How to Use a Myth or Classic Tale to Write Your Novel

1) Pick a Myth or Classic Tale

To rewrite a myth or classic and make it good, you should read A LOT of myths or classics. That way, you understand the form. If you read just one, or know only a little bit about the genre, you're not going to have an easy time writing one.

Stephen King famously said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

So if you want to write something within a particular genre, you better be reading that genre!

With that being said, once you have a good feel for the genre, picking your specific tale is important. You should choose a story that speaks to you for some reason; either the plot mechanics interest you, or the characters are compelling, or there is a particular theme that sparked your imagination.

My #1 tip for using a myth or classic to structure your next novel is to take close reading notes as you re-read the book you've chosen to model your novel after. Below is a list of elements to analyze so that you can really dig deep and understand not only the story but how the story works. This will give you an easy structure or framework for writing your own story.

What if Hogwarts was a Naturalist Academy deep in the forest?

What if Hogwarts was a Naturalist Academy deep in the forest?

Elements to look for (close reading):

Themes: Theme is the general subject or topic that the book chooses to focus on. For example, a central theme in Romeo and Juliet is the destructive power of passion and love. This is a broad topic that can be used to create an overarching theme or focus for your story.

Motifs: Motifs are recurring elements that have some symbolic significance. Motifs can be repeated words or images, such as the recurring word "monster" and "monstrous" in Othello.

Structure: Paying close attention to the structure of the novel can help you develop an easy framework to plug your story into. Structure refers to the way an author lays out the plot. You can look out for how the author varies action, description, and dialogue, and you can note how shifts between focus, time, place, and even characters shapes the story. 

Characterization: There are many aspects of characterization you can analyze, and the more thorough you are, the easier it will be develop your own characters. Elements of characterization you can look at are....

  • Character behavior - what motivates a character? What are their actions? What kind of vocabulary do they have?
  • Character descriptions - how is a character described? How well does their description match how other characters view them?

Other questions to consider...

Is the character dynamic or static? Are they stereotypical? How do they interact with the protagonist/what is their role in the plot?

Imagery/Description: Imagery and description are SO important to your novel, and are often overlooked when it comes to using them to help create a framework for writing. Noticing what senses are prioritized in a story, like, for example, Snow White in which sight becomes a sense through which we are given symbols: snow, blood, a black needle, three images that mirror Snow White's description: black hair and eyes, white skin, and red cheeks. To give your novel the same sort of power and feel as your source text, pay close attention to how imagery and description are created.

Literary devices: Look at how your source uses literary devices, such as irony, foreshadowing, humor, etc. You can copy these techniques so that your story becomes richer and more nuanced. Perhaps a more advanced technique, but if you analyze these devices closely, you'll understand how they're working for your source story and how you can put them to work in yours!

2) Archetype Characters

Create archetype for the main characters by distilling them down to their essential elements. This makes it easy to stay consistent when portraying a character and when you need to find their motivations. Want to make your life easier? Grab the Character Archetyping Worksheet below to keep track of each character's personality traits, desires, goals, weaknesses, and skills.

3) Analyze Plot Mechanics

Perhaps the most important part of creating a framework for you use to build your own novel off a myth or classic tale is to understand how the plot is both creating and driving the story.

All stories have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning of a story is called exposition, where the circumstances and situations for the characters launches. Because you'll have read your myth or classic over many times, you should be familiar enough to know how the beginning of the story will inform later events. Is there foreshadowing? How do the events that start the story unfold and relate to later events?

Next in line for plot mechanics comes the rising action which will lead into the climax. Especially if you're working with a myth or classic, the rising action will be very obvious. Notice what events lead up to the rising action, what mistakes the protagonist makes, or how the antagonist generates conflict.

For the climax, there will be one major event or a series of minor events that create a feeling of tension in the story. Every good story MUST have tension, or it will fall flat. The climax is the breaking point of this tension. Notice how the author of your myth or classic builds the tension and carries it out before letting it release. You can focus on how language shifts to build intensity...perhaps sentences are written shorter or longer, if the vocabulary includes more action words, or if dialogue is used over description.

Finally, your myth or classic will have some kind of resolution. Perhaps this looks like an easy moral, or a "happily ever after." For a more modern take, you can try wrestling with your resolution, writing in an ending that only somewhat concludes the story, allowing the reader to develop his or her own insights and suppositions about the meaning of it all.

4) Develop Your Own Setting

Now that you have characters, a road map for your plot structure, it's time for the fun part. (Wait, hasn't it all been a blast thus far?!) If you want to create a story that departs wildly from your source text, try dropping the characters from, say The Little Mermaid into the toxic oceans of 2034 (radioactive lobster, anyone?).

Because the other areas offer less freedom for your framework, go wild with your setting.

5) Outline Your Novel

Mmm, did I just say that developing the setting was the best part? I may have lied. It gets really great from here on out. Because now you get to throw it all together.

You know who your characters are, you know the structure of the plot, and you know your setting. Now plop your characters into the thick of things and watch what happens. If you become derailed from your framework, you have the choice to either run with it and see where the new story arc leads you, or you can reign it back in, because you have your framework with you the entire time.

6) Examples:

The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

A bold fabulist novel about a feral boy coming of age in New York, based on a legend from the medieval Persian epic The Shahnameh, the Book of Kings.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

“I don’t care what the magic mirror says; Oyeyemi is the cleverest in the land…daring and unnerving… Under Oyeyemi’s spell, the fairy-tale conceit makes a brilliant setting in which to explore the alchemy of racism, the weird ways in which identity can be transmuted in an instant — from beauty to beast or vice versa.” – Ron Charles, The Washington Post

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (after Hamlet)

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a meditation on the limits of language and what lies beyond, a brilliantly inventive retelling of an ancient story, and an epic tale of devotion, betrayal, and courage in the American heartland.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

This powerful twentieth-century reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear centers on a wealthy Iowa farmer who decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. Ambitiously conceived and stunningly written, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride—and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.

My Mother She Skilled Me, My Father He Ate Me edited by Kate Bernheimer

Spinning houses and talking birds. Whispered secrets and borrowed hope. Here are new stories sewn from old skins, gathered by visionary editor Kate Bernheimer and inspired by everything from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” and “The Little Match Girl” to Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” and “Cinderella” to the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” and “Rumpelstiltskin” to fairy tales by Goethe and Calvino and from China, Japan, Vietnam, Russia, Norway, and Mexico.
Fairy tales are our oldest literary tradition, and yet they chart the imaginative frontiers of the twenty-first century as powerfully as they evoke our earliest encounters with literature. This exhilarating collection restores their place in the literary canon.