Sometimes a book just is not enough. Maybe you and your child have read everything in your small library. Maybe you are caught on a long trip without entertainment. Maybe both of you want a change from the routine. Whatever the reason, you’re not reading—but there is an ancient art that can save the day—storytelling! From our ancestors telling tales around the fire to Homer entertaining kings, storytelling is one of the most magical parts of our shared human experience.
Sometimes getting a story started is easier said than done. Grownups don’t always have a chance to use our imagination as much as our children do. But the lovely thing about imagination is that it never goes away! Here are six ideas for even the most inexperienced talespinner to get the creative juices flowing, and craft a story your child will never forget.
Use “Happily Ever After” as your start:
Let’s face it—coming up with new characters is hard. Coming up with them on the fly during bedtime is even harder. Luckily, there are certain characters that we have been familiar with our whole lives. Of course, we are talking about the heroes of classic fairytales! If your little one is looking for something outside the box, why not try to think of what Snow White and the dwarfs have been up to since the royal wedding. Is Snow White the new queen? Is she still in contact with her former housemates? Is the Wicked Queen really gone for good or is she waiting for the right moment to make a comeback? What is the Prince like?
This is both a satisfying thought exercise, and a way to start a story that will automatically hold the attention of any child who likes the original. If you get ambitious, you can even have characters from familiar stories meet each other in your story. Do the Seven Dwarfs live in the same woods as the Three Little Pigs? Perhaps they have some clever ideas for how to deal with future wolf problems? Would Briar Rose and Snow White have a lot to talk about since they both were cursed with sleep? Perhaps they can go on an adventure in dreamland together. With classic source material, the possibilities are endless!
Don’t plan, but remember:
Don’t overthink starting a story. You already have enough going on in your head and it’s not fair (or necessary!) to add “professional author” to your parenting duties. Instead, try playing an old improv game with your child. As you start the story have them pick an occupation, place and object (or pick them yourself) and simply start telling the story of that firefighter who goes to a doughnut shop and finds a crown. Included in this list is a PDF of random occupations, places, and objects to get you started. From there, trust your gut and follow your instincts as to what that person would do in those circumstances.
Don’t forget the details, especially if your child enjoys the story and wants to continue following that character. Did Bob the Firefighter meet Alice the Cat who claims to be the rightful owner of the crown? Make sure Alice comes back in future stories. If it helps, you might want to write down basic plot points and characters after each story session. In no time you and your child will have a world of characters and adventures that are entirely your own!
Let your child lead the way:
We hear you. Improvisation is not everyone’s cup of tea. Maybe you simply cannot think of anywhere that Bob the Firefighter would go after having baked the crown into a doughnut. This is where your child comes in.
It goes without saying that children have strong opinions. As a parent, you have certainly witnessed this in regards to dining options and bedtime routines! Now you can use their opinions to your advantage while stimulating their imaginations. If you are ever stuck in a story, ask your child what they think the characters should or would do next. You may be met with a chorus of “I don’t know.” Press the issue. They do know! Or at least, they have ideas. Ask them questions and watch as they tell you the story they want to hear.
With an older child you might even try swapping ‘chapters.’ You start the story and then, at an appropriate transitional period (or when you run out of ideas!) they fill in the next section, before trading back to you. This is not only great bonding it also encourages verbal and creative writing skills!
Humor is your friend:
Drama is compelling, but sometimes it’s not all that sustainable. Besides, a too-serious story runs the risk of becoming accidentally upsetting or overstimulating. A light tone is the friend of the amateur storyteller. But don’t worry—you don’t have to come up with a bunch of punchlines. Humor can be as simple as making an observation or an aside about the absurdity of the plot that you yourself have constructed. Do you keep having Bob go back to the doughnut shop whenever you run low on ideas? Have him comment on how much he frequents the place. Always thought that Snow White was a strange name? Have Snow herself comment on what she would prefer to be called.
Humor not only helps to stretch your material, it can also provide the spoonful of sugar that helps a complicated life lesson go down. Say you want to use Alice the Cat to explore the concept of sharing. Instead of the bleak ending where she loses her crown forever because she wouldn’t share it with Bob, have the crown roll into the sewer so that persnickety Alice has to work with down-to-earth Bob to get it back. That not only teaches a much better lesson than a dramatic ending would have, but the funny mental picture of the disgusted Alice will help to keep your little one engaged with the proceedings!
Incorporate their interests:
A great way to get ideas moving is to consider what your child is passionate about and incorporate that into your story! Got a kid who’s gaga for dinosaurs? Slip a velociraptor into your epilogue of the Three Little Pigs and see how that shakes things up! Or have the velociraptor be the star of her own story. Maybe she is a mother velociraptor who is trying to keep her eggs safe. Maybe she is a modern velociraptor trying to make her way as a singer in Nashville. We promise that no matter what you have her do, your child will be engaged with her adventures, even if it’s just to indignantly inform you that velociraptors do not speak English!
Using their passions is also a great way to let your child help you with the story. Everyone likes to talk about things they know about. So if you are feeling short on ideas, try telling them that you want to tell a story about dinosaurs but are not sure where to start. Watch them light up as they enlighten you and give the template of the story they want to hear!
At the end of the day some of this may come as naturally to you as breathing. Or this might be really hard. There is no right way to tell a story. The only way to tell an enjoyable story is to make yourself happy while telling it. Even the simplest story is made better by a happy and enthusiastic storyteller.
The easiest way to be a happy storyteller is to amuse yourself. Modernizing a story, especially so you can fit your job into it, is always fun as well. Maybe you can make the goblin resemble that coworker who has been on your case all week. If that feels a little too real, why not model the story on one of your favorite movies (appropriately aged for the kids). Sure, we think of the Seven Dwarfs as miners...but maybe they are construction workers like dad, and a lot of the action happens on a building site. Use the list found below to get started. The possibilities are endless!
Carnivorous plant breeder
Fairy tale narrator
Ice cream truck
On top of a mountain
House of straw
House of sticks
House of bricks
On a cloud
Haunted post office
The back of a giant turtle
An amusement park
Empty pizza box
Tiny teddy bear
Ship in a bottle
Tiny red shoes
Bag of fairy dust
A tube of toothpaste
A spell book
A spell book that is disguised as a cookbook
A glowing stone
A bag filled with lemons
An ostrich egg
A hummingbird egg
A dragon egg
One blue glove two sizes too small