Once upon a time there was a... uh...
November 2, 2013 1:42 AM   Subscribe

Help papa become a better bedtime storyteller.

Lately, as an alternative to reading the same books again and again, I've been trying to tell bedtime stories to my 5-year old daughter where she, her little sister (3) and her papa are the main characters.

I start with a simple premise, ("One day, baloney and macaroni* and their papa were walking through the woods when...") and I get to an event ("they found a big red box in a tree...") but then I get stuck as to where to go from there.

My only real go-to trick has been to get her to tell the story ("so, what did baloney see in the box?" or "what did baloney do next?") which is fine, but I'd like to be able to tell a real story that grabs her (or goes on happily until she nods off), rather than stringing along a series of random events.

What tricks, themes or thinking-on-my-feet strategies can I use to weave a better tale and send her off to sleep dreaming sweet dreams?

*not their real names.
posted by brappi to Human Relations (37 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Mark Twain's (Samuel Clemens) kids used to demand he tell them stories based on a string of objects they pointed out before he began. One time, it might be all the stuff on a mantle, the next time, it might some chairs, a rug, and a chandelier. He developed a mental catalog of actions, like dancing, jumping, swimming, sniffing, etc. to throw in for plausible actions that could occur between the objects-as-characters, and he said that this was his "secret" to being able to just roll out good oral stories, supposedly off the cuff.

Keep a list of actions and action words in mind, so your characters have plenty to "do" as your story continues.
posted by paulsc at 1:50 AM on November 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Papa runs into trouble of some kind (caused by bears, or by his own foolish mistakes, or by implausible but hilarious accidents). Thus, baloney and macaroni are obliged to be clever or strong or display other personal traits that you admire, in order to contrive to rescue their Dad. Undoubtedly it will be difficult but they will manage it in the end.

You can probably riff around this for a year.

Occasionally if the problem appears to be too difficult, Mom (or other wise adult figure of choice) might be obliged to swoop into the story and sort it all out at the end and kiss all the characters better.
posted by emilyw at 3:03 AM on November 2, 2013 [9 favorites]

Read up on Joseph Campbell, the mythologist. Start the story with anything and then slowly weave it along a common myth.

Make the story an allegory of what she's recently experienced or going to experience. If mom is going away for a week, tell a story about a bear whose mom leaves to get honey for the family. Baby bear is uncertain, procesess her emotions in actions and hugs her mom when she gets back. You get the idea. Stories are a great way to pull out, reassure and guide the psyche of children.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:09 AM on November 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

Also just read about general narrative structures. One of dad/kids is the main character that night, they have a conflict, they seek the help of others who at first don't understand the problem and finally they solve the conflict.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:12 AM on November 2, 2013

For what it's worth, my dad told us bedroom stories about a pair of bunnies and there was pretty much no narrative skill or structure in the stories. They were random and scattered and would change every time - I remember that UFOs would abduct the bunnies when he got tired of the storytelling. All I cared about was that he was spending time with us and he was telling the story. Happy stories from your own childhood are golden too.

I tell much better structured stories than my husband, but our kids don't seem to care either. It's quantity and connection that counts.
posted by viggorlijah at 3:32 AM on November 2, 2013 [12 favorites]

How about some modern day creation myths?

I have the same problem, complicated by my daughters' picking random objects for the stories to be about. Typically it starts as "tell us a story about three . . ." then one selects whatever noun pops into her head.

Recently it was "three lights," and I found myself telling about a red light, a green light and a very clever yellow light who lived in a town where everyone was very sad because people driving cars bumped into each other so often.

It seems to be a winning formula. Any story that explains something in their day-to-day lives is a hit, especially when it involves concepts and behavior that are familiar to them: ("and so then lights realized they had to take turns.")

Good luck.
posted by wjm at 3:53 AM on November 2, 2013 [8 favorites]

I've mentioned that my father would tell "stories" when we were little about a made-up friend he named Sam Yakaboochie; but they were more like jokes he turned on their head. (The only one I can remember was: "hey, you know how Evil Knievel jumped over six schoolbuses riding a motorcycle? Well, Sam Yakaboochie once jumped over six motorcycles riding a schoolbus!")

