Storytelling Tips and Tricks
Let me show you how to tell exciting stories that your kids will ask to hear, over and over. Like any endeavor, there are a number of simple and fun techniques that all but guarantee that you and your young listeners will enjoy a great experience with these storytelling tips and tricks.
Why Tell Stories
Telling a story your kids grandkids or other small friends want to hear is a powerful way to create intimacy. In a world increasingly hijacked by impersonal electronic media, storytelling allows us to turn back the clock to create unique personal bonds with our children. Especially, if you keep a beloved story going over many months or years, adding new twists and turns as needed, you’ll create a world to which only you and your small listeners have the key. And even when the years fly by, and your little ones now look down on you, the fact that you once shared a magical world will always be there as an foundation stone of your relationship.
And if you’re lucky a good story — like a good children’s book — will be passed down through the generations. For example, I’ve told my grandkids a bear story my grandfather told me based on an event that occurred in his childhood way back in the 1880’s. Although my grandkids would doubtless be bored breathless by their great great grandfather’s biography, a bit of him lives via that bear story. And who knows, maybe they will tell it to their grandkids.
How to Tell a Story
The key to successful storytelling is to tell stories kids want to hear. Fortunately, there are loads of ways to create compelling stories. But one of the best is to put your kids at the center of a story they are sure to like — making friends with a dinosaur, traveling to outer space, driving a garbage truck, swimming with mermaids, or setting up a hospital to rescue sick monkeys — it makes little difference as long as you, in your role of storyteller, have created a world your little listeners want to enter. And your story will be even more successful if your listeners closely identify with a key character — ideally, so closely that they imagine they are that character.
Practice Before You Tell
On an inspired evening you may be able to simultaneously think up and tell an almost perfect story to the cheers of your young audience. But without preparation, it’s at least as likely that you’ll become bogged down halfway through, failing to come up with a truly satisfying ending. That’s why you are almost sure to fare better if you think up the outline of your story in advance. And you’ll further improve your chances of shooting the storytelling moon if you practice telling it to yourself a few times, making small changes to each version until you have it exactly right.
Tell a Favorite Story Over and Over
Another reason to practice a story until it’s just right is that children, especially little ones, will insistently demand that you tell a favorite story over and over. Take this as a huge compliment both to your story and the way you tell it. But to keep yourself sane after the 10th, 20th or even the 50th repetition you’ll want to create new adventures for your much-beloved characters. Thus, Ben & Bess, The Circus Kids, might go on from their adventures on the high wire to perform every act under the big top. But as old friends face new dramas, you’ll want to respect your audience’s desire that they stay in character. Thus Ben & Bess might start each new adventure by first climbing to the high wire and performing their amazing routine of doing a synchronized back flip through a flaming ring.
Don’t Be Afraid to Leave Them Hanging
Telling a short, sweet story to a three year old can be a lot easier then hooking a nine year old with a more complex and nuanced tale. Especially with longer stories, don’t be afraid to break your adventure into parts with each one ending as a cliffhanger. Just like a TV series you want to roll the credits just when your listeners are 110% hooked. If, when you stop a little voice pipes up, “You can’t stop now, you just can’t!” you’ll know you are a real storyteller.
Simple Rules to Tell Great Stories
Keep it simple. Especially for younger children, short and sweet is best. A three or four year old will love a drama about Suzy the Dinosaur’s misadventures when she chews bubblegum for the first time. There is no need to toss in a killer spider or a rocket ship to Mars.
Prefer action to explanations. Take a moment to watch kids’ cartoons and you’ll see that if the Road Runner stages an exciting escape from the coyote by parachuting off a mountain cliff, few kids will ask who packed the parachute. Similarly, to best hold your audience you’ll want to focus on the gripping parts. Any kid who wants more background will ask for it.
Pick a subject your kids love. Ballet, basketball, fire engines, rainbow fairy princesses or catching a grandpa fish—a big key to storytelling success is to pitch your story to your audience’s sweet spot.
Make your listener the star. If your five-year old daughter Bebe loves bugs, she is almost sure to be riveted by the adventures of Becky the Girl Bug Collector who happens to look and talk a lot like her. My 20-something daughter Miya still talks fondly about her childhood identification and fascination with Rainbow, a heroic Miya look-alike who tumbled off an 1849’s wagon train and grew up with the Sioux. Even fifteen years later, Miya is sure that she and Rainbow are joined at the hip.
