Beat Writer’s Block with Grimms’ Fairy Tales

by Jeff Elkins | 20 comments

I know what a friend looks like. Friends are there to support you when you need them. If you call in desperation, they come over. If you need a laugh, they crack a joke. If you're down, they give a helping hand.

However, I’ve concluded that the Muses are not my friends.

Beat Writer's Block with Grimms' Fairy Tales

Those unseen forces of inspiration that gift creatives with shiny new ideas, they don’t come over when I need them. They don't pick me up when I'm down, and they don't crack jokes when I need a laugh. Instead, they willingly abandon me to the clutches of writer's block.

“Help me,” I cry with desperation  into the blank scene of my laptop. “Please. I’ve got nothing. I need you.”

“I’m sorry,” the voice of the Muses’ smug personal assistant says on the other end of the line in my mind. “The Muses are busy right now. I’ll let them know you called. Please try back later when you aren’t ready to write—like during your morning commute when you are stuck in traffic with no way of taking notes, or in the middle of your next business meeting when your boss is sitting across the table watching you. They should be available then. Thank you. Bye-bye.”

If I waited on the Muses to get their lazy butts in gear, I’d never get anything written, which is why I’m happy to share with you the powerful weapon that has lessened my dependence on the Muses and helped me beat the dreaded writer's block: Grimms' Fairy Tales. When I get stuck for an idea and don’t know what to write, I turn to the Grimms.

4 Steps to Beating Writer's Block with the Brothers Grimm

Think of rewriting Grimms' Fairy Tales like going to the gym and working out. It gets all your writer muscles working and revved up.  Here’s how I do it.

1. Find the Fairy Tale

Picking a story you already know is cheating. Don’t do it.

Instead, I suggest using this Random Number Generator. In the “max” box on the right, type the number 210, and then press the “generate” button. Make note of the result.

Now, go to this list of 210 Grimm Fairy Tales. Use the result from the Random Number Generator to find the story you will be rewriting today.

2. Lay Out the Beats and Find the Heart

As you read through your fairy tale, write down the beats of the story. By “beat,” I mean the things that happen. Write one simple sentence for each beat. Don’t get complicated; a straightforward sentence will do.

Once you’ve finished writing the beats, read through all of them, then answer the question, “What is this story about?”

Keep the beats and the heart of the story. Forget everything else.

3. Re-imagine the Story in a Modern Setting

Now take the heart of the story and the beats of the story, and imagine that story happening down the street from your house. How would it play out? What would the story look like? What types of characters do you need to make the story work? 

Bonus: Do It with One Scene

If you are really looking for a challenge, after you decide how to tell the story in a contemporary setting, figure out how to tell it in just one scene.

4. Rewrite Your Story

See, you don’t need those stupid Muses and their obnoxious assistant. You are now ready to write a fantastic story without them. The final step is to sit down and write your new story.

My Example: The Poor Boy in His Grave

I try to do this at least once a week. If you need an example, here's one I did a few weeks ago:

First, the magic Random Number Generator gave me #185: The Poor Boy in His Grave.

Next, I read the story, wrote out the beats, and found the heart: Poor kid loses parents. Poor kid is raised by people who don’t like him. Poor kid “messes up” and gets beaten. Poor kid sneaks food while hoping to die. Poor kids lies down in grave. Abusive caretakers' house catches on fire.

Heart of the story: Poor abused kid gets revenge in the end by laying in his grave.

Then I re-imagined the story in my city. I realized I needed a poor kid, some nasty caretakers, a grave, and a house fire.

Taking the bonus challenge, I thought, “What if the kid doesn’t die? What if he is being questioned by the police about the house fire?” I realized I could tell the whole story through an investigation.

Finally, I wrote the story.

And just like that—writer's block defeated.

What creative techniques have you used to beat writer's block? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Kick the Muses’ snotty personal assistant in the teeth with your own Grimms' Fairy Tale rewrite.

Take fifteen minutes to pick a story and reimagine it, following the steps above. Share your practice in the comments below.

Make sure you keep the title of your story the same as the original Grimm Tale so we can see which one you repurposed. And if you share, be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

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Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."

20 Comments

  1. Orloa Numera

    I kind of already know each and every of these stories, …

    Reply
    • ponylover

      You are a disgrace. you can’t do anything right, stupid bitch. Just by looking at your profile I can tell that your life is a mess and that nobody in this world cares about you.

    • Orloa Numera

      Perhaps, dear person whom I have not forgotten. If you want to harass me after what you did previously then it might be a good idea to, at very least, change your name. As far as I am concerned t is actually you who is the disgrace.

