Thursday, June 24, 2010

Retelling Stories

VeggieTales is one of the best children’s entertainment brands out there. One of the techniques they use in story creation is retelling Bible stories. Unlike the original stories, the VeggieTales version has vegetables as the characters. Obviously, they have to make modifications to fit their situation. Because they are operating in a world of fantasy already, it isn’t a far stretch for the writers to place the characters in which they are using swords to play out the skit one time and drive a car in another, giving them the freedom to follow the Bible version of the story quite closely. Things get more complicated when we try to fit a retelling into a realistic modern world, but the technique is worth considering.

I used this technique in For the Love of a Devil and I’ll tell you that it wasn’t easy. We read the Bible and it doesn’t seem so strange to see a woman leave Hosea for other men, see him continue to care for her and eventually buy her back when she becomes a slave. We sort of get this idea that that was the sort of thing that happened back then. It was a little out of character for the time, but only a little. We don’t see slave markets in modern day America, so some things had to change, but where do we draw the line on what can change and what must remain the same for it to be a retelling? Some authors seem to think that as long as a few of the same elements are in the story then it is a retelling. Let me explain the ground rules I use.

What Should Be the Same

The Same Theme

Open your Bible to any story and you will find that God has something that he is trying to say to someone with that story. When I retell a Bible story, I want the theme of my story to match that theme. In the case of Hosea, we see the theme of God loving Israel, even though they continually rejected him and turned to other Gods. We see this demonstrated through the life of Hosea, who married Gomer but she went after other men. Hosea chased after her anyway and eventually brought her home only after paying for her. We see this same thing happen in For the Love of a Devil. We see God’s love for his people through the love of the protagonist for his wife.

The Same Sequence

In one supposed retelling of Hosea that I’ve read the man purchased the woman before they were married. After they marry, she lives with him for a while and then leaves because she doesn’t feel worthy, but she doesn’t return to her old lifestyle. Instead, she starts a half-way house for prostitutes. While there are some of the same elements from the original, I have a hard time calling this a retelling because not only is the theme different but it follows a different plot. The Bible never talks about Gomer starting a half-way house. It never talks about her feeling unworthy of Hosea.

One of the things that following the same sequence forced me to do was to consider why things happened the way they did. While it’s hard for me to understand why a woman (any woman) is eager to leave a man that loves her, it is even harder to understand the sequence of events in Hosea’s life until you see it as a progression. It isn’t that hard of a stretch for an adulterous to become a prostitute. We might think it hard for a young woman who is sleeping with her boyfriend to become a prostitute, but if she needs the money or is on drugs she might decide to start sleeping with some other guys who’ll give her what she wants. She might even convince herself that what she is doing isn’t really wrong. So, the problem I see here is that if we change the sequence without first understanding the original sequence we are inserting our preconceived ideas of how a person should act rather than allowing for the development of a character that acts differently than we would allow ourselves to act.

The Same Major Plot Points

Pulling from Hosea, there were several major plot points that I felt that I needed to hit in my novel. They had to be married. They had to have three children. She had to leave for other men. He had to provide for her even when she believed her lovers were taking care of her. There had to be a situation in which he bought her out of slavery to take her home and she had to have reached a point that she wanted to stay with him. Had I missed any of those things I would have felt that I hadn’t done my job.

But Hosea is a short book. Even if we were to set the story in his day, there’s a lot of stuff we would have to make up. That’s why I feel that it is so important to hit the same major plot points. With more than ninety-five percent of the story coming from my imagination, if the reader didn’t see those major plot points he would have trouble connecting it to the original story.


The vegetable characters of VeggieTales are far removed from the flesh and blood people of the Bible and yet we can see the story through the shenanigans of the characters. This tells us that we have much freedom as writers to mess with the plot, as long as we do the things I mentioned above.

Things We Want to Change

VeggieTales is written to be comical. Many of the stories in the Bible are not a laughing matter, so the VeggieTales creators change some things and insert some things that we either know didn’t happen or are unlikely to have happened in real life. As long as we stick to the theme, follow the same sequence as the story and hit the major plot points, pretty much anything goes in between. We could retell the story of Sampson, for example, and we could change the thing about his long hair into something else, such as never cutting his toenails, and people would still see enough similarities to recognize the story.

Because we are telling the story in a different setting and with different characters, we might want to change other things as well. Sampson was incredibly strong. We can still have incredibly strong people today, but their value isn’t as great by comparison. Instead of physical strength, we might want our character to have strength of another kind. Our character might be a highly intelligent electrical engineer. There is nothing that he can’t build.

Things That Must Change

If we set our story in a time period other than the time of the judges of Israel and our character is an electrical engineer, you can be sure that there are things that will have to change from the original story. Our electrical engineer isn’t going to go out and slay a lion, then come back and eat honey out of it. He probably isn’t going to go out and destroy a bunch of crops. For the story to work, we need to find other things for our character to do that demonstrate his strength. So our character will be doing things like building robots or cracking computer systems.

Advantages of Retellings

Let’s face it, the Bible is well written and gets the point across much more efficiently than we can in a novel, but there are some reasons why we might want to retell Bible stories or stories from other sources. While most people are intelligent enough to find a parallel from a Bible story to their own lives, retelling the story can help to bring the point home and show people what we got from the story. Continuing to follow our Sampson example, many people hear the name Sampson and think only of his great strength and long hair. By retelling the story with a different character in a modern day setting, we can get past the preconditioned response and people may consider other aspects of the story.

We see the story of Sampson and see a good guy versus bad guy story, but if we pull him into a corporate situation we must address why on one company is good and the other is bad. We must also address why the hero of our story is sleeping with the enemy. In Sampson’s case, he was quite literally sleeping with the enemy. The things that a preacher might tell his congregation to take note of and they just nod their heads become things that our readers must come to understand just to read the book. We won’t tell the story better than it was told the first time, but we might help the reader see it in a different light when they read it again.