But that reminded me of the Eastern European folktales about the Wise Men Of Chelm - folk tales about the people in a fictional town where everyone's basically an idiot. Kids love silly stuff - the reason that one Sam Yakaboochie story has stuck with me was because it WAS such a silly take on the whole automotive daredevil stunt thing. And I bet that kind of silly-people-doing-silly-things-because-they're-silly stuff from the Chelm stories would also go over big.

So maybe introduce a series of stories where you all visit this town where everyone is doing things in a silly way and they can't figure out why it's not working until you three visit and are there to tell them, "No, silly, you don't use the SHELLS when you make scrambled eggs, you use the stuff INSIDE the eggshells!" or whatever.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:08 AM on November 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

It's been a long time since I told my kids bedtime stories, but I remember getting a lot of mileage out of leprechauns and talking dogs. A common theme was a quest with the kids as the central characters who were the only ones clever enough to solve it. The leprechaun lost his pot of gold, only the kids and the dogs can find it -- that sort of thing.
posted by maurice at 4:21 AM on November 2, 2013

The stories I told my kids invariably were about someone (mostly animals) in search of food (mostly honey, chocolate or something crunchy), having a bunch of mishaps, finally getting their fill and falling asleep on the scene. Works like a dream.
posted by Namlit at 4:31 AM on November 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Keep in mind that what you've got is an audience to whom practically everything is new. So when you have that moment of stress "oh no, that is so unoriginal!" you can just toss that thought and proceed. What this also means is that, because your bedtime stories are not subject to copyright issues, you can steal wholesale from other things.

When I was 22 I had the epiphany that my mother's very silly stories about trashcan monsters, tinfoil robots, people with scarves longer than mathematically possible, and the very clever girl Sarah who always spoke her mind were just shamelessly stolen from her memories of Doctor Who with any scary bits left out.
posted by Mizu at 4:33 AM on November 2, 2013 [20 favorites]

My absolute favourite shorthand for a good narrative is:

o What does the protagonist want?

o Why can't they get it?

o Why do we give a shit?

I'm sure this basic structure could be applied to Baloney, Macaroni et al.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:44 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

My mother had a few stock characters that appeared repeatedly in her stories (some of which were based on stuffed animals we had).

These characters had various goals and phobias and details about where they lived and so on, so she could use these well-established characteristics to get things moving when the story was at an impasse. (What's going on in this story about the desert island? Let's say Dragon was flying overhead, and Dragon always wants to find gold, so maybe gold was buried here by pirates... etc.)

There was a lot of repetition in these stories, but no one seemed to mind much.
posted by shattersock at 4:46 AM on November 2, 2013

Draw from your own workday experiences too, but of course you work with animals and wizards and gnomes in a toy factory.

With kids you want to establish something in their mind's eye. Describe its obvious features, then make it move in a funny way or make funny noises. The type of thing in the story will suggest another type of thing. You have a dog? Is there a cat, an owner, a doghouse, a dinosaur's bone? Or throw in something absurd instead of the next thing. No, this dog lives in a skyscraper and is a spy, he is the best spy in the world and he only handles the toughest and most animal-related jobs. Now you're doing a spy story, not a dog story. Think of places they need to go, start to describe what that place is like, who lives there?

Follow obvious surface connections and let the fun work itself in.
posted by bleep-blop at 4:49 AM on November 2, 2013

According to my kids (and my friend's kids), I'm good at this. Here's what I did:

* Animal misadventures
* Lots of description (not "the woods", but "past Marley's house, where the calico cats meet under the green banyan tree at 4 for tea and lemon scones")
* stereotypical bad animals are the heroes (and my kids don't think snakes and spiders are scary as a result)
* I acted them out in the room. Climbing, jumping, skipping. Lots of action.
* My kids were always in the stories.

* You can't go wrong with funny voices.

