Telling Stories

We don’t really do it anymore, do we? Tell stories I mean. We read stories out loud, lots of stories, especially to our kids. Today you can even buy books online with your child as the main character. You choose between different themes and send a description of your child’s looks and age, and a few days later you’ll receive a book about your little strawberry-blond Walter fighting dragons or curly-haired Carly becoming a princess. It’s not a bad idea. Except I can’t help but feel that it misses the point if the idea is to create something unique. Wouldn’t it be something if we could make up our own stories to tell the kids? In the following, I’ll show you a way to do just that, and how to find the time without quitting your day job.
Some people might be able to make up a story at the spur of a moment and tell it brilliantly, making voices for the big bad lion and the courageous little mouse, but for most of us, making up a story and being able to tell it in a convincing way takes time, even a little practice. The first obstacle we meet is what on earth to tell about. How do we get the ideas for stories?
There are so many ways to get inspiration that I’d like to devote a post to the subject soon. Here I’ll focus on what could be called imagination triggers. Imagination triggers build on the idea that some images trigger our imagination more than others. If I ask you to mentally picture a desk; a nicely cleared desk with only a laptop placed at the center and a few pencils to the right. Does it spark your imagination? Not really, am I right? For most of us, our mind stays as clear and blank as the desk. But what happens if I ask you to picture a cardboard box on a doorstep and a child passing by? Do you start to imagine what might be inside the box? And what the kid will do? An unopened box always triggers our imagination. There could be millions of dollars inside, or a cute puppy, or it could transport the kid to a different dimension with trees made of chocolate. A fence with a loose board just big enough for a child to squeeze through is another imagination trigger, a dusty old attic full of forgotten treasures yet another.
For me the image of the unopened box on a doorstep immediately sparked the idea of a girl finding a puppy in a box placed in front of a church door. The girl takes the box and puppy with her to school and spends the day trying to keep it secret. You can imagine the trouble she might run into…
It also sparked the idea of a bullied little boy who hides inside the box and is transported to a land faraway plagued by a fiery dragon. The boy’s the only one who can save the villagers if he can find “courage,” a little amber amulet, stolen by the dragon…
The possibilities are endless, and yet I would have absolutely no problem should you want to use my ideas to tell your own story. Even if both you and I and ten other people started the stories above, we would never end up telling exactly the same one. That’s the true beauty of storytelling if you ask me. When we work with our imagination, the sky really is the limit. It’s why I believe the pre-themed books, where we just plot in our own main character, miss the point completely.
But getting an idea is only the beginning. Even if we have a brilliant idea, we’re not quite ready to tell the story yet. If you don’t believe me, try it. Just tell the story you’ve thought about. Say it out loud. You’ll probably quickly find yourself stopping. In the story about the little girl finding a puppy, you’ll need to figure out how she gets to school, who’s suspicious of the box, who helps her, and how does it all end. You’ll also need to know what the girls looks like, how she acts, what challenges she faces in general and this goes for all the characters she meets in the book. In other words, you’ll need a storyline and a list of characters with a few words of description. Maybe you’ll ask how I imagine you’re going to find the time for this.
“It’s why we buy story books instead of making them up,” you might argue, “There’s just not time for all that plotting.” My argument is that there’s plenty of time. The nice thing about plotting, is that it doesn’t require a whole lot more than a pencil, a piece of paper to plot down a few words to aid your memory, and most importantly: time to think. In a world that seldom operates as fast a we do, most of us spend a lot of time waiting every day. We wait for the bus, are stuck in traffic, wait in line, wait for the computer or printer to warm up, wait for our coffee at the coffee shop… The day is full of little or longer breaks where we really can’t do anything but wait. So instead of scrolling through Facebook and Instagram three times, hoping someone would post something interesting, you find your notebook and put your brain to work on something it will love doing: indulging your imagination and creating something uniquely yours. It can even be done without WIFI😉
Let’s say that after your lunchbreak you have the outline for a little story and a list of characters. Remember you don’t need to write the story, this is not a post about writing kid lit, it’s about telling a story you’ve made up. Still the basics mentioned in the first two posts “How to make a hundred-word story” and “Writing a thousand-word story” will help you build the story. When we tell a story (as in say it out loud), we can usually get away with a lot more telling (as opposed to showing) than we can in a written story. I will however encourage you to think in scenes. Having a few scenes where you zoom in and let the characters speak for themselves gives life to your tale.
In the story about the girl and the puppy in the box, it would make sense to zoom in on the scene where she finds the box. You can describe the box and cry out when the box starts shaking, then tilts and… yelps (yelp!) You might also create a scene where you use voices for the horrible English-teacher Mr. Stiff and frightened Kenny who has been trying to help out your main character to keep the puppy hidden.
To remember the storyline and dialogue, I usually create a few cards where I write down keywords, I even draw a quick sketch of a box and write: “shake, tilt and yelp.” When you have your storyline, characters and a few scenes where you know what the characters say, it’s time for a few practices. Say the story out loud and do the voices. The important thing here is to get a sense of what your story sounds like, and how long it takes to tell it. I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to make up long stories. Try to keep it as simple as possible. It’s easier to remember a three-scene story than a nine-scene one. You’ll also have to consider your child’s age. My kid is only two-and-a-half. She has a very vague idea of what a school is, so I’ll have to wait a few years before that story will work for her. If you’re unsure of the level of plotting your kid will understand, look through the books he loves. For the younger kids, repetition is important. For instance, whenever the puppy in the box draws attention to itself, let it happen in the same manner, the box always shakes, tilts and yelps. This also makes it easier for you to remember.
I won’t promise you that you can imagine, plan and execute the most amazing story in just one day. Especially not at the beginning. Like with everything else, practice makes perfect; lots and lots of practice. But even a story a week or a month makes an awful lot of unique stories for the kids to love and cherish. You can even have them help you out: “What would you like Grandpa to tell you about next time?” “What kind of animal should be a part of the story?” If you have older kids (older than my two-and-a-half-year-old), they can make drawings for your stories. Or make up their own stories to tell you. There are so many ways to make your imagination work for you, and the most amazing part is that it’ll feel like playing again. You might end up being so absorbed in your imaginations that your daily commute seems too short😉
Should you feel so pleased with your stories that you decide to write them down and even consider publication, I highly recommend taking a course in writing children’s books. For the professional kid-lit writer there are many details, tips, tricks and rules I have not mentioned here.
As I mentioned earlier, my next post will be about getting ideas for stories, not just for kid’s stories, but for stories in general. So if you’d like to write more but have run out of inspiration, tune in for my next post.

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