Make the details colorful. To inspire your listeners’ visual imagination, paint a vivid verbal picture. For example, it’s more interesting to hear “they ate their ham and frog legs sandwiches” than “they ate their lunch,” or “the witch got into her rusty pink pick-up” rather than “she got into her car.”
Toss in another bear. If, when telling a bear story, your audience begins to lose interest, toss in another bear—or better yet, two. Fortunately, this simple approach works equally well for tales about dragons, witches, fairies, and Martians.
Creating a delightful original story, on the spur of the moment after a long, tiring day isn’t always easy. Should you experience an evening when you open your mouth and nothing comes out—or avoid story time because you fear brain freeze—it can make all the difference to have planned in advance to have handy a storytelling prop or aid, something you can rely on to get your creative juices flowing. Here are a few ideas.
Paint a truck on the ceiling. Recognizing that stories are often told at bedtime, it can work brilliantly to paint the picture of a favorite item on the bedroom ceiling or wall—a truck, an animal, a hot air balloon, a friendly dragon or anything else your child enjoys. If painting isn’t an option, hang a few big colorful posters on the wall (many thousands are available online).
Feature a favorite stuffed animal. Kids love having their stuffies come to life. So it follows that whoever your child wraps his or her arms around every night is a perfect subject for a story. But remember, children often closely identify with their stuffed buddies, so you’ll want to be careful to keep them out of harms way.
Put objects on the dresser. All children accumulate favorite items—a brass replica of the Statue of Liberty, a black chrome dog with a broken tail, a Japanese doll and so on. Line up five or six in a visible spot near your son or daughter’s bed. Then let him or her pick which little friend or possibly friends will be the star of that night’s story.
Dust off your sports memorabilia. For kids who love sports your ticket stubs to the third game of the 1980 World Series, or the ball your granddad caught off Willie Mays’s bat at the Polo Grounds in 1954 are sure to spark interest not only in that game, but the whole sports era.
Bring out Admiral Byrd’s boots. My grandfather had somehow scared a pair of boots worn by Admiral Richard Byrd on one of his early 20th century polar explorations. I still remember sitting on his lap stroking those boots as he spun yarns about trekking to the North Pole. Many families have similar talismanic objects that make perfect touchstones for exciting stories (check out www.wikipedia.com if you need to brush up on some history).
Whistle for the family pet. All animals have secret lives, even old Bowser asleep under your kitchen table. Have fun expanding on, and perhaps creating, your pet’s secret adventures. It’s especially fun to combine your pet’s adventures with those of your child’s stuffs.
Paint a truck on the ceiling.
Recognizing that stories are often told at bedtime, it can work brilliantly to paint the picture of a favorite item on the bedroom ceiling or wall — a truck, an animal, a hot air balloon, a friendly dragon or anything else your child enjoys. Especially for younger children this will allow you to fashion hundreds of stories about Tommy the Truck, Eunice the Unicorn, Bitsy the Balloon or Donald the Dragon.
Feature a favorite stuffed animal.
Kids love having their stuffies come to life. So it follows that whoever your child wraps his or her arms around every night is a perfect subject for a story. But remember, children often closely identify with their stuffed buddies, so you’ll want to be careful to keep them out of harms way.
Put objects on the dresser.
All children accumulate favorite items — a brass replica of the Statue of Liberty, a black chrome dog with a broken tail, a Japanese doll and so on. Line up five or six in a visible spot near your son or daughter’s bed. Then let him or her pick which little friend or possibly friends will be the star of that night’s story.
Spin a globe.
If your child is lucky enough to have a globe, give it a slow spin and let your child place his or her finger on a country where that night’s story will be set. Don’t worry that you confuse Latvia and Estonia — you’ll do well enough.
Hang a few posters.
Many thousands of charming, colorful kids’ posters are available for a reasonable price. Hang a few on your child’s wall with an eye towards storytelling. Like a truck painted on the ceiling, a goofy dinosaur smiling down from the wall over the bed is sure to spark ideas for fun stories. To find posters your child will like, check out www.childgraphics.com, www.barewalls.com and www.allposters.com.
Open the family photo album.