  2. kim

    Thats a good idea – too read old stories , and get ideas from , i will have to try it out

    Reply
  3. LaCresha Lawson

    Good post. Thank you. This happens alot in Hollywood.

    Reply
  4. Arfa Nazeer

    Hi Jeff!

    I loved your idea of this writing practice and it worked on me successfully 🙂
    Here’s my simple story from Grimm Fairy Tales. I am just a learner and want to be an awesome writer one day.

    On a pretty sunset, a girl planned to travel to the nearest town with her family. The girl belonged to a poor family, dependent on little resources. Unluckily, the family got attacked by a group of robbers. The girl tried to escape and eventually, succeeded. The fortunate girl hurriedly ran toward the forest and hid behind a tall tree.

    The forest was packed with giant trees, scary enough to dodge a stranger. Different kinds of birds were humming around the trees to greet a new strange bird, who flew from the neighboring city. The dense forest scared the kind-hearted girl, but she found solace in a peaceful, quiet tree.

    As the girl was resting behind the tree, a beautiful dove came and brought a golden key. The girl was stunned to look at the calm small bird who was holding a golden key in its beak. She was astonished as the bird pointed her to unlock the tree. She quickly unlocked the tree with the help of golden key and felt overjoyed as she made an instant glance at the food.

    As the sky turned dark and night arrived, the bird came again. This time, it brought the girl to another adjacent tree with a bed. She exclaimed with a thanking gratitude and started living in the forest for a couple of days. Every day, the bird came and helped her in many ways to survive.

    One day the dove asked the girl to do a favor, to which she agreed willingly. The bird told her that she had to go to a wooden house of an old woman in search of a plain ring. The house will have an inner room, filled with splendid rings but she had to find a plain ring. But, it advised strictly to the girl that she should not interact with the woman.

    The girl with a sincere heart followed all the instructions and was hopeful to bring the ring for the dove.

    She entered the wooden house and welcomed by the old woman but the girl did not respond. Despite old woman’s anger, she stepped further toward the inner room and looked for the ring. The girl got bewildered as there was no plain ring at all.

    The wicked old woman put effort to carry off the bird cage overlooking the girl’s sight. The brave girl snatched the cage and ran toward the forest. She felt contented as she got the bird cage because it had a bird with a plain ring in its beak.

    The girl was excited to meet the dove and hand over the plain ring. She thought to take rest against the tree and wait for the bird. As she was waiting anxiously, the tree turned into a handsome man and turned his arms around the pretty girl and kissed her.

    The girl was surprised as the handsome man revealed that old woman is a witch who had turned him into a tree from the last year. But, he was lucky that he had the chance to become a bird for two hours a day. The dove who helped the girl and asked for a favor was also the same young man. He was thankful that the girl accomplished and saved him from the curse of the witch.

    The other young fellows and attendants of the man also turned into humans and thanked with gratitude to the young girl.

    The handsome hunk was not a common man, he was a Prince and belonged to the King’s Kingdom. The Prince and his companions headed toward the Kingdom to reunite with the family.

    Everyone at the Kingdom praised the girl and acknowledged her fearlessness to trick the wicked old lady.

    Finally, the Prince found the heroic girl as the Princess and they got happily married.

    Hoepful to get your feedback 🙂

    Reply
    • Jeff Elkins

      I think the story is great. Good work! I’d love to see you take it into the first person. Tell it through the eyes of the girl. I’m glad you tried the challenge. Keep working it.

    • Arfa Nazeer

      I am appreciated that you liked the efforts.
      I will for sure try to write it into the first person.

    • Mariposa Luna

      Great story! I refigured your opening as “Once upon a sunset,” – an awesome beginning to a fairytale. 😉

    • Arfa Nazeer

      Thankyou – Beginning with once upon a.. is always a great idea 🙂

  5. rosie

    When I’m a bit blocked (but I don’t believe in writer’s block) I also just watch Disney movies. They re-use fairytales as well, and offer valuable lessons about story structure and characterization. I write for children, so I guess that’s why.
    For other writers, I guess the best advice for writer’s block is: if you can’t write, then read! 🙂

    Reply
  6. Mariposa Luna

    Thanks! This is an excellent idea. Here is the website where I found my story (157 – The Sparrow and His Four Children)
    http://www.grimmstories.com/

    Reply
  7. Susan W A

    Thanks for the guidance and the links! This is a good exercise for people who aren’t used to developing a short story. Will try it after my semester finishes. Too much grading right now.

