I was over at a friend’s house the other night when her husband excused himself to go tell their two kids a bedtime story.
“Oh, what story are you guys reading?” I asked as he headed upstairs.
“Oh, we’re not actually reading anything,” he said. “I make up the story as we go along…it’s become quite the epic with a cast of way too many characters.”
I thought that was so cool—to be able to make up a story. On the spot! With your kids!
Books and reading are fundamental, but there’s something refreshing and freeing, almost anarchistic, about being able to weave a tale off the cuff. A lot of us parents are so shackled (in a good way!) to the book that we forget we don’t actually need printed material to relay a riveting tale.
In fact, some of the most popular children’s books began as tales told by parents to their children. Watership Down was based on homemade yarns author Richard Adam told to his two daughters who loved it so much he was encouraged to turn it into a book. After being turned down by 13 publishers before getting picked up by Penguin, Watership Down reportedly has gone on to sell over 50 million copies.
Aside from the prospect of earning untold millions, there are other benefits to oral story telling as well.
Number one, weaving tales is interactive a child’s input helps drive the plot and create
completely crazy interesting characters, which stokes creative and critical thinking, problem solving and thinking about the relationship between cause and effect.
And, um, creative thought isn’t just good for children. Making up stories is a reminder for parents that it’s okay to think “off page,” which could lead to more innovative thought in their professional lives. (Maybe I will use that green manila folder over beige after all! Yes!)
It also helps parents get a glimpse into their child’s mental state. A child who always asks for the scary dragon over the sweet princess suggests a kid who doesn’t mind being spooked.
Lastly, great made-up stories can become part of a family’s legacy — an intimate and highly idiosyncratic narrative that can be passed down the generations…or turned into a book deal that sells zillions of copies (sure, why not?).
But inventing a tale before an audience — even an audience of one dressed in footie pajamas — can be a little intimidating. Knowing me, I’d get all tongue tied and bogged down with dumb details and end up plagiarizing an existing story. “So, um, there was this wolf? Who blew this house down? Wait, that’s the Three Little Pigs. Crap, well, everyone died. The end.”
To make up a good story, it helps to start with a framework, a few guidelines to keep you on track. Here are some useful tips for how to make up a great story with your kids:
1. The Story Spine
Developed by playwright Kenn Adams to help improv actors stay on track during a performance, the story spine provides the framework for creating well structured stories. Jot down the following phrases before beginning your story. It gives you the start of each sentence and you fill in the rest: -Once upon a time… / And everyday… / Until one day… / And because of that… / And because of that… / And because of that… / Until finally… / And ever since that day… / THE END.
2. Try it for at least three nights
Your first made up tale might be a bit wobbly, but don’t take it as a sign of suckitude…it just means you’re warming up. By the third night, you’ll sound like Anthony Hopkins doing Shakespeare…or Elmo, whichever.
3. Make your child’s favorite stuffed animal or toy the star of the story
Or maybe a sidekick. Yeah, a sidekick. Make your kid the star.
4. Use an event from their days as a plot point
This can help a child think about issues that came up during the day…regarding friends, fun, family, pets, operating heavy equipment. You know, the usual. Though try not to bog it down with morals and sermons, a.k.a. death by story.
5. Resist the urge to speed
“Go slower than you think,” said actress Emma Thompson recently to NPR about the publication of her children’s book The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit. She was referring to the written word, but the advice applies to made-up tales as well. A slow telling builds suspense and encourages participation.