Enjoy. My kids are suddenly 21, 20 and 15. It goes by way too fast. But they all remember the adventures of Loopy Seth Boa Constrictor.
posted by kinetic at 5:44 AM on November 2, 2013 [8 favorites]

On nights when I'm stuck for ideas, our stock characters just have to complete some task (gathering supplies for a birthday party, hiking up a mountain, cooking dinner) and A, B, C and D do their part successfully but E has some comic misadventure that the others have to get them out of. Then the day is saved and they accomplish what they meant to, and we all have a good laugh at how silly E is. As kinetic said, lots of description to fill things out.
posted by waterlily at 6:02 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Rory's Story Cubes exist to solve this problem.
posted by 517 at 6:06 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can also extend books or stories written by other authors. There were MANY nights where my bedtime story was related to Catwings by Ursula K LeGuin. Sort of like fan fic, in a sense. The characters were already established so I think that made it easier to move the plot forward. So maybe put your family in an existing world, like Narnia?
posted by emkelley at 6:42 AM on November 2, 2013

This question made me tear up a little. We had the "5 minute story" for years. Somehow, the pressure was off when it only had to be that long, and once it got started, often went longer. I'd have her pick 3 random items and we'd go from there. Suddenly, she's getting ready to go to college and this made me want to grab her and tell her one right now. Enjoy every precious minute.
posted by ms_rasclark at 6:54 AM on November 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Repetition is your friend, as it serves to build suspense and give you time to think. Having a very simple narrative structure in mind--problem happens, problem gets worse, problem gets solved in a funny way--also helps.

What's great is, you can basically tell the same story over and over, with slightly different events, and they'll keep asking for it, because it's you telling it, and they love you.

For us, it's the Mr. ____ Beard stories. It started with Mr. Blackbeard, and has worked its way through pink, yellow, various stripes and plaids. Mr. Blackbeard has a problem he'd like to solve. One day in the mail, a catalog arrives from a magic company. The description of his ordering is always elaborate--all the tearing the page out of the catalog, sending away, shipping times from UPS carefully delineated, until finally the package arrives, which contains a spell that will solve his problem...except that the wording of the spell actually makes the problem worse! Suddenly, if he wanted a slightly longer beard, his house is full of hair. If he wanted a clean house, his dishes never stop washing themselves long enough for him to eat. Whatever problem can seem both magical, and described at great and growing length, since that's the part my kids seem to enjoy most, the descriptions of the horrible complications. (The long repetitious details about shipping help give me time to think of what might go wrong. The long details about what goes wrong help me think of what the solution will be.) Then, inevitably, he calls the customer service department and gets a counter-spell delivered, sometimes by next-day air, sometimes it takes 4-6 weeks for delivery, occasionally there is a restocking fee--I mean, none of that sounds interesting in the least, but when you're telling a story to your kids, it's like every silly detail you throw in adds to their enjoyment, even when it's lame stuff that frustrates you about Amazon!--and then the problem is solved. And that one structure, which is about as simple and banal as you could possibly get, has been requested hundreds and hundreds of times.
posted by mittens at 7:07 AM on November 2, 2013 [8 favorites]

I recently took a storytelling workshop with The Moth.

The most useful thing I learned was this:

Find your beginning sentence, and find your ending sentence. If you can do that, the middle practically writes itself.
posted by ulfberht at 7:12 AM on November 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I had an unexciting childhood, but my younger brother was always getting into interesting situations, particularly as a teenager. I've had some success with telling Uncle stories, where my brother has an adventure and learns a lesson in a simplified and/or sanitized version of the truth.
posted by linettasky at 7:22 AM on November 2, 2013

Improv is all about making up stories on the fly!

Keith Johnstone's Impro is one of my favorite books ever precisely because it examines what a story is, how to generate action and how to free your creativity to make up stories.

Improv and improv books in general are great for providing you with quick-and-dirty methods of cooking up a story with conflict, characters and an arc. It may not be great literature... but it's a satisfying story.

I can attest that even one 10-week beginner's improv class improved my playing-pretend-with-small-children ability about 300%.
posted by stuck on an island at 7:39 AM on November 2, 2013

I do a lot of "animal wants this thing and can't have it because animals can't have that kind of thing in real life": i.e.,

Once upon a time there was a duck who wanted to be on American Idol.

Once upon a time there was a squirrel who wanted to be a racecar driver.

Once upon a time there was a polar bear who wanted to move to New York City.