    Reply
  8. Stella

    185, The Hare and the Hedgehog. Beats: The hedgehog meets the hare on a walk. The hare insults the hedgehog’s crooked legs. The hedgehog challenges the hare to a race. The hedgehog tricks the hare by asking his wife who looks identical to stand at the end point. The hedgehog wins the race. The hare repeatedly challenges the hedgehog to rematches, and dies of overexertion.

    Heart of the story is that the little guy outwits the big guy in an unconventional (and not entirely ethical) way. But it’s the big guy’s pride in repeatedly trying to win that makes him die.

    First thought for transporting this to a modern setting was to have a nerd beating the resident jock in a race by getting his identical twin to stand at the finish line. But that was too boring. So I thought of this story line…

    Our protagonist is an ordinary guy who happens to share the same name as a famous property mogul. One day he’s insulted online. He challenges his accuser to share his real name and see who can make more money over the next five years. The accuser agrees. Our protagonist pretends to be the famous property mogul. The accuser throws himself into various business ventures to attempt to outdo our protagonist – who continues living his everyday life – but when five years ends, he still can’t beat the property mogul. The accuser commits suicide. Our protagonist smiles when he learns of it. The end.

    Story spooks me because both the protagonist and antagonist are flawed. What kind of person accepts a five-year challenge from someone they only know online, and commits suicide over it? Protagonist-wise, this guy is supposed to be our protagonist but he has no qualms over driving an online stranger to suicide because the stranger insulted him.

    Sounds like a Stephen King horror story. Interesting prompt, thanks for the post!

    Reply
  9. Lucy

    Really cool idea – I love it!

    My story was #61 – The Little Peasant.

    Beats: There was a very poor peasant. He tricks the cowherd into giving him a cow and then tricks the miller into giving him money. Then, he tricks the villagers into slaughtering all their own cows. Obviously pissed off, the villagers try to drown him, but he escapes and tricks a shepherd into taking his place. Taking the shepherd’s flock, the peasant then tricks the rest of the villagers into jumping into the river where they drown and he inherits everything.

    Modern setting: I read this as story where a guy who had nothing but his wits and ambition takes advantage of the flaws of other people to gain wealth. My protagonist would be a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who is trying to make it in a career where connections or wealth is everything. The kid is clever, ambitious and silver-tongued but absolutely ruthless when it comes to climbing the ladder. He exploits the flaws of others (laziness, pride, greed, ambition) and is willing to do absolutely anything, including ruining people’s lives. They would feel bad about it, but they would justify it to themselves by saying this was the only way that anybody would ever take them seriously.

    Reply
  10. Bist David Zhang

    179: Master Pfriem

    Master Pfriem is an old man who is perfectionist, thinking that he was always right. He always criticized and insulted those who did the wrong way. His apprentice told him that he did make a shoe too broad, but Master Pfriem didn’t believe it anyway. He once dreamed that he was dead, and went to heaven. He also found clumsiness and mistakes there, but he held it in his mind. He saw a cart got stuck in a hole. An angel came and harnessed two horse to the cart at the front, but then another one came and harnessed another two at the back of the cart. He lost his patience and scolded the angels for their stupidity. One inhabitant of the heaven grabbed him by the throat and forced him to look at the cart closer, that it was being raised by four winged horses. That was when he woke up. He naturally quibbled for himself, that it wasn’t his fault that he didn’t see the winged horses, that it was folly to harness four wingless horses. He woke up and continued his life, perfectionist as always, with a relief that he wasn’t really dead.

    The perfectionist man always deems that he is right and others are wrong; furthermore, he can hardly change and accept the fact that there will always be mistakes, that he can also make mistakes.

    So the sculptor had been spending months in his house, in his sculpting room. He kept failing to make a statue he considered the most perfect. His friend paid him a visit, telling him to take a risk, let go of his ego, and show his creation to public, but the sculptor mistook it as an effort of his to discourage him. They both instantly got into a fight. The man then left the sculptor alone, eventually feeling furious to his own incompetence and imperfection.

    He lost his patience, and did the unspeakable…

    Reply
  11. Ailyn Koay

    i just ask my 4 year old kid, he’s a wealth of stories!

    Reply
  12. John Hamshare

    Thanks for this. Sounds like a great idea. A lot of ‘modern’ stories have common themes that relate back to older ones.

    Romeo and Juliet is the classic ‘boy meets girl’ foundation for countless stories and films.

    Reply
  13. MarkJohn22

    This is really great work. Thank you for sharing such a good and useful information here in the blog for students.
    Case Study Analysis

    Reply

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