Of Semiotics and Fairy Tales Retelling

This article on Geekiary by the excellent Jamie had me thinking about fairy tales retelling and originality.

Fairy tales retelling have been a roaring fashion for a couple of years now, expecially in the YA genre. Take a look at these Goodreads lists to get the measure of the phenomenon.

Why do we write so many retelling of fairy tales?

Because they work.


Fairy tales work, as stories, as construction. Stories don’t become a classic out of nothing, and the most popular ones don’t become classics because academy and critics say so. It’s because those stories work.

Now, the problem with retelling it’s actually just that: those stories work; and they have already been written.

So how comes some retellings go well and others don’t? In her review, Jamie pointed out something important:

The idea of a series putting new twists onto familiar tales from my childhood really appealed to me (…) This book was supposed to put a new spin on an old story (at least the Disney version of it), so I was expecting something a little different, such as putting the characters in an entirely new situation.

You know what I love? Semiotics. Semiotics explains so much about human culture, arts and storytelling production, guys! Semiotics is the study of meaning-making, sign processes and meaningful communication. There are dozens of things you study if you’re studying semiotics, and dozens upon dozens of things you can study with semiotics.


But a one important thing in semiotics are narrative constructions, such as Greimas‘s canonical narrative schema and narrative programs, which analyze how a narration, of any form, is built. The point of fairy tales and classics and all the stories everybody loves is that their narrative programs are on point, they work like a well-oiled machine.

But semiotics also teach us that something like the canonical narrative scheme is part of the bones of a story, that thing Greimas calls the deep level. Thousands of stories share a similar deep level (if not the exact same one), but they differ on the surface.

And this gets us back to Jamie’s review: twists. Twists are what make excellent retelling! If you don’t twist something in the narrative programs of the story, or at least in the surface, you’re just telling the same story yet again. And when it comes to fairy tales, it’s a story we all new by heart. Not exactly the best premise to get engrossed in a book, isn’t it?

The easiest way to twist a story is called Alternate Universe, which is one of the greatest base on which fanfictions are founded. You pick the characters and push them in another setting. It can work brilliantly, but I personally think the best retellings are the ones that also operate on the characters.

I don’t know about you, but reading about characters I’ve know for years, and watching them doing something completely unexpected – well, it’s the surest way to grab my attention and keeping till the last page.