - 'A mob' - before speeding up again. Even though this is a story that most of us know, retold rather than re-imagined, this piece still manages to ensnare its reader, the ending that we are hurtling towards still as powerful as if it were a complete surprise.
Olivia Kingery | Milk Candy Review
Alice in Wonderland is a story that constantly catches its reader unaware and this brilliant re-telling of Alice's story is equally full of wonderful surprises. It has a confidence to it, an ability to wander away from the story for a second, to give us details that seem like a detour but add so much character depth. I love how straight away in the second sentence we are given a list of things Alice loves. They feel like quirky choices and then we realise she is describing herself. All the way through, the writing revels in the absurdity of the story. There is that wonderful image - 'the restaurants have opened up their walls', something so full of longing in 'no one on a date with themselves.' There is a playfulness in the use of language - in the latter half, there is rhythmic use of repetition ('Alice has been cheated and the cheater'; 'She knows there is love for eyes and love for thighs and love for the taste of both'), alliteration ('lost and loved and left') and internal rhyme. At the same time, there are some brilliant character insights here. The moment where she orders the two entrees and eats half of each is a personal favourite but the whole piece is flecked with them. And like all the stories I've picked out for this month's blog, I feel this piece does a whole lot more than simply re-imagining a familiar tale. It has broken free from its source material and, in the case of this story, is part of a longer series of flash pieces that are all worth exploring if you have the chance.
Jen Julian | Okay Donkey
I often talk about the need for a hook early on in a piece of flash fiction but another thing that I think is often overlooked is the need to root your reader in time and space. The opening sentence to this piece gives us all of that. There's a definite hook, we know where we are and we know who is there with us. We also have immediate questions that we want answers to - how did this happen? and how will this situation be resolved? We make presumptions based on our knowledge of fairytales but these are quickly subverted - this is not set in some enchanted parallel universe (she has been 'wolfing down [...] Riverdale fanart'); the wolf tries to get to know the girl (or rather the 'grown woman in her thirties') I like the sparsity of conversation in this piece, how the girl's silence screams off the page. I like the juxtaposition of modern (anime / Riverdale) with reference to the traditional (a lovely nod to 'The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats'). And I love how, in the ending, there is a sense, perhaps, that the wolf, although 'he's not necessarily a bad person', might still get his comeuppance.
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