Keep your Eye on the Story!
Many parents contact us because they have a child that seems reluctant to write. We get it. Of all subjects, writing encompasses punctuation, grammar, style. At the same time, we have to be aware of clarity issues, and whether we are approaching the subject with a sense of depth in our research. For stories, we might scrutinize it even further. “Do we even care about this character? Is this conforming to first person or third person?” Too many eyes on too many subjects will create a figurative gridlock in a person’s mind, let alone a child’s.
The truth is, the craft of writing takes practice and lots of it. Even editors have editing manuals at their side, while famous authors gripe and groan about a single comma.
But here’s the thing. Even through high school, when essays become the majority of their writing focus, students should practice diving into their own reading and their own stories to keep that creative writing muscle toned. They’ll thank us for it when they have to write their personal statements for college applications in their Junior year. But I’ve ventured too far into the future.
For children in elementary school from 3rd grade and up, stories should be a subject they revel in, even if they are STEM focused.
And, parents no matter where your child is, or how worried you might be about their writing, the good thing is most children LOVE stories. Stories are our anchor, and the tool that allows the child entry into being curious about all the necessary rules they’ll learn throughout their lives.
But how do you motivate them to write?
Below are several techniques we use to grease the wheels on our students creativity. Some are unorthodox, I know, but try these out and see if they work for you.
- Let them write about their favorite show…or video game
- Make Storytelling a family car game.
- Watch a movie or TV Show together, and ask questions.
- Let them embrace their silliness!
- Roll with randomness!
- Let them write with friends.
Let them write about their favorite show…or video game.
Most likely your child has a favorite movie or TV show.
I’ve know several students who can recall every episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender or wax and wane over the adventures they had playing Minecraft.
Wait write about a video game? We have so many that we’ve thought of publishing our own Minecraft anthology! But boy, conjuring up the Nether, or is it the Netherworld, and for them it is easy. The landscapes, the Creepers, that Enderdragon. There’s no doubt in wondering if the world makes any sense. It’s all there for the taking, and they’ve probably played for hours that they know all the secret caves and magical swords they can create. The story will probably write itself.
Will schools allow them to write a Minecraft story or an Airbender story. Perhaps, but not always. Schools have a tendency of having too watchful of a gaze on the text for children, making them self-conscious. Instead, let them know that it’s fine and be eager to read it. Your child wants a happy audience. Find the adventure and hilarity in the story. Your child wants to connect with you in positive way. Withhold the barrage of critiques and don’t get too hung up the logic.
Allow your children to entering a world they know well, and WANT to play in. Let their words run through the fields of their imaginations. The point of learning is to be so engrossed that any “work” applied is meant to improve it just enough to make it even more fun.
Make Storytelling a family game.
You might find this cheesy at first, but approached in the right way, it can be a powerful tool for conjuring up a special world that your children will want to explore more.
Explore this idea in
- the car on a long trip
- at the dinner table or living room, having popcorn or dessert
- at the park or beach or any outdoor setting
Essentially, create two characters who WANT something desperately. They’ll do anything they can to get or achieve this goal. But will it be easy? No! A story is about struggle and triumph over the obstacles that stand in our heroes’ way.
Each person will have a chance to expand on the idea and further the story. If one person decides to be slightly outlandish, it will be up to the next person to either set it right or venture forth in the hilarity.
Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, was not an author before he wrote his famous book, which is now on Netflix. Apparently, Adams began his fable about rabbits searching for a new underground home, when his daughters were bored on a car trip. They elaborated the stories on their long rides and soon the parent was compelled to write the tale, which became a full blown novel. But as parents, encourage your children to write their own version of the story and even read this in front of them. Smile and encourage them to dive deeper. Start a conversation of “What ifs” and be eager to see the next chapter.
Watch a movie or TV Show together. Then ask questions.
Whether you were a literary
.but what? They still don’t want to write? Then try this.
Reframe storytelling as a game. A game of randomness, of obstacles, and cleverness. Allow your
There are countless ways to create a sense of excitement, even urgency, to write. Of course, our favorite is to conjure a powerful or silly story. Perhaps a good combination of both. And, is there nothing as thrilling as captivating an audience in an extraordinary world with daring heroes in dastardly situations? The act of storytelling and witnessing it all unfold in our eyes a kind of magic.
But writing has the “issue” of being a lonely craft. Story needs an audience. What’s the point of telling a humorous or thrilling tale if it won’t be shared? Writing into a void also has the result of not paying attention to how it’s delivered. Are you telling it in the way that your audience will be compelled to listen further?
Below are some group Story games that we play during our own story camps or workshops. The beauty of these are that they don’t require a child to write. What? Is this the point? Yes, but first they have to enter what we call their own “Special World,” an imaginary place that they want to explore through pictures and writing. Let’s explore!
To motivate your child to write, experiment with
- Talking about Story.
- Creating a Campfire Story
- Embrace Silliness!
- Roll with Randomness!
Reframe Story as a Game.
Games are a battle of wits and cunning. Even a game of tic-tac-toe requires some planning and bold decisiveness. But more than that, games “make us worry.” It’s a good kind of worry as it’s safe. And the stakes are in reality low, but the feeling is that it is high. What’s at stake? Our egos. So, we want to try to play. Once we understand the rules and strategies, we can attempt to win. In that spirit, story writing can be seen as a game of solitaire. We know the rules, and the challenge is to beat the game. Luckily, writing a story is something you can beat. And if that does not feel settled as the truth, a young writer can, if anything, strive to “Make us Worry” about his or her hero.
#1 StoryCubes: Games encourage us to get used to randomness and surprise. So do writing stories.
