Subscribe to this Blog
Today's Blogs
    The Checkup:

Becoming a master storyteller

Yesterday's discussion on "Where the Wild Things Are" needled on my one of my weak points as a parent: I'm not a very good storyteller. I'm not capable of spinning the kind of scary story that would keep my kids up at night. I can't even keep them very well engaged in the silly tales that I do tell.

I am convinced this is a learnable skill. When I was still new at the parenting thing, I ended up -- in a really weird turn of events -- spending one afternoon of an adult-only vacation at a storytelling symposium with a guy named Willy Claflin. Claflin's shtick was simple: He used a series of puppets to tell fractured fairy tales (listen to an example here).

His tips for the puppet were interesting -- Claflin suggests just staring at the puppet, because kids will follow your gaze (no need for ventriloquism!) -- but his rules for scrambling traditional stories was most interesting. He told us to throw out or misstate the moral, change a few of the key plot points with an emphasis on silliness and go for broke on the details.

Unfortunately, I realized that my kids aren't as well-versed in fairy tales as I had hoped, so riffing on the classics just confuses them. I've tried to make the stories chock full of details, but I've found that preschoolers tend to have a finely tuned sense of plot and are much more interested in what happens next than in what Red Riding Hood's coat looks like. So I've basically given up. I'll read aloud (even with puppets) whenever and wherever I can, but it's rare that I'll close the book and create my own world.

But I know a lot of people who come from families with incredible storytelling traditions, and I'd like to hear from you on this one: How do you weave tales for your children. Ad lib? Preparation? Are your fantasy lands one-offs, or do you build on the plotlines night after night?

By Brian Reid |  October 21, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Entertainment , Preschoolers
Previous: The fine line between fright and fun | Next: When kid costumes go a little too far

Comments


"Yesterday's discussion on "Where the Wild Things Are" needled on my one of my weak points as a parent"

Editor alert! There seems to be an extra word in the above.

"I'm not a very good storyteller"

Nor a good communicator.

"I can't even keep them very well engaged in the silly tales that I do tell."

Wow! There's a shocker.

"I am convinced this is a learnable skill."

It's a gift. Think Homer. No props, no puppets, no batteries included.

Posted by: jezebel3 | October 21, 2009 7:14 AM | Report abuse

With littles (2-3 years old) storytelling is easy, provided that you stick to a few rules.

1 -- the child is always the star of the story.

2 -- the most successful stories start with reality, then veer off into the crazy.

3 -- be careful with details, because the kid WILL remember every single one, demand a repeat performance every night for a month, and will correct you when you change/forget something.

4 -- if it's bedtime, keep things simple. Mentioning new or complicated ideas will result in hours of questioning, that night and for the next week.

Posted by: newsahm | October 21, 2009 9:12 AM | Report abuse

I have to tell a story or funny anecdote a few times badly to get everything sorted in my head right. My main problem is that the timeline of things gets jumbled in my head and I end up giving the punch line away before it's been set up properly or something similar. I've told a funny story (honest!) tons of times to be met with a blank stare because I totally bungled the delivery. Eventually I'll get it right, but it takes a few tellings (again, honest! it's funny!).

I guess I could practice telling stories in the car, but would that make me crazy? Right now my poor husband suffers through a few confusing retellings of something that happened once until I get it right. Once I've got it down, I (honest!) can be pretty funny.

By the way, my parents are great storytellers, I'm not sure how I missed this ability. Maybe they've just had that many more years to get it together.

Posted by: em15 | October 21, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Puppets are creepy.

Aside from that, I have never been a good storyteller although I can do several good voices for characters in a book - specifically cookie monster and kermit the frog.

I know several good storytellers, and from my experience it is a natural talent. When I was little I remember being enthralled by my Aunt's stories, she made everything so mysterious, funny, interesting... on and on. My kids have enjoyed her storytelling as well, and seeing the intense look on their little faces when they were listening to her spin her tales was pure joy!

Posted by: cheekymonkey | October 21, 2009 9:16 AM | Report abuse

I think that storytelling is one area where modern media challenges us. I'm pretty sure that before 1900 generations of my family lacked access to the internet, TV, radio, recorded music, movies and (like many immigrants) books in the home. There was no storytelling symposium. When it was bedtime, the kids had their illiterate, untrained, imperfect parents tell them stories and I'm pretty sure it was just fine.

Recorded music raised expectations (and removed some of the need) for how well we needed to sing in our homes to the point that many people don't do it anymore. The existence of professional storytellers shouldn't do the same for bedtime stories. It sounds like the professional's advice wasn't working for Brian anyway. My three year old has liked stories where I steal the plot line from somewhere else (Gilligan's Island episodes, for instance) and populate the story with people and places from the world he knows. I never have a moral to my stories.

Here's a idea, Brian, don't over-think it too much. Just do it the best you can and adapt your approach as you see what works for your family.

Posted by: KS100H | October 21, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

I'm not into puppets either. For me they have a weird pervy vibe.

