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?
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.
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
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.'
3) Saying 'YES!'
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.
4) Association and reincorporation
'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
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.
Daryll Bellingham, Storyteller
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Last update: 10th February, 2011.
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