Creating and Improvising Stories for Children

There are lots of easy ways to improvise and create stories for children. This is something that most of us have had quite a bit of experience with when we were children ourselves. Any time we were playing with other young children, we were usually 'in a story'. It was easy then and it can be easy now.

What would make it easier now?

  1. Don't worry about content. It'll look after itself if you say 'Yes' to ideas.
  2. Keep your mind on story structure (character, setting, problem, resolution)
  3. Use association and reincorporation

1) Content
How do you get some content without worrying about it? There are lots of ways. Here's a few ideas for getting someone, or something else, to worry about content so you can relax and enjoy playing with what comes up.
  • Retell a story that a child has given you to work with e.g.
    "When we were at Fraser Is last time we saw a dingo. It came near our camp. Daddy said it wanted our food. I shooed it away and it ran into the bush."
    This can be retold as:
    "Once upon a time a very brave girl called Rebecca went on a long trip to Fraser Is." etc.
  • Build up a story from an incident that a child gives you by asking for details e.g. "Look. I hurt my finger." "Oh. How did you do that?" "It got squashed in the car door." "Did it hurt much?" etc.
    This can be retold as:
    "Once there was a boy called Peter. One day, when he was just getting out of his mother's car, his finger got squashed in the door. It hurt a lot. Peter's mother picked him up and took him up into the house to the bathroom." etc
  • Start a story and get the children to provide some content which you then incorporate into an ongoing story structure e.g.
    "Once upon a time there was a tiny little . . . . . ?"
    "And this tiny little mouse was lying in the sun just outside its mouse hole one day when it saw a huge?"
    "Elephant." etc.

As adults we often make it hard for our selves by trying to get it right or making sure that the content is ideologically sound, or interesting, or grammatically correct, or logical. These are all fine in their place but, in a story, they can get in the way of our playing with the story and being in a creative frame of mind.

You can help you and your audience get into a playful frame of mind by playing some games or singing some silly songs first. You might take well known songs and have some fun changing them around. 'Bananas in swimming togs are ...'

The magic words - 'Once upon a time' - are an incantation, an invitation to suspend logical belief and enter the world of fantasy and fun. You, and your audience, can decide to leave all worries behind you and enjoy 'the story space' when you hear those words.

Forget about where the story is going to. If you and your audience are improvising and having fun the process, and your subconcious mind, will look after content and you can trust the monitoring between your concious and subconscious to not create anything that might embarrass you later.

Listen to your audience having fun or reacting to the latest part of the story. That lets you know you're on track.

2) Story structure
What is a story? What is the narrative form? A story is not just a sequence of events that can be described or narrated. That would be boring and would not be recognised as a story. To be a story the sequence needs a structure that allows us to recognise it as a story. Story structures include:

  • Beginning, middle, end,
  • Sequence stories,
  • Journey stories
Story structures exist to give us a framework to work with. Structure makes improvising easier. A very useful structure is that of the Narrative Structure:
  • Character,
  • Setting,
  • Problem and
  • Resolution.

Begin with an incantation or introduction eg 'Once upon a time.' (You don't have to stick with this tried and true. There are many traditional incantations and you can have fun making them up - 'Once upon a time when watches ran backwards and salt was always sweet ...'

Now add a character. 'There was a very, warty brown toad.'

The story has begun. To keep going, describe the character a little more perhaps. Then describe the setting, introduce another character and describe him or her , then add a problem, then resolve it and find an ending. Easy peasy. Just practice it.

A lot of stories, oral or written, use this structure. Long stories often use the structure in multiples. The character solves one problem and then a second problem is introduced probably along with another character or setting. The good old serials at the Saturday matinee would always end with the hero faced with an apparently insoluble and deadly problem but we always wanted to return next Saturday to see how he or she would resolve it and live to triumph in the next story.

Of course you don't have to start with a character. You could start with a setting - 'Once upon a time there was a swamp that bubbled and hissed and belched strange, orange, green and grey smelly gases.'

You could start with a problem - 'Once upon a time darkness ruled the earth and all the animals had to walk and hop and slide carefully around on the ground so they didn't bump into each other or into the trees and mountains.'

