“In the middle of a snowy, winter night, a woman is driving all alone along an abandoned country road when her car breaks down,” began one of the moms in our group as she told her scary story. The families around the campfire were captivated by her words; my two sons’ faces were among those trained on the storyteller.
Later, in the tent, my boys insisted that they were too excited to sleep. In an effort to take their minds off the chilling details of the night’s tales, I steered the conversation toward storytelling itself. I pointed out that what made the stories exciting, aside from the admittedly fascinating gore, was the tension created by building the narrative with important details. For example, in that first line, we understand that who is our fated solitary heroine; what is her breakdown; and where is that iconic country road where, our literary collective unconscious tells us, bad things happen to good people.
My diversion worked so well that my sons were sound asleep before I got to wrap up my discussion on how to build an engaging story. A few days after we returned home, I wrote out story blocks (next tab) on how to build a quick story. Each element added information that the listener needed to fully connect with the story. Of course, we started with who, what, and where, but then quickly added why, how, and to whom. We then summed up how everything ended and what we learned. Each time we added an element, we went back to the beginning (in this case, who) and added on.
I suggested that both of them started with a who and a what.
“Can we do something based on another story?” my ten-year-old, Spencer, asked.
I hadn’t considered this possibility, but since I was more interested in them learning about the construction of a story than spending time worrying about details, I agreed.
Spencer jumped in as my six-year-old, Murphy, listened. I suspect that Murphy wanted to see how this was all going to work.
“Okay,” said Spencer, “I’ve got it. ‘I’m sitting down with two Pokémon.’”
Pokémon? Really, I thought. Not only do I have to put up with Pokémon cards, books, and lunch boxes, but now those animated creatures are invading my son’s fictional stories as well? No matter, I pressed on. “Great. You are sitting with two Pokémon. Where are you?”
“I’m sitting with two Pokémon on the edge of the lake,” he answered.
He was off and running. Near the end of the story, when Spencer had added all of the story elements together, he was quite pleased. The part that needed the most prompting from me was, “What did we learn?” He seemed to find his answer when I asked what would he (as the character) have done differently.
Murphy went through the whole process a bit slower, casting himself as the lead character as well. His story was about a battle between spectrobes (little creatures from a Web site a friend had introduced him to). His six-year-old mind had an easier time when we took the elements in chunks—the who, what, where, being first chunk, the why, how, to whom, being the second, and so on. Occasionally, he would mix up the order, but with all artistic exercises, grasping the concept is often more important than perfect execution.
I intend to apply this same kind of latitude to housekeeping.
Make it Happen
The Building Blocks of a Good Story
WHO is doing WHAT?
WHO is doing WHAT, WHERE?
WHO is doing WHAT, WHERE, WHY?
WHO is doing WHAT, WHERE, WHY, HOW?
WHO is doing WHAT, WHERE, WHY, HOW, TO WHOM?
WHO is doing WHAT, WHERE, WHY, HOW, TO WHOM, and HOW DID IT ALL TURN OUT?
WHO is doing WHAT, WHERE, WHY, HOW, TO WHOM, HOW DID IT ALL TURN OUT, and WHAT DID WE LEARN?
Talk to your child about all the information they need to know in order to enjoy a story. You can lead them with the first elements, “who,” “what,” and “where.”
Start your child off by encouraging her to think of a “who” and a “what.”
Using the story blocks, add elements one by one by picking up the old information and adding to it. Simply, it should look like this:
A boy is fishing.
A boy is fishing off of a bridge.
A boy is fishing off of a bridge because he is bored.
A boy is fishing off of a bridge because he is bored. He has tied a string around a worm and has lowered it down.
A boy is fishing off of a bridge because he is bored. He has tied a string around a worm and has lowered it down. Suddenly, he catches a huge fish.
…and so on
Remember that finding the ending (the lesson) might take some leading. You can ask if there’s anything the hero should have done differently, or would the hero do it again. Oh, and don’t worry about children switching around the order or adding other details. It’s a great time to let their imaginations fly.