The five words that can strike fear in any father’s heart at bedtime: “Daddy, tell me a story.” At the end of a long and stressful day, coming up with an original story that will captivate your child seems unbelievably challenging.  But you don’t have to be a playwright to create an entertaining story.  Here a few simple tips:

Start with the end in mind.  The great thing about making up a story is that you get to choose the moral to impart, so think of this first.  Once you come up with a simple lesson like “Be yourself” or “Don’t give up”, the plot will write itself.  Fill the story with memorable characters (silly names, funny voices) and put them in a situation that will eventually teach them the moral you chose.

Be derivative.  Your child will not check your sources or call the intellectual property police.  In fact, they will gain comfort from familiar story lines.  Draw morals and plots from stories you know, like “The Little Engine That Could”,  “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, or in my daughter’s case, “Return of the Jedi”.

Remember the rule of threes.   Children and adults alike are drawn to ideas and stories that come in groups of threes.  Have your main character attempt something three times, or meet three different characters that help solve their problem.

Foster creativity.  Encourage your child to participate by letting them fill in details like the names of the characters or where the story takes place.  As they get older, gradually have them provide more and more of the storyline.

Introduce new concepts.  Use story time as an opportunity to teach your children about geography, history, science, or languages.  Set your tale in a foreign country or a different century.  Make your story about an airplane that’s lost its lift.  Have a character speak a few simple words in French or Japanese.

With last night’s story, I found myself using all of these tips.  I started with the simple moral: “It’s good to try new foods”.  Spying my daughter’s pillow pet, I created a tale about a purple unicorn who lived in France.  “Purple” (my daughter chose the name) only liked to eat dandelions, despite her three friends, in turn, offering her carrots, potatoes, and truffles.   But soon she ate all the dandelions in her pasture, and all the dandelions in the surrounding pastures.  She looked and looked for more dandelions, but there were none.  So she tried the carrots, and at first she didn’t like them because they weren’t anything like her favorite dandelions.  But soon she thought they were quite tasty, and then she quickly tried potatoes and truffles, and loved them too.   Her three friends were so happy that they could share their favorite foods with her.

Nothing complicated, but it kept her attention and kept her involved as she suggested plot points and asked questions like “what’s a truffle?”

Remember, the day will all too quickly arrive when your child feels too old for being tucked in and told bedtime stories.  But in this small window of time, you will create a lifetime of cherished memories.  Even into adulthood, your children will draw comfort from the memory of this shared bedtime ritual.

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