Tips For Writing A Spin-Off Based On Someone Else’s Story

by | Mar 1, 2017 | Craft: Nonfiction Book, Craft: Novel Writing, Craft: Short Story Writing, Uncategorized | 2 comments

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In the world of publishing, books that are based on other books are especially hot right now—and have been for a while! The following list of books that are based on classic fairy tales or classic literature is just the tip of the iceberg.

New Books That Are Based On Classic Stories

Books that present Alice in Wonderland reimagined:

Alice by Christina Henry

Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter

Queen of Hearts by Colleen Oakes

The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor

 

Retellings of classic tales like Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, etc.:

Cloaked by Alex Flinn

Sweetly by Jackson Pearce

Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

Belle by Cameron Dokey

Midnight Pearls (Little Mermaid retelling) by Debbie Viguié

Beauty by Robin McKinley

Classic books that have been wildly rethought—courtesy of the zombie book trend that just will not die:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, Jane Austen, Philip Smiley (Illustrator)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim by W. Bill Czolgosz

Robin Hood & Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers by Paul A. Freeman

The Undead World of Oz: L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Complete with Zombies and Monsters by Ryan C. Thomas

I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas by Adam Roberts

 

If you’re thinking about writing a book based on a familiar story, here are a few FAQs about how to write (and publish) a spin-off:

How do I know if it’s legal to write a spin-off using someone else’s characters and story ideas?

Fairy tales and other stories that have come down through the centuries are generally not considered to be “owned” by any given person. So if you’re writing a story based on the classic story of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” you should be in the clear—as long as your version doesn’t look too much like anyone else’s version based on the same tale.

As for riffing on an existing literary text (like Madame Bovary or the Harry Potter books), it’s important to know a little bit about copyright law. Normally, writers can’t legally put their spin on a book until it has become part of the public domain, which means that the original author’s intellectual property rights have expired. Books that were published before 1922 are automatically considered part of the public domain, unless there are specific circumstances that have kept copyright protections in place.

Books published after 1922 are protected by modern copyright law. That means stealing characters and storylines is a no-no. That said, at some point, most texts do revert to the public domain (usually seventy years after the author dies, unless the copyright is renewed by the author’s estate). Here’s a detailed description of how to determine if a book is in the public domain.

If you’re writing a book based on the well-known story of a real person, tread carefully. Generally, the law states that it’s impossible to libel the dead. If your character is based on a person who lived three hundred years ago and was a well-known public figure, you’re probably in the green zone and can forge ahead. If your character is still alive, you could risk a lawsuit. And if that person died a few decades ago, but is survived by heirs, the heirs could be entitled to sue for defamation if you’re not careful. Learn more about libel and defamation.

What mistakes do authors make when writing a book based on another story?

The most common mistakes writers make when writing a story based on another story are:

  • The derivative book too closely mirrors the original, and so it doesn’t feel fresh and new.
  • The derivative book doesn’t stick closely enough to the original, and so fails to meet reader expectations.
  • The derivative book doesn’t consider the key elements of the original book to be sacred (unless, of course, the new story is trying to be cheeky).

What’s the best angle for retelling a familiar book?

The angle you take when retelling an old story depends on your goals and interests. Here are a few ideas:

  • The POV of a secondary character from the original
  • The viewpoint of a famous villain
  • Turning the “world” of the original story upside down
  • The story that takes place before or after the well-known story
  • Totally new characters who are in the same world as the original story
  • A modern character discovering/rediscovering some kind of new relationship with the original story (example: while rereading a favorite story, the character falls into the pages)
  • A modern retelling of a classic tale set in contemporary times (or even in the future)
  • The real-life story behind the writing/publishing of a fictional book

What are your best tips for finding a literary agent and publisher for a book that’s based on a previous book or tale?

Literary agents, publishers, and readers love a story that’s both familiar and new at the same time, so books that are based on other stories can be big sellers. In your query letter, offer a passing nod to the source material, then be sure to focus on your version of the story. If the original work is familiar to audiences, you don’t have to spell out every point of comparison.

Do you have another question about this topic? Post it for us in our comments section, and we’ll reply!

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2 Comments

  1. Adam Walker

    If I want to create a show, based around Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, where I take the story that revolves around the poem, but is a completely new story and new characters, is that allowed? Episode one would revolve around A Dream Within a Dream. A new story and characters but they tell the story of the poem. Is that legal? The name of the show is POEtic Nightmares, is that allowed as well?

    Reply
    • Blog Editor

      We are not lawyers, so we cannot provide legal advice. We recommend talking to a lawyer who specializes in entertainment and/or copyright.

      Reply

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