Storytelling: Finding your “And then…”

MaxRobbiePlayground2017Some writers complain a bit when summer vacation arrives and they suddenly have their kids underfoot to entertain, cutting into their writing time. Me? I’m a teacher, so I’m rejoicing in summer vacation right along with them. Sure, tagging along after two boys is tiring, but life is what brings us the experiences we write about, especially when you’ve got kids.

Today we visited “Planet Playground,” an excellent playground complex in Exeter, New Hampshire. The last time I took the boys there, a few years ago, I spent the whole time running around making sure I knew where they were, that they were playing nicely, etc. This time, I looked forward to catching up on my reading and just letting them run around. The weather was gorgeous, I had a shady bench, an iced coffee, and a good book (my brother’s new novel, Never Alone).  Needless to say, I was a little frustrated to have my reading interrupted, but taking interest in your kids is far more important, so I wandered over and found myself at the adorable wooden puppet theater. Each boy took turns telling me their stories, with their hands as finger puppets, then it was my turn.

As I was retelling one of my latest manuscripts from memory, I realized what an awesome writing exercise this was.  I’ve heard editors say that you should throw out your first draft and simply write the second from memory. I even once read an anecdote by Stephen King that he lost a manuscript and rewrote it from memory– of course if you do that, you’ll live life feeling that your new version can never hold a candle to the original, but it’s probably not true. The fact is, when you are retelling from memory, you are forced to include only the most important parts.  And when you’re storytelling in front of an audience, you quickly learn what holds their attention and what doesn’t. You learn which bits of repetition are boring and which give your work that very slight predictability that kids love.

It’s the “And then…” which drives your story forward. It’s not the beautiful description of springtime flowers. It’s not the sparkling and witty dialog. It’s what happens after someone is hit and falls down. It’s what happens when the main characters are lost in the woods, or when grandma is eaten by the wolf.  Storytelling live in front of little kids forces you to focus on the “And then…”

I also learned that there are essentially 4 types of storytelling with kids:

  1. The straight re-tell:  Max told us “Little Red Riding Hood.” It had a little of his personality, but he was basically practicing how to tell a story. That’s fine, especially if you aren’t comfortable talking in front of an audience. Most kids love hearing familiar stories. (One of my most popular requests when my kids were young was a re-tell of a favorite Spongebob episode. I did not make it my own, but they still loved it. Over. And. Over.)
  2. The “punched up” re-tell:  Robbie told us “The Three Little Pigs.”  It was essentially the actual story, but he added in a lot of snarky side comments about the three pigs’ choice in materials, highlighting the superiority of the third pig who kept chiding the others (“Really? You’re using wood? It’s going to leak, I tell you!”). The first two pigs got eaten, probably as payback for their lack of good building sense. This version is great if you’re telling stories to kids who appreciate a good subversion of the expected paradigm, and it’s a good way to take off the storytelling training wheels.
  3. The “test kitchen”:  Ok, storytellers, get out there with some new material!  No manuscript handy, just me and the stories that have been living in my head, I dove in with two of my latest picture book WIPs, “Fat Banana” and “Hortensia, the Angry Cat.”  My boys had heard them both, but I got at least one passerby kiddo to stop and listen as well. I chose “Hortensia” for the second story and got the little girl listening to make all the cat noises which was a huge hit. Of course then she asked for more, which is when the next type of storytelling comes in…
  4. The “audience participation” story: This little girl wanted another animal story. I didn’t happen to have any in my hat that seemed to work, so I prodded her a bit more– what kind of animal? A cheetah. My son decided it would be a cheetah and a triceratops. No, she insisted. Just cheetahs.  So together we came up with a story about a cheetah who had to outrun a forest fire to warn the other animals. No prior preparation, maybe not a Newbery winner, but all participants were satisfied.

So, next time your kid says “Tell me a story,” try out one of the above storytelling techniques– maybe you’ll end up finding a whole new story idea, or figuring out that spot in your work in progress that has been needing attention. And even if none of those happens, I guarantee your later writing will be better for the practice, and you’ll all be richer for the quality time.

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