What I do with my 5 year old is part of our bedtime routine. We do a "two animal" story or a "three animal" story. DD picks the animal characters (last story was the racoon and the snake), and she gets to pick the moral which is usually something really simple ("working together is important"). I then ad lib a story on the spot that is short, usually absurd, and bluntly involves the lesson DD picked. The stories also all have to have a cheesy happy ending because tragic endings or anything too deep prompts a load of questions at bedtime when I am trying to get her to simmer down.

So- for example, the last story was basically that the racoon and the snake got into a bragging contest about which one ought to rule their island. I went on a bit about why each animal thought it should be king and did some silly voices. Then a giant coconut tree almost falls on them and they had to work together to avoid disaster (insert ridiculous details. Racoon does a flying karate kick in the air and with one swipe of his claws, chops off a branch that almost squashed the snake. The snake catches the tree trunk and with some magical strength of 100 snakes, swings the trunk away from the island and out to sea). After that, they became best friends and decided to rule the island together and the racoon got to be Supreme Grand Pooh-bah and the snake got to be Admiral No. 1 Chief (or something like that) and everyone was happy.

Posted by: michelleg1 | October 21, 2009 9:40 AM | Report abuse

I'm on the "not" side. Inherited from my mother -- whenever I'd beg her to tell me a bedtime story, here's what I got:

"Once upon a time there was a good little girl who went to bed and went right to sleep. The end."

Much as I hated it as a kid, I have found myself telling my daughter the exact same story! I'm not creative that way -- and 8:00 at night, when I'm just trying to get them in bed, is not the time to be trying to get that right side of the brain going.

My stepfather, on the other hand, is a freaking genius. He would spin these long, elaborate stories, seemingly on the spot, involving the kids and some mythical being. A few years ago, we found some that he had typed up 20+ years ago, and my stepbrother and sister typed up others that they remembered. We had it made into a book and gave it to him for his 60th birthday, which really touched him. Now I read some of those stories to my kids -- inserting their names into the appropriate places, of course.

Posted by: laura33 | October 21, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

"Once upon a time there was a good little girl who went to bed and went right to sleep. The end."

HA! Laura, I used to say the same thing to my daughter! My mother was not much of a storyteller, but my dad was pretty good. He still tells some good ones to my kids and they think he is hilarious.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | October 21, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Not a story teller, but I can make a silly song about anything. Usually, I have the kids pick two things and I make up a song about it. Last night was birds and dolphins and fairies and witches. Find what you are good at and go with that. Not all parents are good at all things. I'm a terrible cook with no interest in getting better.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | October 21, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Practice makes perfect. Start small and work up. Take a classic fairytale and tell it from another character's point of view, or move it to another very different setting -- underwater, in outer space, on the island of Sodor, whatever works for you and your kid(s). Also, don't be afraid to let your kids help you to guide the story -- a lot of times they have very good, or at least very definite, ideas about what should happen.

Posted by: ReaderKat | October 21, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

For bedtime stories, I've usually been reading a variety of books to the kids. Fairy tales, children's classics, books with chapters like Tom Sawyer, Heidi, and Kiplings's tales, you name it. One story/chapter per night, and that's it. I haven't tried making any up yet, but that's okay.

One interesting twist is that sometimes my older daughter would rather have me tell her about some of the fire/rescue calls we've run. She'll ask for the weirdest call we've run (dog on the roof), the funniest call (plenty of variety there), or one involving an animal (You'd think the one about the guy whose pet boa constrictor clamped onto his hand at feeding time would freak her out, but no. And she found the story about how we found a black snake in the attic of a house while responding to a chimney fire hilarious!). After all those years of volunteering (ten for me, 22 for my husband), there's no shortage of material! It's a good chance to throw a moral into the story as well, and it also gives me a chance to rehash some of the memories of certain calls before they all blur together.

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | October 21, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

My favorite stories growing up were always my Grandma's. There was no fantasy or imagination on her part; she just told us about when her kids were little. I loved trying to imagine my seven-year-old mother eating all the olives at a fancy party and leaving the pimentos or my sixteen-year-old uncle driving in the snow with a stuck down convertable roof. I knew the characters but, of course, never having met them when they were young, it was pure fantasy for me.

Posted by: crayolasunset | October 21, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

My son asks me to tell him stories "from your mind" almost constantly. My tips are similar to newsahm. My son and his three best buds are always at the center of the story. It's almost always about them playing and then something magical happens, although sometimes he likes to hear the story of his day or the story of an upcoming exciting event.

As for plotlines, repetition and variations are your friends. Kids dig repetition when they're little. So once you get a storyline that works (your own or lifted from a book/movie whatever), put your kids in it and make minor variations over time. Also, use existing characters but put your kid in a story with them - after the failed watching of The Incredibles, my son wanted stories about them. So, he and his friends all magically become The Incredibles and rescue someone, using The Incredibles' various superpowers. Change up the location, person being rescued, precise manner of the trap, repeat ad naseum. Or, The Incredibles magically climb out of the movie into our living room, our son is napped by the bad guy, rescued by The INcredibles (in pretty much the exact same way).

