You probably think you aren’t any good at making up stories. I mean, I hope that isn’t true, but the vast majority of people I talk to say the same things. “You write stories? I could never just make up something out of my head like that.” “I’m not really that creative. I couldn’t think of anything that my kids would want to listen to.” “I can draw, but when I try to think of words, my mind just goes blank.”
I get it. I have zero talent in the visual art department, so I mostly say the same things about drawing. BUT. I do sometimes scribble things for my kids. I sit down with them and “paint” awful landscapes. Yesterday I even sketched out comics with my son to keep them all quiet in church. We’re talking stick figures here. I don’t do it a lot because that’s not my thing, but I do care about them appreciating visual art and I do want them to explore their own possible talent. (I think my son has the makings of a great cartoonist, but then, I’m his mother, what am I going to say?) So I suck it up, keep it simple, and put something on paper. I hope maybe along the way I’m also teaching them to be brave and do things even when they aren’t very good at it.
Did I not say stick figures? Did I not say “zero talent”? You probably can’t even tell which parts were drawn by the 7-year-old and which were drawn by me.
I think you should do the same thing with storytelling, and I’m going to tell you exactly how to do it. (I’m bossy like that.) You should make up stories for your kids. Not every day. Maybe not even regularly if that’s not your thing. But I think you should try it. I think you should surprise them with a tale from time to time. Show them that you value stories. Encourage them by example to try out their own storytelling talents. Also…trust me on this…it will be fun. You may be sweating bullets, but you are going to love how entertained they will be.
Because they WILL be entertained. I’m telling you, especially if your kids are under the age of 8, it takes next to nothing to draw them in. They will giggle or shiver or hold their breath anxiously at the lamest ofstories. Even older kids will listen pretty attentively (admittedly while rolling their eyes). I’ve tried this out on a ton of kids of all personalities. It works every time. Just trust me. I mean, don’t pull them away from their favorite video game or TV show and expect them to be impressed. But the next time they’re bored in the car or waiting at the doctor’s office, that’s your moment.
Keep it simple. Keep it fairly short. Follow these four steps and then when it ends all too soon, ask them to make up one of their own. You can even walk them through the steps. Ready?
- Think of a character. It can be anything: an animal, a person, a robot, a monster. Don’t overthink it. Just use the first thing that pops into your head (Kangaroo! Firefighter! Little girl named Runka!)
- Think of the weirdest thing that character could do regularly. This can be anything that person/thing wouldn’t do in the real world. Again, use the first thing you think of, even if it isn’t exciting. (A kangaroo that talks! A firefighter that tap dances through fires! A little girl named Runka who flies!)
- Think of the most obvious problem that weird action could cause. We’re still going with the first thing you think of, but now you don’t have to think of anything weird. Just natural consequences. You’re a parent. You’re all over these. (Talking kangaroo gets captured and put on display in a circus. Tap dancing firefighter trips in a fiery building. Flying Runka doesn’t know how to land.)
- Find the most logical solution to their problem. The solution can involve other people, or they can save themselves. They can learn their lesson or keep having the same problem forever. Whatever comes to you in the moment will work, as long as the problem gets solved in some way. If you’re stuck, just think about what you would do if you were stuck in that problem. (Circus kangaroo escapes but can’t stop talking and is in and out of zoos the rest of its life. Tap dancing firefighter is rescued by his crew and decides to save his tap dancing for the stage instead of fires. Flying Runka crashes into a tree, which breaks her fall, so she goes around planting trees to land in, so she can fly wherever she wants.)
And just like that, you have a story. If you feel creative, you can embellish, add details, put in twists and turns. But if you don’t feel it, or if you are an inherently logic-driven person, no worries. Only step two requires any creativity, and that’s just basically thinking of what makes sense and then picking the opposite. You can handle that. Let me emphasize again, it doesn’t matter if it seems lame to you. The genius of stories paired with kids’ flexible brains is that they are visualizing it and embellishing it in their own minds without even realizing it. Which, in addition to meaning it’s more fun in their heads than in yours, basically means you are making them smarter. (That is based on absolutely no scientific research, but it’s totally true.)
Here’s me making up one with no extra thought at all:
2. Turns somersaults.
3. Gets really dizzy.
4. Goes to the doctor who runs tests and can’t find anything wrong. Then George does a somersault in the office, and the doctor says, “Hey, maybe don’t that anymore.” George can’t stop, though, so he staggers through the rest of his life, occasionally rolling over to the amusement of all his friends.
Obviously, that is a super short story, but when you add in some description (How old is George? How many somersaults? How dizzy was he? Dizzy enough to throw up?) it’s pretty complete. And even if the details aren’t easy for you, you can always get kids to help you. They like an interactive story. (One there was a man named George. What do you think he looked like? You are right! Well, George really liked to turn somersaults. He did it all day long. How many somersaults do you think he can do in one day?)
Try it! (Please?) You may just impress your kids a little. You may just impress yourself a little.
I’ve got a couple of other story methods for you try out. I’ll try to get them out to you soon. In the mean time, here’s where the four step method originated.
And you really ought to read about HOW TO TURN ORDINARY STORIES INTO JAW DROPPING THRILL RIDES.