Reimagining a Story: What, How, and Why

Existing stories can be revived through reimagining

Have you ever read a book and thought, I wonder what would have happened if the main character did [insert action], instead. While the movie credits were rolling, have you thought, “Another great ending would have been…” Some great works, and many lousy ones, resulted from reimagining existing stories. Keep reading to find out what constitutes reimagining a story, when it’s allowed, and a few of the ways it’s been accomplished.

What is Reimagining?

Stories that borrow characters, settings, or plots from previously published works, have been reimagined. The extent to which the new versions of the story have changed varies from slight modifications to nearly complete overhauls. The resulting product may “spin-off” a character, expand on what is currently there, or parallel the original plot.

Can Any Story be Reimagined?

Yeah… but no. In your mind, you could reimagine anything you want, but to publish a new take on an old tale, copyright matters. Each year, new works come into the public domain that could be used as inspiration. The Duke Law Center for the Study of the Public Domain releases a list of all of the newly available books, movies, and music, each January 1st (Public Domain Day).

The goal of copyright is to promote creativity, and the public domain plays a central role in doing so. Copyright law gives authors important rights that encourage creativity and distribution. But it also ensures that those rights last for a “limited time,” so that when they expire, works can go into the public domain, where future authors can legally build upon their inspirations.

Public Domain Day 2020
The Duke Law Center for the Study of the Public Domain

A Few Ways to Reimagine a Story [with examples]

Rearrange who the “good” and “bad” characters are.

Maybe the step-mother wasn’t so bad. Perhaps the reality we see is colored by the perspective of the person telling the tale. If someone else told the story, might it look different. Is it possible that what was seen as both just and necessary through one character’s eyes appeared cruel and reckless through another’s?


Reimagine stories by putting real characters into fantasy realms
Reimagine stories by putting real characters into fantasy realms

Reimagining Stories Using a New Location or Time Period

Sometimes, changing the setting changes everything. When people relocate a story across space or through time, it invites people to revisit it. Even when they know exactly what the ending will bring.


If This Character Was ____, How Would the Dynamics Shift?

Modifying one character, while others remain in tact, can create interesting changes in relationships, interactions, etc. There are endless ways to tweak a character, including: a skill boost [computer hacker, black belt], an identity makeover [gender, socio-economic class], or by adding | subtracting supernatural abilities.


Shine a Big Light on Little Roles

Some characters don’t have a chance to reach their full potential. They can’t all be main characters… Or, could they? One fabulous way to reimagine a story is to focus on an underutilized character.


Take supporting characters from an existing story and make them more robust
Take supporting characters from an existing story and make them more robust

Reimagining Stories through Combination [or a Knockoff Combination]

A great way to spice up old characters is to mix and match them in new ways. I’m not saying Snow White should be wandering through the forest and run into Dracula, I’m simply saying, she could.


Bonus Option: Rather than Revamping literature, Reimagine History

like this occasionally true story…

Instead of modifying existing stories, those that have appeared in books, films, and television, it’s perfectly acceptable [perhaps even commendable] to pluck characters from encyclopedias, textbooks, or newspapers.


Why Not Start from Scratch?

There are benefits and drawbacks to starting with a fresh idea vs. reimagining a story, beginning where someone else left off.

Here are just a few reasons to consider reimagining:

  • Using recognizable characters has the advantage of the familiar, people already know and love them [or love to hate them].
  • If you have writer’s block, and are desperately searching for an idea, you can grab a classic and use it as inspiration, as a prompt.
  • Successful writing involves practice, habit formation, and discipline. Reimagining stories can be used as a drill or exercise.
  • It’s FUN!

The first time I rewrote a classic story, I was creating a get well gift for an English professor who was in the hospital. It was how I imagined Dr. Seuss would have written about King Arthur.

Reimagining continues to be one of the best tools in my author’s toolbox. If you could choose any story to reimagine, what would it be?