Some of you gave me some nice feedback on the rough excerpt I shared at the last WIP Wednesday (and if you shared something as well, thank you! I love seeing your stuff!) That scene is based on a famous ancient story from Greece that I read as a kid, and it always stuck with me.
I think some stories survive through history because they resonate with something deep inside us. There’s no reason not to take inspiration from them in your contemporary writing. It’s not cheating! You can change them substantially in your adaptation and make it your own.
Many novels use ancient stories as source material. Anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings will have a case of déjà vu when she ventures into Norse mythology. The Narnia books by C.S. Lewis include elements from Irish mythology and the Bible. The stories of King Arthur have inspired many fantasy novels. One of my regular readers on the blog is working on an original novel based on The Little Mermaid.
Here are 15 plots from Arthurian legend, the Bible, Greek and Norse mythology, and fairy tales that might be really fun to adapt in different ways. I didn’t dig into stories from other world mythologies because I worried about misrepresenting them. And fair warning: some of my descriptions are incomplete, some are abridged, and others are embellished! You can click on the link at the end to read a more complete and official version.
1. A warrior wakes up to find his magical weapon has been stolen by the enemy. The enemy leader refuses to return it until the warrior’s sister agrees to marry him. The warrior goes to the enemy’s palace disguised as his sister, in women’s clothes. The enemy thinks his bride-to-be eats and drinks a lot for a woman. After the nuptials, the enemy gives the warrior the weapon, who promptly kills the new groom and all the guests. (Thor and Thrym the giant, Norse mythology.)
2. A man’s arrogance annoys his brothers, so they sell him into slavery. In the foreign land, the man rises from a slave to a person of power. One day, his brothers come asking for food because there’s a famine in their country. The brothers don’t recognize the man at first, and he pretends not to know them. He tests their good will before revealing himself, and it ends in a tearful reunion. (Joseph and his brothers, Genesis, The Bible.)
3. In a mysterious forest, an unarmed king is assailed by a strange warrior who’s armed to the teeth. This warrior says the king has to meet him in the forest in one year’s time and give the correct answer to this question: what do women want most? If the king gets it wrong, the warrior will cut off his head. Soon after, the king meets a physically repulsive woman who knows the answer to the question. If she gets to marry the king’s handsome nephew, she’ll share the answer. The nephew says he’ll do it. In the bedroom, he finds that she has turned into a gorgeous babe. She says she’s under a curse that makes her ugly either all day or all night—he can choose which. He says it’s up to her. This breaks the spell, and now she’s beautiful all the time. She gives the right answer to the king: what women want most is the ability to make their own choices. (The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, Arthurian legend.)
4. A father, imprisoned with his son, creates a spectacular invention that will allow his son to escape. However, the son gets carried away and ignores a warning about the invention, which causes his death. (Daedalus and Icarus. what if the dad thought his son got killed, but he actually survived? I’m just saying.)
5. A female leader with the gift of prophecy tells a commander of the army to go attack their enemy forces. He says okay, but only if she goes with him. She says fine, but that means a woman is going to get all the credit. They wage a successful battle against their enemy, and the enemy general runs away. He hides out in another woman’s tent, but this woman kills him in his sleep by hammering a tent peg through his temple. (Deborah and Jael, Judges, the Bible.)
6. Two sisters are hanging out at home when a bear wants to come inside and get warm. They let him, and he comes back every night that winter and becomes their friend. In the summer, he says he has to leave and guard his treasure from an enemy.
That summer, the girls come across a guy whose beard is stuck in a tree. They cut his beard to free him, and all he does is yell at them for cutting his beard. They help him out in a few other ways over the summer, and he keeps on being a jerk about it. One day when they’re talking to this guy, a bear shows up and kills him. Then the bear turns into a prince. It turns out this jerk had put a spell on him and turned him into a bear. The prince marries one of the sisters and the other sister marries the prince’s brother. (Snow White and Rose Red, German fairy tale.)
7. Two villains murder the wisest person on earth and brew mead with his blood. Anyone who drinks the blood turns into a poet or a scholar. A god wants the mead for himself, so he disguises himself as a charming young man, seduces the woman put in charge of guarding it, and steals it all. (Odin and the Mead of Poetry, Norse mythology.)
8. A knight’s best friend is fighting and doing very well at a tournament. Near the end of the day, the knight’s liege lord orders him to go and fight his best friend, who is now exhausted from battle. The knight doesn’t want to do it, but he’s sworn to obey his liege, so he jousts against his friend and knocks him off his horse. He then refuses to fight his best friend on foot. His friend is humiliated and hates him now. (Tristan and Lamorack, Arthurian legend.)
