Style Exercise: The Retelling

One of the must underappreciated elements of any sort of writing—and yes, this can include background writing for character backstories, game journals and props—is voice and style. It’s not just what the work is, it’s how you tell it. This is also, though, one of the most difficult I’ve run into; voice is one of the last things I’ve seen people manage to change and is, in fact, one of the ones I struggled with for the longest time. As a result, there are works that I’ve been struck by simply because of the strength and authenticity of the voice in which they were written (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter comes to mind).

But how do we practice it?

A while back, as a characterization exercise, I suggested the recap—taking an existing event and retelling it as from the point of view of at least one other character. A full-on retelling is somewhat similar in essence: take an event, or a sequence of events, and retell it in some way that doesn’t fit with its initial presentation. But unlike the recap exercise, which is as much about that specific character’s voice and priorities as about overall style, a retelling’s style isn’t limited to character voice and perspective.

What else, then, might you do? There’s doing it in a certain literary style—trying to retell the event as one of your favorite types of literature, or one of your favorite authors, might try to tell it (or, for that matter, one of your least favorite). There’s translating it to another milieu but keeping the events constant—a fairy tale transferred to Classical Arabia, military sf to fantasy on the high seas to steampunk/gaslamp fantasy, a modern-day story to a kitchen-sink fantasy world to a superhero setting. If there’s some theme that you think the original story handles unrealistically, there’s taking it and treating it the way you might imagine it.

What does it get you? For one thing, it’s a new way of looking at the same event, and seeing how you can tease a little extra meaning or inspiration out of it (or second-guess an audience prone to alternate character interpretations by seeing where they come from). Of course, it’s practice in whatever new style you happen to choose, which gives you a chance to understand its rules and patterns and thus its strengths and weaknesses, and by doing so helps you better understand the strengths and weaknesses of your dominant style. And it’s a way of finding the kernel of the story, as you would the kernel of a character—figuring out what parts are quintessential to it and what parts can be seen more as localization.

Like the recap, it’s pretty much self-perpetuating—as long as you can find new events and stories to retell, you have room to keep experimenting. For some people, it might even allow for more variety, as they’re likely to be able to find far more styles and switches than characters to retell the same events.

And did I mention it can be fun in its own right? Personal amusement is not to be discounted.


  1. Michael says:

    Retellings are fascinating — indeed, if one is sufficiently different from the original, it can be an interesting story in its own right. This is not uncommon in fan fiction — for instance, my own Sailor Moon fanfic retells the story from Naru’s perspective, adding enough “behind-the-scenes” detail to make it a new story, though obviously a derivative one.

    However, there is a danger with trying to make a retelling into a separate story, and that’s that you have to work really hard to keep it interesting for someone who’s familiar with the original story. An example is the Harry Potter fanfic “Dumbledore’s Army and the Year of Darkness”, which retells the events of book 7 from Neville’s perspective. This works because Neville and Harry were separated for almost the entire year — as soon as they meet, you get a long sequence that isn’t very different from the original canon, and it falls utterly flat.

  2. Shinali says:

    I did the setting-change retelling once as a challenge by a definitely non-fantasy writing workshop. “Why are all the names weird? Why don’t you set it somewhere more familiar.” Cue rewriting part of my epic volcanic destruction story with the setting shifting from my fictional world to western Washington (the name of the volcano was a nod to one thereabouts). Strangely it read significantly more as fantasy, but it was interesting to see just how vital to the plot a pre-modern mindset about the eruption was. I don’t plan on sharing that version outside my usual circle, but later chapters definitely had a far more culture-intertwined focus. Oh and some characters got renamed to help differentiate them.

    Retelling from my character’s POV when the original POV is something like 3rd person limited or 3rd Person PC or whatever you called it is something I do quite often, usually via journals. Sure we glossed over meeting such and such a character in about 5 minutes of game time, but if my character found them fascinating, expect paragraphs devoted to them. Similarly, they might gloss over something we spent whole sessions on because it’s top secret or is well-known enough to not need mention, or they had nothing to add on it.

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