Since our kids were little, we’ve read to them every night before bed. Sometimes after we put the book we’re currently reading aside, I’ll also give them a bonus, impromptu storytelling session as I tuck them in. I just tell them a story that I conjure up on the spot. While Gus (age 10) has kind of aged out of it, Scout (age 7) still really enjoys hearing Dad’s imaginative yarns.
I didn’t use any guides to come up with my stories, and instead just drew upon my years of consuming narratives in books, comics, TV, and movies to figure out what to say and how to (lightly) structure things.
On the recommendation of an AoM reader, however, I recently picked up a short book called How to Tell Stories to Children, co-written by two Waldorf and forest school educators. Looking to hone my paternal storytelling skills, I gave it a read. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was already using many proven tactics on crafting stories for kids on the fly, and I garnered a few new tips too.
If you’re a dad (or cool uncle or even grandpa) looking to connect with your kiddos via storytelling, below I share the nuts and bolts of crafting stories for children that I’ve personally field-tested and found work well.
Master the Storytelling Loop to Tell Great Stories
In How to Tell Stories to Children, authors Silke Rose West and Joseph Sarosy say the best stories for children are structured in the form of a loop. The story starts off in reality, in the world your kid lives in; then it moves into a world of imagination where reality and fantasy mix together to create a new world, and a conflict must be resolved; then it ends up back in reality.
I’ve been unwittingly following this pattern since I first started telling stories to my kids.
A series of stories I’ve been telling my daughter Scout for the past few years is called “Magic Mirror Land.” I basically ripped off the story of Alice in Through the Looking Glass and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and made Scout the hero of the story.
She walks through the big mirror that’s in the hallway outside her bedroom door (reality). She enters a world where everything is kooky (fantasy). She’s a chicken, her brother is an elf, her parents are a dog and a cat, the sky is pink, and the sun is a lemon. In Magic Mirror Land, Scout fights all sorts of monsters to save her Magic Mirror Family. But she always makes it back to her bed before sunrise (reality). Real world→imaginative world→real world.
I’ve got similar stories like this. During Christmas time, I tell a story that the kids have a tunnel in the back of their closet that takes them to the North Pole. Before freezing to death, they get picked up by an elf and placed in a cozy bed in Santa’s house. They have a great time with Mr. and Mrs. Claus sipping hot chocolate, eating cookies, and playing with toys. At the end of the story, they get brought back to their home via sleigh. Real world→imaginative world→real world.
The set-up doesn’t even have to be that whimsical. If you saw a squirrel in your backyard earlier, you can make up a story about what its day is like and the problems it has to solve — avoiding fights with birds, not getting run over by a car, collecting enough nuts for winter, etc. Then the story ends with the squirrel coming back to sleep in the tree in your yard. Real world→imaginative world→real world.
Use a Portal to Connect Reality to the World of Imagination
To make the transition from the real world to the world of imagination, use portals. A few favorites that I’ve used:
- Wishing wells
Some of those portals are more fantastical, but by my lights the most compelling kinds are objects/structures in your kids’ current environment. Think of the types of nooks, rooms, holes, and shafts that piqued your curiosity when you were a kid, and made you wonder what they held and where they led. West and Sarosy give an example of a story where a metal drainage pipe on the side of the road turns into a passageway to a world of adventure.
Stir Up Some Conflict
Once you’re in imagination land, create a conflict that has to be resolved. An evil dragon needs to be slayed; a set of characters need to be rescued; a city needs to be saved from a slime flood. The conflict can even be just getting back to reality. I’ve used that device a few times in my stories.
Make the characters struggle. I usually tell stories where the protagonist is on the verge of defeat, but figures out at the last minute how to vanquish the bad guy or solve the problem. It’s a trope I picked up from Harry Potter, but it works. If it made J.K. Rowling a billionaire, it can make me an awesome storytelling dad.
Add Fun Details
Leading up to the conflict and the resolution, describe the world of imagination in a richly detailed and compellingly whimsical way. Remember, this is a make-believe world so anything can happen. The sky can be a different color, the ocean can be red jello, gravity doesn’t work, animals talk, cars can sprout wings and fly. Run wild.
This is the part that my kids like the best. They crack up over all the weird stuff I come up with and keep asking for more. When they bring up the story in conversation, they usually want to talk about all the fun details of the imaginary world Dad spun for them.
Resolve the Conflict
The main character has to resolve the conflict in the story. In Magic Mirror Land, that usually involves Scout using skills or attributes that she has in the real world; I’ve had her employing cartwheels to beat bad guys and beams of love to unfreeze her Magic Mirror Family (I think I might have subconsciously been riffing off the Care Bears on that one).
Return to Reality
Once the conflict has been resolved, get back to reality. It could be via the original magic portal or through some other means. For example, in my North Pole stories, the kids get to the North Pole via a tunnel in their closet but come back home via sleigh.
Bring the Imaginative World Into the Real World
You can mix up the storytelling loop by bringing the world of fantasy into the realm of reality. That can create some hijinks. Think Who Framed Roger Rabbit. What would happen if a cartoon character ran around in the real world? Sometimes in our Magic Mirror Stories, the characters in Magic Mirror Land come to our world, and Scout has to figure out how to disguise a talking dog and cat.
So that’s how I make up stories on the fly for my kids. Start in the world your kids know, transition to a fantasy world, come back to the real world. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Don’t be afraid to goof it up. Your kids don’t care. The thing they’ll remember the most is that their dad took the time to tell them a story before they drifted off to Dreamland.