It's pretty easy. The animal's friends/family doubt them and try to convince them to stay home and be normal, the animal meets some new people who encourage them, and finally the animal achieves their dream. The more ridiculous the scenario, the more awesome these stories are.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 8:53 AM on November 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

It really helps to have a preset cast of characters and a recurring framework, like a serial TV show. Like, mine likes stories about Snow White solving McGuyver-like challenges using common household items. The particular challenge and items may vary, but Snow White is the same and the basic narrative arc is always the same. If you remember a story your kids particularly liked, you might bring those characters back in another parallel adventure or two.

Also, if you're not much of a fantasy person, don't discount the possibility of real-life stories about realistic adventures. You can tell the kids stories about themselves and the exciting things they'll do when they grow up to be a $Profession-- doing operations as a doctor, helping people buy houses as a banker, winning races as a racecar driver, etc. Routine--> problem--> solution makes for a perfectly good story, IME, and most jobs have some element of problem-solving you can talk about.
posted by Bardolph at 9:56 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

In my case, I got a lot better when I realized I was bored by what I was saying. I started just talking about what I would like to see or happen. Or, I'd take a given scenario or character and expound on it in a fairly unique way. By entertaining myself I became more entertaining and could talk for quite a lot longer.
posted by michaelh at 10:57 AM on November 2, 2013

Just tell the stories of movies they haven't seen like The Goonies.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:19 PM on November 2, 2013

When all else fails, try a mystery. Think of one thing early on that happened/is happening/is going to happen but don't tell it right away. Then build the rest of the story as usual, and whenever you can't think of where to go, use the mystery event/fact as an inspiration and drop another clue. Since this is interactive storytelling, you can keep it up, adding more and more obvious clues until they pick up on it. If they figure it out too early, turn the story into the fictional versions of the kids trying to get enough evidence to convince the increasingly bone-headed version of Papa.

If it works and they fall asleep, you may have to continue the story the next night.

Another trick for when you're not sure what to do next: reference something that happened in a previous night's story.
posted by ErWenn at 4:46 PM on November 2, 2013

Response by poster: Fantastic! This is all great.
posted by brappi at 5:25 PM on November 2, 2013

Our stories always began One day Prince Theora'sKid went for a walk and involved various stuffed animals and bedroom objects. Steal from classic like Aesop, Grimm, etc. Prince Theora'sKid made friends with Growly Bear by removing a thorn from the bear's paw. Throw in moralizing - Prince Theora'sKid had to be home by supper so his mother wouldn't worry. If Theora'sKid was having trouble with something, it might show up in a bedtime story Prince Theora'sKid felt bad when the naughty piggy bullied him might end with Prince Theora'sKid rescuing the piggy from something scary. We had some stuffed animal/ hand puppets, and they were great for stories. My son would tell Polar Bear puppet things he wouldn't necessarily tell me, even though Polar Bear puppet was on my hand, and I was clearly Polar Bear's voice.
posted by theora55 at 6:07 PM on November 2, 2013

A really simple trick is to have your main character have some kind of flaw and the story about them over coming this. Moralistic, but it means you have a clear thread: can be Candy the greedy rabbit and about how she learns to not eat ALL the things; or King Arthur the bold and foolish who keeps beating things up when he should be listening to them.

Origin stories are great to: how the unicorn got its horn, how the dragon learned to breathe fire, how the witch learned how to make spells.
posted by litleozy at 1:14 PM on November 3, 2013

What's great is, you can basically tell the same story over and over, with slightly different events, and they'll keep asking for it, because it's you telling it, and they love you.

My dad told me stories starring Elephant Roo and Kerchunk Kerchoo, and neither of us remember what any of those stories were about now, but that wasn't really the point. I think there might have been adventures? I had to describe the main characters, and I'm pretty sure I had to tell the story a lot of the time. But if you're needing to tell an entire story, re-tell the plot of a book or the travails of mail order, heh, whatever sticks in your mind long enough to repeat it at bedtime.

When I was babysitting I re-told The Odyssey (mostly because I was reading it for class), and they thought I was the best storyteller EVER. The classics are classic for a reason.

You can't go wrong with funny voices.

