It always starts the same way: “Tell me a story!” Usually it’s bedtime, but it doesn’t have to be—riding on a long car trip, taking baths, doing dishes after dinner—these all feel like good moments for a story to our girls. But if you’re like us, sometimes coming up with a good story quickly, as you’re shampooing hair or loading the dishwasher, can feel like too much. It’s easier just to say, “Not now. It’s not a good time.”
And yet, we’re so aware of how quickly these times pass, how soon they won’t be sitting around asking us to connect to them through our stories.
We’ve discovered a few tricks to good stories over the years. They don’t have to be classic literature (though Jessica always wants to make sure they have access to those stories too). But all good stories, especially ones for kids, can use some of the same basic moves, ones all good writers master.
And once you know those tricks, you can turn any story—a real life memory or a made-up fantasy—into a great story.
1. Start with a likeable protagonist. Every kids’ story begins with someone they can relate to, someone they could imagine themselves being. Use yourself as a kid, or find another character they’d really like, and set the scene well with an interesting or specific detail that immediately draws them in.
Example 1: “When I was a little boy, I would dress up like a ninja every weekend with black clothes and a long black plastic sword—I was convinced I had magic superpowers.”
Example 2: “Fleet the magical unicorn had hair that sparked lightning at the ends and she could run faster than any horse, cheetah, or even car—she was the fastest unicorn in the world.
2. Add conflict immediately: Your likeable protagonist needs to overcome an obstacle in his path. A conflict can be with a specific person or a circumstance or something the protagonist does that’s a problem. Build the tension with kids using your body language—lean in, lower your voice, make them feel the suspense.
Example 1: “While I was dressed up as a ninja, I would watch my brothers and his friends leave the house on Saturday mornings. They always met up on the weekends at the creek near our house. They went fishing and threw rocks and hung out. I always wanted to go, but they never let me. I was too small, they said. I didn’t know how to fish, they said. So I watched them go, swinging onto their bikes and racing after each other, while I was stuck being a ninja at home by myself.”
Example 2: “Fleet could run so fast that she outran everyone. She turned everything into a race. When people tried to play with her, she only said, “Let’s race!” Soon, no one wanted to race her because she always beat everyone. She sang, “Nanny, nanny, boo, boo!” while she beat them. She ran and ran and ran, all alone, and eventually she became the fastest, and the loneliest, unicorn on the planet. She tried to tell herself she wasn’t really lonely, that she was just better than everyone else, and that’s why she didn’t have any friends. But in her secret heart of hearts, she knew that wasn’t true.”
3. A journey of some sort happens. There’s a famous saying attributed to several writers, including Tolstoy (it wasn’t Tolstoy) that says, “There are only two kinds of plots: A person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” You don’t have to send your character on a long journey, but any change of scenery or new addition of a character can help your protagonist learn something new about themselves or the world.
Example 1: “One day, I decided I was going to follow them to the creek. I waited for them to leave, and then I snuck out, ninja-style, after them. I walked on the sidewalks after them, making sure to stay in the shadows so if they turned around, they wouldn’t see me. I tiptoed through the grass, stepped carefully across the branches, and then stood where I could hear them for the entire time. I watched them sit quietly while they fished. I watched them for hours, as they put the pole in the water and pulled it back out. They didn’t talk about anything. They didn’t do anything. After a while, my feet fell asleep, and then I fell asleep, all alone on the other side of the creek where no one could see me.”
Example 2: “One Tuesday, as Fleet was racing herself, tossing her mane and enjoying the sight of her lightning hair around her, she almost ran over a small kitten. Fleet barely avoided her, but she swerved at the last minute. The kitten just blinked at her with lavender eyes and when she spoke, her voice was sugar-sweet, but her words weren’t: ‘My name is Cupcake. I’ve only been alive a few months, but I already know some things. And I can tell that you’re selfish. You’re only paying attention to yourself. That’s rude.’ It took Fleet by surprise—she was the world’s fastest unicorn! No one talked to her like that! But Cupcake had, and did. Suddenly, Fleet realized something.”
4. Use words that signal that you’re moving to the climactic part: In the above sections, notice we ended with “and then” or “suddenly.” That signals to your little listeners that you’re arriving at the big part of the story. Make sure your voice and your eyes give away the excited tone a good climactic section needs—this is it, the point of all of it!
Example 1: “Hours passed and I slept, totally unaware that my brother had gone home, that my parents were frantic, and that no one could see me sitting alone in the tall grass. I was comfortable, the sun kept me warm, and my ninja cape made a pretty good pillow. When I woke up, I was cuddling my plastic ninja sword like a teddy bear and, in the distance, I could hear someone calling my name.”
Example 2: “Fleet looked at Cupcake and knew, for the first time ever, that she was alone because of her own selfishness. ‘I’m…I’m sorry!’ she said, taken aback. She wasn’t used to apologizing. ‘I’m the world’s fastest unicorn, but it looks like I still have some things to learn about being a friend. Will you forgive me?’ Cupcake gave her the saucy look only a small kitten can, ‘Of course I’ll forgive you, but you must promise to take me on a ride.’”
5. End your story well. You don’t have to end with a lesson for young kids, but every good story has an element in it in which the protagonist learns something else about themselves or the world. Stories can be a really useful way to help kids process something about themselves (Are they being selfish and not sharing, a little bit like Fleet? Do they need to listen to their mommy and daddy, like you did at that age?). Even if you don’t make it some sort of moral lesson, let your character change in some way—that’s the key to a good kids’ story, especially at the ages where they are learning something new about themselves or the world every day.
Example 1: “I called out, ‘I’m here!’ and my parents and brother ran toward me. They were about to call the police—they thought something serious had happened! I was grounded for a week after that, but it was OK. I felt so bad that I’d made my parents sad. And I also realized why it’s important not to disobey; I hadn’t had fun watching my brother and I’d made my parents worried. But a few weeks later, my brother came in while I was dressed as a ninja and said, ‘Hey, want to learn to fish?’ We told our mom we were leaving and he took me to the creek. We spent the day together, quietly fishing. And it wasn’t boring at all. In fact, it turned out to be really fun. We still love to fish together to this day.”
Example 2: “And so Fleet took Cupcake on a ride that day, and every day after that. She used to feel alone running as fast as she could around the world, but she realized it was much more fun when she had a small kitten on her back, holding on to Fleet’s mane with her small kitten claws, mewing with joy when Fleet ran over mountains or hills as fast as she could. Soon Fleet was offering rides to other animals, or teaching them how to run so they could really race, or running around them so they could still stay together. After a few weeks, Fleet discovered she wasn’t the loneliest unicorn in the world, but the busiest friend and the happiest runner ever. She lit up the darkness with her electric hair and everyone loved her. And they all lived happily ever after together.”
Telling stories is one of the best ways to connect with your kids. They will remember details long after you forgot them; you teach them important things about yourself, about the world, and about who they are every time you tell a story. Try it tonight and see if any of our tricks work for you!