Most children, especially 7-12 year olds, delight in hearing the childhood adventures of parents, grandparents or others they love. Turn to the picture of when you were 10 and caught that big fish and your child is sure to beg you to recount every detail. And never be afraid to tell a story because it’s slightly embarrassing. Your kids will appreciate knowing that you weren’t perfect either.
Bring out your child’s first toy or article of clothing.
Many kids love to hear stories about their own birth and infancy. (And, of course, everyone is allowed to exaggerate the charming antics of their children by at least 50%.)
Dust off the sports memorabilia.
For kids who love sports, your ticket stubs to the third game of the 1980 World Series, or the ball your dad caught off Willie Mays’s bat at the Polo Grounds in 1954 are sure to spark interest not only in that game, but in the whole sports era.
Bring out Admiral Byrd’s boots.
My grandfather had somehow scored a pair of boots worn by Admiral Richard Byrd on one of his early 20th century polar explorations. I still remember sitting in his lap stroking those boots as he spun yarns about trekking to the North or South Pole. Many families have similar talismanic objects that make perfect touchstones for exciting stories (check out www.wikipedia.org if you need to brush up on some history).
Whistle for the family pet.
All animals have secret lives, even old Bowser asleep under your kitchen table. Have fun expanding on, and perhaps creating, your pet’s secret adventures. It’s especially fun to combine your pet’s adventures with those of your child’s stuffies.
Continue a favorite book.
In The Wind in the Willows, Rat, Mole, Badger and Mr. Toad engage in many exciting capers. But even after the last page is read, you can create many more. And even though you never achieve Kenneth Grahame’s storytelling proficiency, your small child is unlikely to notice.
Make shadow puppets on the wall.
In “Don’t Kill the Buffalo,” the third episode in the Sheriff Daisy & Deputy Bud CD featured on this site, the shy Indian children make friends by shaping their fingers to create animal-shaped shadows on the teepee walls. By properly arranging the light, you can do the same thing on your child’s bedroom wall, thus illustrating your own story. For inspiration and instructions, check out The Art of Hand Shadows, by Albert Almoznino (Dover) or check out www.kellys.com/ashley/shadow.html.
Create a story tent.
Most children, especially youngsters, delight in enclosed tent-like spaces. Whether during family time or at bedtime, if you make a simple tent (often draping a spread from a bedpost or pole will do it), you’ll find that everything you say will be a little bit more interesting.
One of the best ways to get everyone in the family excited about storytelling is to gather around a fire. Whether on a camping trip, around a fire pit in your backyard or on your desk, or in front of your living room fireplace, telling stories by firelight will connect you to a magical world that traces it’s roots to the dawn of mankind. And if you have no way to safely light a fire, you can create much the same effect by closing the curtains, turning off everything electrical, and firing up an array of candles.
Here are some ideas that should help.
Make sure you have the necessary fire-making materials at hand and know what you are doing. There are few things more disappointing than a fire that won’t start, except maybe a riveting story interrupted by a phone (so be sure phones and pagers are off).
Emphasize safety at every stage, especially when it comes to lighting the fire. A reliable twelve year old can be trusted with matches under close supervision, but absolutely keep them out of the hands of youngsters, who might be tempted to try it on their own.
Prepare a snack to serve after the stories. Toasting marshmallows or making s’mores (sandwiches of graham crackers, toasted marshmallows, and chocolate) is always a hit, or you can provide a healthier alternative.
Telling tales by a fire at night, especially if you are outdoors, will make scary stories far more frightening. Every noise and every shadow, and especially the dark world beyond the firelight, can add to a child’s sense of menace. So it’s best to keep your fireside stories light—at least until you can gauge younger kids’ reactions. Or put another way, before you tell a tale about kids chased by a pack of hungry wolves, try one about a rambunctious chipmunk adopted by a family of rabbits.
But for older children, who clamor for terrifying tales, you’ll want to treat the black world beyond the firelight as your best storytelling friend. Remember, when the right mood is set, anything from a creeping zombie to a headless ghost can be lurking just a few feet away.
Tell stories from memorable campfires when you were a kid—perhaps when your grandfather told you a riveting fireside story about his grandfather’s adventures with a huge bear. For example, Jake Warner tells a story about a long ago visit to Yosemite when just as he was telling a made-up bear story, a real bear snuck into camp and stole a loaf of bread.