It doesn't really matter where you start if you know that, all you have to do is add in the other components of the narrative structure and you'll have a story. You can experiment giving one part more attention eg setting, or problem/resolution, etc. This gives a different feeling to your stories. There are so many opportunities for class participation in playing with story structure.

3) Saying 'YES!'
You can ask your audience to help you provide the different elements as above.

This is great fun because no one knows what is going to happen next and everyone enjoys it as you magically incorporate their suggestions into the story. The magic is provided by the story structure above, and, your always saying 'Oooh! Yes! Thaaankyoouu!' to any offering, and the processes of association and reincorporation detailed below.

Saying 'YES!' to any offering turns the unexpected from a difficulty into an opportunity, a gift. For example, someone once asked me in a workshop what happens if the storyteller says - "Once upon a time there was a tiny, little . . . . . ?" and someone in the audience says - "Elephant!"

Well we can make it hard and try to say - "No. It only looked like an elephant because it - blah, blah, blah." or, we can accept the gift and say - "Yes! That's right. It was a tiny little elephant. It had a tiny, little trunk, and tiny, little ears."

The audience will like the fact that you overcame an apparent difficulty and at the same time were generous and accepting towards someone's offering no matter how cheeky or unaware. Paradoxically, the weirder the characters or, the more widely differing they are, the easier it seems to be to create a story and have it be interesting for an audience.

Saying 'No' to a gift is disappointing and children soon learn not to expect anything magical. 'Fudging' - pretending to say yes but really saying no - just makes things confusing and difficult. In fact, if a story ever feels hard and sludgy as you are creating or telling it, it is probably because someone has 'fudged' or 'blocked'.

4) Association and reincorporation
These are essential parts of making a story interesting and satisfying. Association is the process of linking character with setting and character with character. For example -

'Once upon a time there was a man walking around the shores of a lake. On the top of a hill on an island on the lake there was a beautiful woman leaning out of a window of a house. In a boat a fisherman cast his nets into the water.'

So far these are quite separate elements. We can picture them but we want something to happen. They haven't related together at all and really the story hasn't started. As soon as we have some interaction between two of the characters (or one of the characters and the setting) then the story can begin. Here's one possibility. See how many you can think of.

'The woman turned towards the fisherman and called out, "Peter there's a stranger on the shore. Pull in your nets and row over to him and offer him a fish." Now we can watch and wonder as Peter responds.

Reincorporation is both satisfying and often necessary in a story when a character or object introduced early into a story, but left out of subsequent action, is brought back into the story at an opportune moment. For example, if, in the above story, the fisherman and the stranger go off on some wild adventure and are both captured and turned into stone by an ogre, your audience will be either aching for you to bring the woman back into the story to rescue the two men or, if they hadn't thought of it, they will be pleasantly surprised when you do it anyway.

Reincorporation can be a satisfying way of ending a story. Ending a story where it began gives a pleasing circular structure to the story. Children love reincorporation as well. There is a good discussion about association and reincorporation in 'Impro' by Keith Johnstone, (Methuen,1981) in the chapter on 'Narrative Skills'.

Just doing it
The main thing with creating and improvising stories is to give it a go. It is most satisfying when you work with someone else or with an audience. I like to create a story with one group and then tell it to the next group to inspire them to create a better one with me.

One thing to watch out for is 'being smart'. The whole process works so much better when you relax and follow the threads. 'Trying' to create something 'clever' usually ends up giving a clumsy or affected feel to a story.

Don't worry about content. It'll look after itself if you say 'Yes' to ideas.
Avoid 'blocking' and 'fudging' they both make it harder
Keep your mind on the story structure, especially - character, setting, problem & resolution
Use association and reincorporation
Have fun and give it a go.

© 1998 Daryll Bellingham. One copy of the above notes are available for your personal use for developing your storytelling skills. If you would like to copy, distribute or publish them whole or in part please seek my permission.
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Daryll Bellingham, Storyteller
P.O. Box 5300, West End, Q4101, 
Brisbane, Australia
Tel. 61 (0)7 3846 3135
Mob. 0417 478408

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Last update: 10th February, 2011.
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