Also, I use storytime to make sure he remembers our phone number and address. So every story starts with, "Once upon a time there was a boy named Boy, who's phone number was ____ and who's address was ______" He fills in the blanks. I figure at this age repetition is good for that purpose too.

Posted by: LizaBean | October 21, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

With littles (2-3 years old) storytelling is easy, provided that you stick to a few rules.

1 -- the child is always the star of the story.

2 -- the most successful stories start with reality, then veer off into the crazy.

3 -- be careful with details, because the kid WILL remember every single one, demand a repeat performance every night for a month, and will correct you when you change/forget something.

4 -- if it's bedtime, keep things simple. Mentioning new or complicated ideas will result in hours of questioning, that night and for the next week.

Posted by: newsahm |


Sounds like good advice. Thanks!

Posted by: sunflower571 | October 21, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

I love story-telling. That's probably apparent from my posts. Don't know that I'm particularly good at it, though.

For bed-time I've always read to the boys. Hearing the same story the same way night after night does settle them down and avoids the opportunity for them to stall with lots of questions and conversations.

Most of my story-telling for the kids is around our religion. Especially before a Sabbat (often in the car driving to the Circle), I like to retell the Greek myth, or Celtic tale, or Norse saga that inspires that particular Sabbat. If the kids have a basic understanding, they're more likely to have fun and participate, and much less likely to get bored, act up, or ask to leave before we're done.

In my experience, leave out as many details as possible, keep only what moves the story forward and what will be fun or funny to the audience. And *know* your source material well! (Hmmm - I better follow my own advice and go do some Samhain reading because our tradition's Sabbat celebration is only nine days from now.)

Posted by: SueMc | October 21, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Since I can't read to my kids, I've had no other choice but to make up all their bedtime stories. Though I consider myself far from a master, I will tell you that there is a big difference between being a good storyteller, and telling a good story. (though if one has these 2 talents combined, all the better)

To be a good storyteller, you don't need a plot of any kind. Simply making up an adventure out of going to the store and picking up a loaf of bread will do. What kids really like is imagination, expression, silliness, exageration, outlandish fantasy, the ability to animate and talk to puppets/stuffed animals, and as moxiemom suggested, the willingness to sing. (You don't even have to be good at it) Different voices helps a lot too, as for the story for going to the store for a loaf of bread, you can put in the voices of the characters you meet - the redneck, Mr Gruff, the cheerleader, grandpa, the office weenie, a baby, the giant, Barney, and the Ninja that karate chops Barney's head off for saying "Super-Dee-Duper".

And every dad that takes kids camping should practice his "Thumper" story. This is the tale about an old army vet with a peg leg that mysteriously disappeared many years ago, possibly drowned in a lake, but the body had never been found. But rumor has it that campers in the area have ever since heard the "thump", "thump", "thump". Upon telling the story, get the kids to listen very intently to the noises around them, keep repeating the "thump", "thump", "thump" motif, bring the story down to a scary whisper, suggest that thumper is lurching close nearby, and at the right time, scream "BOO!!!" If you can get a kid to wet his/her pants with this oldie, consider yourself a good storyteller.

And for tonight's story for the 7 year old, it's gonna be "Henry and the Flying Kayak"...

Good luck! Remember, talent isn't everything, practice makes perfect.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | October 21, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

My favorite stories growing up were always my Grandma's. There was no fantasy or imagination on her part; she just told us about when her kids were little.

Posted by: crayolasunset | October 21, 2009 12:27 PM

Oooo! I loved family stories when I was little. My mother had *loads* of stories about her extended family, and growing up on her grandmother's dairy farm. My paternal Grandma was great about telling family history too.

Thank you for reminding me of that. I'll be passing on as much as I can remember.

Posted by: SueMc | October 21, 2009 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Ask a children's librarian for storytelling tips. She or he probably also can suggest books or videos about storytelling techniques.

Posted by: SilverSpringer1 | October 22, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

SueMc, I do the same thing with Sabbats. Stories then center around certain myths and legends pertaining to the specific reason for the celebration, and every full moon brings with it a reading of the Ashanti legend of Anansi the Spider and how the moon came to be in the sky. Afterwards, we all troop out to the deck (weather permitting) to see if the moon is up in the sky yet. If it is, that's grounds for some serious celebrating!

Blessed Samhain, by the way. I'll be celebrating that one by telling the kids family stories about their ancestors along with an aforementioned myth or legend at bedtime.

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | October 22, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

If you are blessed with the ability to tell fabulous stories, then go with it.

But, if that intimidates you as a parent, choose books to read to your children loaded with rich vocabulary, descriptions and inference that will pull them into a love of the art of stories, reading and writing. Children who hear good literature, can become good storytellers and writers.

I'm a speech pathologist and have always used wonderful children's literature as a basis for language therapy. Kids who need remediation learn exceptional language through books.

Sherry Artemenko
http://www.playonwords.com

Posted by: playonwordscom | October 25, 2009 9:08 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 

© 2010 The Washington Post Company