After you have told a tale or two, encourage your kids to participate. Even youngsters who have resisted storytelling may join in, especially if other children participate.
Fires create a sense of community within the magic circle of light. They are the perfect place to try a round-robin story where you begin a tale and each person around the fire takes a turn continuing it. As with any group endeavor, this risks a measure of confusion (a hedgehog may suddenly be yanked out of the Green Meadow and deposited on the other side of Pluto). Just relax and go with the fun. Before long most kids will begin to learn how to use their imaginations and stick to the plot.
Riddles in Storytelling
Inserting a riddle in a story can be big fun. Like mini puzzles, they help the listener pay attention. Riddles are especially effective when they are an integral part of the story. For example, you could tell a story about a family riddle contest where a parent promises a way cool prize for the kid whose riddle is the hardest to answer. Or you could tell a story about a kid who brags that he knows more riddles than anyone else at school, only to find out that the quiet kid in the corner knows 211.
A wonderful way to put riddles in your stories is to use them to fool an evil character like a witch or a dragon. For example, on our Jakestales website, Toni Ihara tells the story of Sarabel the Hedgehog who must come up with a riddle hard enough to fool the beastly liox, a super-smart monster who knows just about every riddle there is. If Sarabel fails, the liox will gobble up all the creatures of the Hedgerow.
You can find all the riddles you’ll ever need by checking out the many websites specializing in riddles including the Yahoo Kids’ site. Here are a few brain teasers to get you started.
What did the sock say to the foot?
You’re putting me on.
Why are there fences around cemeteries?
Because people are dying to get in.
Why is it scary to do arithmetic in the jungle?
Because if you add four plus four, you get eight.
What’s the best place to spot a man-eating fish?
A seafood restaurant.
What do you call a chicken who crosses the road, rolls in the mud, and then crosses back again?
A dirty double-crosser.
Who won the Skeleton Beauty Contest?
How can you tell which end of a worm is the head?
Tickle it in the middle to see which end giggles.
What happens to a duck when she flies upside down?
She quacks up.
Vacations are wonderful times for family storytelling. Away from the distractions of work, school, and hopefully at least, some of your electronic gizmos, days are longer and bedtimes later. And fortunately, whether you’re traveling 30 or 300 miles, there are lots of fun ways to build storytelling into your vacation.
1. Check out the history of your vacation spot before you go (most travel guides have short history sections, and Wikipedia is always a good source). That way, you’ll have enough knowledge to build a story that’s as educational as it is fun. So whether you plan to tell a story about the American Indians who lived in upstate New York or the Duke who built a huge English castle, bone up on a few facts.
2. Plan to tell stories en route to your travel destination. Especially for little kids, focus on things you see on the way, such as giant trucks on the highway, horses on country roads, or clouds outside the airplane window (hey, these could be part of a magical cotton candy kingdom). Again, it helps to have at least the outline of a story in reserve as it can be hard to be spontaneous if the trip becomes stressful—for example, if you’re caught in an airport delay.
3. Create a story based on a transportation theme. Whether you’re riding a kayak, cable car, subway, or airplane, there are all kinds of adventures you can create—such as a girl who falls asleep on a bus and wakes up in a village of lost princesses. As always, you’ll need to pitch your tale to your audience. A five-year old will be delighted with a simple story about a talking canoe, while a pre-teen will want you to throw in Nessie or Bigfoot, or both.
4. Vacations are a great time to shake things up and veer from your regular routine. Tell stories in the morning when everyone is still in their pajamas eating breakfast or schedule a mid-afternoon play with everyone charged with improvising costumes as well as dialogue.
5. Water—whether you’re visiting the ocean, a mountain lake, or even a hotel swimming pool—can be a storytelling inspiration. For example, a trip to the coast of Maine can be a terrific place to tell stories about the pirate Blackbeard who is reputed to have hidden a treasure there. And if you’re lucky enough to get to Hawaii you might create a dramatic adventure involving native Hawaiians going long distances in outrigger canoes.
6. Whether at home or on vacation, bedtime is the traditional time for storytelling. If the weather and location allow, move the action outdoors—for example, wrap everyone in blankets and sit on the porch after dinner or gather around a fire pit (see our tips for fireside storytelling). And plan totake advantage of any cool storytelling sites—for example, if you have a rowboat pulled up on shore, load everyone in it at dusk for a memorable storytelling session.