Games often have the element of luck. Enter my first suggested game for you: StoryCubes. We love playing this game at Meetups to activate the shyest of children to speak. Simply put, there are nine dice, each with a random image of say a house, star, happy face, etc. These can be rolled all at once or one at a time. We prefer the latter as it allows for some anticipation for what the next roll will produce. On each roll, a new person continues the story based on the new image rolled, and adds the die to the end of the line of dice. The random nature makes it easy to suggest an idea, and this forces the storyteller to commit and move forward with the story. These StoryCube stories are guaranteed to be wild and zany, and raise your children’s excitement levels. The added benefit is that when a teacher or parent rolls, they enter the child’s story world and are forced to be just as silly as the kids. As a result, the young writer becomes less tense about sharing their own story… and with an audience that understands their hilarious point of view may be much more willing to write.
In retrospect, part of my own reluctance as a child was equating that the story had to be realistic. So, let’s make this a clear rule:
Let the reluctant writer tell his or her story where anything goes.
Let UniTacos, Christmas Tofu, and Falafel Bears be allowed to appear and have wacky adventures.
For many young writers writing outside of school, this should be a welcome relief! With schools striving towards more historical fiction or realistic fiction, or another popular publishing genre, there’s often little room to create their own…for fun.
The beauty of StoryCubes is that with many sets you can add to the verbal storytelling session. A session could be as fast as five minutes and a child will be inspired to create their own story.
But wait! We haven’t even started writing! I hear you say. That’s true.
We’ve exercised our creative story muscles, and began to feel a bit more confident about going off the rails with the story. Equally, your young writer has developed the skill of forwarding the story, even though he or she may not know where their story is going. Confidence is strengthening, and so the writing can begin.
If they’re ready to write. Then, allow them uninterrupted time to dive right in.
As parents, encourage them to forgo spelling and grammar and just “get the story out.” Now some, perhaps you, may balk at this, but we as teachers and parents need to clear the runway for children to take off and find their momentum. It’s the interruption of the critical mind that stops us in our tracks.
Thus, by removing the spelling and grammar internal critiques, the child has one less thing to worry about when producing their initial, rough draft.
Let them write and fly as best as they can.
Most of all, avoid interruptions. “The enemy of writing is…interruption,” says Joyce Carol Oates. Believe it!
#2: Paper Cards: “Make us Care!” & “Make Us Worry!”
We mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating. Story at its foundation must really do one thing. It strives to “Make Us Worry.”
Why was “Dick and Jane” boring? It never made us worry. And, in order to “Make us Worry,” most of the time, a story has to “Make us Care.” Yep, we never cared in those stories either. Sigh. Luckily, the world has better books, and sillier titles to pull us in.
So, instead of only repeating “What happens next?” which is still a good question. A more powerful one is a directive:
“Make us Care” and “Make Us Worry,” often in that order.
A fun game for a family is to cut several blank pieces of 8.5×11 paper into small squares or rectangles. Everyone who participates can draw or write a word on it. Just like StoryCubes, the story will be created by the group, except this time the pieces of paper can be dealt where each person receives a random hand of 5 pieces of paper. Each person will put down a chosen piece of paper to start and continue the game, each telling what happens in their part of the story. Again, encourage the child to write his own version of the story with a reminder of the two phrases above: “Make us Care” & “Make Us Worry.”
#3: Create a Hero with a Strong “Want” and Impossible Obstacles.
Below I’ve created a reenactment of a possible session with such a reluctant young writer. Along the way, I will explain what might be occurring for the child.
“Can you make us worry?” I’ll often say to a child, fidgeting with his pencil.
Usually, “Yes,” is the answer or an emphatic nod.
“Let’s come up with a hero,” I might say. “What could be his name?”
“Billy Bob Joe?” he says with a smile.
“Great!” By the way, the odds are pretty good that a child will pick that name in a class!
“What does he WANT?” I may even reiterate. “What does he want more than ANYTHING in the World?” This is key. A hero must want something where he or she willing to endure a lot of “torture” to obtain it.
“A chocolate, tuna fish, peanut butter sandwich!” might be his or her answer. The sillier, the better, and the more engaged the child will be.
“Great!” I’ll say. “Who or what obstacle is in his way to getting it?”
“Excellent! Already makes me worry! So, where is the chocolate, tuna fish, peanut butter sandwich?’
“In a cage, behind the Jurassic UniTaco! And the UniTaco shoots lasers from his rainbow horn.”
“Yikes! Making Me Worry even more!” Now that we have a Hero and a Villain, we can set the stage for the 3 Trials. “What big obstacle will get in Billy Bob Joe’s way, even before he reaches the big villain?”
“He has to climb the mountain and dodge the rolling boulders.”
“How does he do that?” I ask.
“Billy Bob Joe can jump from boulder to boulder as they roll down.”
“He must be a ninja!”
“He was trained in Japan!” he says.
“He must do flips.”
With Test 1 complete, the young writer can create Test 2 and Test 3, as each level progressively becomes more challenging, until finally, like a video game, he ends up fighting the big boss, the Jurassic UniTaco. Of course, the battle will be epic, and, if we’re lucky, his story will be too.
There is much more we can say about Stories using our Hero’s Journey structure based on Joseph Campbell’s model, but a young reluctant writer simply writing at least a page of story is an excellent start.
All along the way, whether you are a parent or teacher, strive to be excited about listening to your child’s story. And even though they may be reluctant to show it to you, be encouraging anyway. Let them share it with a friend first. Writing can be difficult. And the critical eye, from parents, is always over their shoulder. Lessening that gaze will allow them the freedom to explore their own world through their words.
Of course, there may be learning challenges that I do not address here, but if we can create a positive, even wacky, atmosphere for children to write, they often will take up what Story enthusiasts call the “Call to adventure” without much of a “Refusal of the Call.”
Which Story game will you try first?