9. A lord notices that one of his subjects is wearing the ring he gave to his friend long ago. He and this friend had a bitter falling out. The lord asks the woman where she got the ring, and she explains a beggar gave it to her in exchange for food. The lord realizes his former friend has fallen on terrible times. He sends his soldiers out to find the guy and bring him to the castle, but the soldiers don’t tell the guy who their lord is. Because the lord doesn’t want his friend to be embarrassed by his reduced state, he has his servants give him a fantastic meal and a bath and dress him in a new suit of armor. Finally, the lord meets up with his old friend, who is grateful for his generosity, and their friendship is renewed. (Tristan and Lamorack, Arthurian legend, part 2! I can’t find a source for this online and I read it as a kid, so my memory of it may be shaky. I love it, though.)
10. An escaped slave meets up with an injured lion and removes the thorn from his paw. Much later, the slave is captured and made to face a lion in an arena. Everyone expects to see the slave ripped to shreds, but it’s the same lion the slave helped, and the beast cuddles up to him instead of attacking him. Everyone’s impressed, and the Emperor and the lion are both freed. (Androcles and the Lion, an Aesop’s fable. Think about how this one might work with another human instead of a lion…)
11. An army faces an enemy force that includes a champion who is a giant. This huge warrior dares any of them to face him in man-to-man combat. This peasant from the country says he’ll fight the guy. Nobody likes this kid’s chances. Here’s the thing, though: this kid has been tending sheep for years, protecting them from wolves with his slingshot. All this time, in obscurity, he’s probably been practicing his aim with targets. He kills the well-armed giant with one shot. (David and Goliath, 1 Samuel, the Bible.)
12. A prince and a warrior are sworn best friends (or maybe lovers), but the prince’s father, the king, becomes jealous and intimidated by the warrior’s success. He plots to kill the warrior, and even tries to kill him by throwing a spear at him. The warrior hides out, and when the prince tries to talk some sense into his father, he gets a spear thrown at him, too. Luckily, the king has terrible aim. The prince meets the warrior in a secret location where they say a tearful farewell for the time being. (David and Jonathan, from the book of 1 Samuel, the Bible.)
13. A musician ventures into realm of the dead in an attempt to get his dead wife back. He sings such a touching song that the king and queen of the underworld that she can follow him out into the world of the living, as long as he doesn’t look back until they’re both out of Hell. The musician looks back as soon as he steps into the living world, but because she’s behind him and not past the threshold yet, she gets sucked back into the realm of the dead. (Orpheus and Eurydice, Greek mythology. The Bible has a similar “don’t look back” story.)
14. A monstrous, wicked wolf is growing at an alarming rate and will destroy the whole realm if he isn’t chained. They start playing a game with the wolf, chaining him but cheering his strength when he breaks free. Clever dwarves make a magical chain that can hold him. The wolf suspects this chain is different and refuses to be bound unless someone lays their hand on his mouth as a sign of good faith. It’s obvious to everybody that this wolf is just going to eat the hand of whoever does this. Besides, breaking an oath is a terrible thing in this society. One guy volunteers for the sake of humanity to put his hand on the wolf’s mouth. The wolf bites it off and eats it, but he gets chained up for good. (The Binding of Fenrir, Norse mythology.)
15. All the princesses are locked in their bedrooms every night, but in the morning, their dancing shoes are always worn out. The king promises one of his daughters to anyone who can figure out within three days and three nights what is going on. An old soldier decides to try. An old woman in the forest gives him an invisibility cloak and tells him not to eat or drink anything. When the eldest princess tries to give him some drugged wine, he only pretends to drink it and fall asleep.
All the princesses escape the castle through a trap door in the floor, and he follows them to an enchanted forest with trees of silver, gold, and then diamonds. Boats take them across the water to a castle where they dance the night away. After the third night, the soldier tells the king what’s been going on, and since he evidence—the branches he broke off from the silver, gold, and diamond trees, plus a golden cup from the other castle—the princesses know they are caught. The soldier marries the oldest daughter, who hopefully likes him okay. (Twelve Dancing Princesses, German fairy tale.)
Even if you didn’t feel the urge to play around with any of the plots here, I hope they got you thinking about how to find new inspiration in old sources. And if you want more master plot inspiration, I have hundreds more in my book Master Lists for Writers!
Thanks for stopping by, and happy writing!