Sunday, April 3, 2011

Weekly Column: How to Tell a Story

Our house is full of children’s books: board books, picture books, and early readers.  There are hand-me-downs, gifts, and book fair purchases.  Our bookshelves are rifled through daily – unloaded into heaps on the floor – the better to peruse and admire their contents.  We read at bedtimes and naptimes and in-between times…in short, we love books.
But more precisely, we love stories.  There’s nothing our daughters like better than a personally told story, straight from the imagination.  They’ll race past the bookshelves and into a lap if a story is promised, or wheedle and beg until one presents itself.
The only problem is, as parents, we’ve struggled with stories.  Trying to come up with a plot is like standing on the edge of a massive cliff, not knowing if you’re about to take a killer dive or a sideways dart.  The first time I attempted storytelling without a book in my hands, I think I broke out into a sweat.  Here were these children, staring at me, expecting…something.  And I had no idea how to give it to them. 
But magically, as soon as I started the story, it began to tell itself.  My daughters were enthralled as they imagined scenes for the words I spoke.  Thankfully, since that first time, my husband and I have both become reliable storytellers.  Our girls ask daily for a story, and to keep up with the demand, we’ve gained a few tricks to keep our minds nimble and our palms dry.
First, start with a main character and a setting.  Think of an animal in the forest, give it a name and a hobby, and see where it leads.  Or introduce a hero from a faraway land and plunk him down on a rugged mountain top.  My husband is a pro at claiming a classic, favorite character – like Frodo Baggins – and pairing him up with a fairy or princess from our daughters’ repertoire.
Don’t be shy about describing this character’s appearance or the look of the terrain: good storytelling is rich and broad.  Kids will be more invested in the story if they can picture the character, so be specific and take your time.  Plus, the more details you add, the easier it will be to approach the next step: plot development.
By the time you’ve developed a character and placed him somewhere, your kids wonder what will happen to him, and they won’t be shy about voicing their opinions: let their suggestions lead you.  If they’re too busy following along to think ahead, then you can get creative. 
Think of an obstacle your character must tackle: a lonely mouse searches for friend, but refuses to share his cheese; a girl lost in the forest asks for help from a frightening bear; a racecar driver speeds off the track in search of the perfect sandwich, still managing to win the race.  Connect their actions to problems your children might face, such as bullying or peer pressure, if you feel like giving the story a moral, but don’t feel obligated to extract great meaning.  Be silly, improbable, or thrilling as needed to keep their attention. 
When all else fails, we like to tell stories from our own childhoods.  Like the time daddy came across a snake in the woods, or when mommy got bounced off the edge of the trampoline.  We embellish and broaden to make the story last longer, and they love imagining the exploits of their parents.
But the best part is when our kids take over.  They’ve become creative storytellers as well, and that’s worth any amount of sweaty nervousness and stuttering.


  1. Thank you. You make it sound so easy...I am a horrible story teller! Hopefully I will remember your advice and come up with a successful story the next time a certain little girl requests one. :)

  2. I love all the storytelling that happens in your house. Tell Justin, next time I see him I want a story about Frodo Baggins and Tinker Bell; I'm in the mood for adventure!

  3. What a wonderful gift you are giving your children. It is something they will always remember and treasure!!


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