Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wednesday Writing Workout: The Grimm Way

To celebrate International Children’s Book Day, today’s WWW comes courtesy of Mina Witteman, a true TeachingAuthor, the Regional Advisor of the SCBWI Netherlands Chapter
and a co-organizer of last weekend’s first-ever international conference,SCBWIEurocon.

Mina lives in Amsterdam with her husband and son. In addition to writing and teaching creative writing to middle graders and young adults, she works as a freelance subeditor/copy editor for some of the major publishing houses in the Netherlands and reviews for
While writing, Mina found out that she was a true boys and tomboys writer. Her novels are without exception bloodcurdling adventures with lots of survival in them. She weaves myths and legends into her stories and often makes you wonder if there is more to this world than meets the eye.
Her debut DEEDEE'S REVENGE was published in 2005, followed by THE SUN SPIRIT in 2007 and THE SOUL SNATCHER in 2008 (Van Goor Publishers). The latter two are the first volumes of an adventurous fantasy tetralogy Warriors Of The Sun, based on native-American myths and legends.
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Last week, I attended the Grimm Symposium in the Efteling Fairytale Forest in the Netherlands.  The symposium celebrated 200 years of Grimm fairytales with lectures and the unveiling of a statue of the two famous brothers.
We ended the day with a stroll through the Fairytale Forest, past the Frog Prince, past Snow White and Cinderella and past Little Red Riding Hood.

Why is it that in real life we wish for our roads to be paved with gold and lined with daisies or roses? Why is it that we need the sun to warm us during daytime? Why do we long for gentle, quiet nights that bring us sweet dreams? Roadblocks, potholes and other hurdles upset us, make us yearn for the days that life rustled by like poplar leaves in a gentle summer’s breeze. But when it comes to stories, we want the complete opposite. We love it when our protagonists are locked in a frog’s body. We thrive when they get to eat poisoned apples. We are glued to the paper if they stumble and fall. If it comes to stories, we want conflict. But why?

The answer to this question is that conflict is the beating heart of a story. Without it a story falls flat. Without it characters are destined to spend wax figure lives: beautifully crafted on the outside, empty on the inside. It is when life becomes grim that characters come to life and show us their true colors. It is when life turns against them that their story grabs our attention.

In my beginners’ course, I show my creative writing students what conflict does to a story through what I call The Grimm Way. It is a writing exercise that reveals the importance of conflict in story.

Remember Little Red Riding Hood’s tale? The girl sets out to pay her ill grandmother a visit. She strays from the path and into the woods and meets the wolf. The wolf finds out where she’s going, rushes ahead, eats the grandmother and, upon her arrival, Little Red Riding Hood, too. A hunter then cuts the wolf open and the girl and her grandmother emerge unharmed. They fill the wolf with stones and when he wakes up he collapses and dies.

Now I want you to write a new story line for Little Red Riding Hood, but this time you leave out the wolf. NO wolf in this new story! Keep it short and sweet, just some key words, the odd sentence, nothing more.


Read it and tell me: Is it a thrilling or gripping story line? Do you think that it’s a story that readers would want to read?

When the answer to that question is “no”, you will, most likely, have Little Red Riding Hood just frolic through the woods and arrive at her grandmother’s safe and sound. A sweet, little story, but nothing more. The easier her journey, the less appealing it is to us, the reader. We get bored and lose interest in our red-hooded friend pretty quickly.

But what happened with your story line, if your answer to the question is positive?


You substituted the wolf for another obstacle on poor girl’s path.

That is where the importance of conflict surfaces. Something out of the ordinary happens, something that keeps the girl from reaching her goal, and it instantly grabs the reader’s interest.

Let’s make four lists of new obstacles for Little Red Riding Hood, raising the stakes with each list. We want a list with petty problems, a list with slightly bigger problems, one with substantial problems, and one with catastrophic problems. Try and come up with at least five problems per list (or, when in a group, let each group member come up with one problem per list).


Allocate the problems on your lists to the four types of conflict that we distinguish in narrative structures:

Internal or intrapersonal conflicts (Man against self);

Conflicts between persons or interpersonal conflicts (Man against man);

External conflicts caused by force of nature (Man against nature);

External conflicts caused by society (Man against society).

Which type of conflict yields the most thrilling, most exciting story for you? Don’t worry! There is no better or worse type of conflict. Each has its own merits. Some writers prosper when the perils of nature descend upon their protagonist, when they have to rescue their characters from the grapes of wrath. Others blossom when they can make sure their protagonist is up against the cruelest society that has her fight to the death on live TV, or when they craft an intricate story of vindictiveness and guilt clashes and of how great expectations are shattered.

As a last exercise, I would like you to write two new short stories with Little Red Riding Hood. For the first one, you pick the problem that fits you best as a writer. For the second one – and this is the hard one – pick the problem that fits you least as a writer. Challenge yourself and raise the stakes for both Little Red Riding Hood and yourself.

Talking about raising the stakes: when Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm compiled the first fairytale anthology back in 1812, Wilhelm was quite taken aback by the wickedness of the mothers in the tales. He thought it educationally unwise to burden children and their mothers with these grim excesses of motherhood and he changed all the evil mothers into stepmothers. Can you feel the tension grow if it hadn’t been Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters, but her mother and sisters teaming up against her? And how high would the stakes be if Snow White’s mother had ordered the Huntsman to kill her, instead of her vain stepmother?

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Thank you, Mina, for sharing your smarts, your experience and yourself with our TeachingAuthors readers as well as introducing us to the Efteling Fairy Forest.

And Happy International Children’s Book Day readers and writers all around the world!

Esther Hershenhorn


Judith van Praag said...

Yay for Mina. Showing instead of telling by re-introducing our well known childhood Ingenue and taking away the Big Bad Wolf. Ingenious, what? We relate to what we know, even when we write what we want to find out.

Angela Verges said...

Thanks for that great insight!

Audrey said...

Wow...what a great post. You really made me think, and I appreciate it. I struggle with conflict in my stories, and tend to keep everything too mild and "sweet". I'm going to work on this and follow your advice.

minawitteman said...

Thank you all for your comments. It's always a joy to share with fellow writers!