Kids love to be told stories, but how do you tell a really good one? Here are my tips to make storytelling fun, easy, and memorable.

By Gillian McDunn
February 11, 2020
Illustration by Yeji Kim

"Tell me a story. Not from a book. From you."

Even though I write children's books for a living, these words used to make me break out in a cold sweat. As a writer, most of my storytelling happens on the page, from the comfort of my quiet desk—not with my child's expectant face inches from mine, demanding on-the-spot entertainment.

To get over my nervousness, I had to think more broadly about storytelling. Like kids, adults are wired to love stories—that's why we scroll through social media feeds and why we can't wait to discuss our favorite shows with friends. Stories help our brains make sense of what's around us. They provide connection and help foster empathy. And, ultimately, they're just plain fun.

When we tell stories with our children, we add this richness and connection to our family life—but how to begin? Here are my tips on how to tell a really good story on the fly.

Include a Problem

Just like life, stories have problems. Imagine a tale called "Harper's Trip to the Pool." Harper plays with friends, cannonballs in the deep end, and eats ice cream. Although each activity is fun, the story is flat because it feels like a list. To make Harper's day come alive, introduce a problem. Perhaps her friend doesn't feel like playing—or possibly Harper loses her favorite goggles. Maybe an octopus snuck into the snack bar and is eating all the ice cream. Quickly, the story begins to fall into place.

Lean on Familiar Favorites

One shortcut to building a story is to take a familiar one and then swap out a few elements—think movie plot or fairy tale. If your child likes sea creatures, you could transform "The Three Little Pigs" into "The Three Little Narwhals." Similarly, you might retell the story of "Little Red Riding Hood" in a different setting. Why not pick somewhere aligned with your child's interests, such as outer space or on top of a volcano?

Find Inspiration From Nearby Objects

Sometimes it's nice to have a little inspiration. Gather three small toys or household objects, then reveal each one as you tell a story that links them. For a twist, ask your child to find the items for your story, and you can find ones for theirs. Hint: Crayons are often enchanted, toy vehicles regularly travel on epic journeys, and a sock is always searching for its lost friend.

Use the Power of 'What If?'

Great stories start with a little help of "What if...?" Our family used to live near a farm. One day, we drove past the field of cows and I asked my children: "What if the cows had their first day of school today, just like you?" My kids were eager to imagine the cows' adventures in the classroom ("they learned to spell M-O-O!"), on the playground ("the ground shakes when they play kickball"), and in the lunchroom ("they eat lots of grass!"). If your neighborhood lacks cows, you can play the what if game with the family pet ("What if Spike learned to fly?") or be inspired by nature ("What if our tree grew candy instead of fruit?").

Tread Lightly

It's tempting to squeeze a moral into storytime. After all, wouldn't every "happily ever after" be even more happy if everyone ate their vegetables without complaining? If a lesson occurs naturally, that's a good thing—but if the message feels forced, it might be better to skip it. Kids can sniff out a hidden agenda quicker than they can find a piece of broccoli lurking in their buttered noodles.

Don't Be Afraid of 'to Be Continued'

Some stories wrap up quickly. Others take days, months, or years. If you're planning a longer saga, be sure to include conflicts both large and small. Take a note from Harry Potter—although it took thousands of pages for his battle against Voldemort to play out, each book kept us engaged by resolving plenty of lesser problems along the way.

Have Some Fun

As you explore the art of storytelling, use these ideas as guidelines—but also remember to make your own fun. The real magic happens when you and your child become storytellers together. Some days, you may take turns. Other times, you'll get the chance to be the listener. As your fun grows, so will your connection, which is what storytelling (and parenting) is all about.

Gillian McDunn writes for children ages 8-13. Her first book, Caterpillar Summer, made Parents magazine's list of best kids' book of 2019. Her second book, The Queen Bee and Me, is about toxic friendships, science, and beekeeping. She lives near Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, three children, and a very silly dog named Friday.

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