That is a fact.
posted by mgar at 1:24 PM on November 3, 2013

Yes, it helps me to remember a basic structure and shape - St. Peepsburg and mittens and others have mentioned it. Here's a vid of Kurt Vonnegut talking about the shapes of stories. I think it might prove helpful, but more than that, it's a delight.
posted by red_rabbit at 6:45 PM on November 3, 2013

Also, what EmpressCallipygos said! When you are a tiny person, you have so very little agency over your own life. Grown-ups always know better. This is why it is such a gift to make your children the heroes in the this story. And this is why it's especially, amazingly satisfying to serve up silly things and allow your little ones to giggle and roll their eyes and interrupt to correct you! It's a game that never gets old. Oh, squeals of delight. I am missing my 3 & 5 year-old nieces now! Enjoy, enjoy.
posted by red_rabbit at 6:52 PM on November 3, 2013

All good suggestions. I found that sometimes restrictions (imposed by the kid) were sometimes helpful. For example she would tend to want stories about a certain kind of animal for a few months, then switch. So I always knew it was going to start with the animal (panda, jellyfish, octopus) and go from there. As noted above the animal had a problem or wanted to do something, and how would it happen? Often I tried to make it tie in to the animal's actual abilities.

Another good trick if you want a longer story or get stuck - just pick a random movie and re-tell it, dropping and adding as you please. Star Wars works well for this.
posted by mikepop at 5:59 AM on November 4, 2013

Two things I do...

Riff on Star Wars, which looks to be mentioned at least once above (this works particularly well if Mom can chime in too). You don't have to set it in space, in fact it's better if you don't because at some point they'll see Star Wars and then they'll know, but imagine Baloney and Macaroni and their Papa are some combo of Chewie, Lando, Han, Luke, Leia, etc. and either steal a story outright (Hoth... except it's a tropical island, and the tauntauns are dolphins and the wampa are a misunderstood race of giant clams) or make up part that Lucas left out. You can do this for years...

Make the story nearly never ending. The later requires a bit of explanation... Imagine that Baloney and Macaroni and their Papa have some item that the need to complete a quest, make the story every night about how they get to the item to get to the item that they need (think every RPG ever, or the book/movie Erik The Viking). Every night you start with what happened the previous night as a recap (they should participate in this part) and then you start off on the next part while they're reminding you where you're at. So... they're looking for The Heart of the Universe, and last night they managed to find the key to the spaceship that will take them to Olomandi Z, where Doctor Porkfin has a clue to the next piece of the puzzle, but when they arrive at the ship there's a talking dog named Rex who won't let them board until they've retrieved the magical tuna fish that will help him free his mother from the queen of the cat people.
posted by togdon at 7:57 AM on November 4, 2013

I make stories up for my kids, just about every night. I have found that they get excited when a character is modeled after them. So, I use each of my kids' middle names for the main characters. Each of them is very brave, kind and strong. My daughter's stories have turned into the Pom Pom Girl Detective Squad and my son has stories about Prince William. They do random things like discover the lost pizza or help a baby find his mother in a crowded library. Nothing too scary. Nothing too complicated. You can, based on your memory, have longer story arcs where the Pom Pom Girl Detective Squad has to find clues in the library to help solve a 100 year old mystery. Different things about the school are learned/remembered by the characters at opportune moments over the next few nights. Sometimes the stories start nowhere and end nowhere...just some silly interaction between the characters and adults.

It was said above: the kids really just love spending time with their parents. It is a joy for me and I hope that they have fond memories of our time together as they get older.
posted by zerobyproxy at 1:51 PM on November 4, 2013

I just played a game with my improv group that provides a lovely, simple story structure. You can play with two people alternating, or a group, or just you, the super star parent. So, this reply is late by now, but maybe will still prove useful:

1. Once upon a time _____
2. And every day ______
3. Until one day ______
4. And because of that ______
5. And because of that ______
6. And because of that ______
7. Until finally ______
8. And ever since then ______

That's it! This sets up successful improv scene work (and also a great story): the idea is that you do the establishing work in the beginning (character/s, setting), then find the "one unusual thing," which you explore/heighten. Then you resolve it. Bam!

Here's a link about it, which also explains the structure and the role of each piece in more depth. Turns out it's called a "story spine," and credit goes to Kenn Adams.
posted by red_rabbit at 10:14 AM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older How to download videos in Safari 7.0 like could be...   |   Where should we celebrate New Year's Eve in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.