Part 2 - Variations and Improvisations
In Part 1 of this series I discussed the essential preparation necessary for telling stories to your kids: learning a stock of easy-to-tell stories that you can tell to your children whenever the need arises. But what do you do when they've heard all of your stories a dozen times and they want something different? This article is about creating variations on some of your standard tales, or jumping off into the realm of pure imagination and improvising new stories as you go along.
There are many ways of creating variations on your standard stories. One of the first that I used was simply to transplant one hero into another hero's story. This came about when my children got tired of hearing the classic story of Aladdin and the Lamp and asked what happened next. In my variation Aladdin became a seafaring merchant, living out the adventures of Sinbad and Odysseus (to avoid too much plot distortion, I made Aladdin leave his genie at home to take care of his mother). The kids have loved these stories just as much as they did the original version from the One Thousand and One Nights.
Another type of variation is to mingle characters from different stories. I've told my children many of Aesop's fables, and they know the most common ones by heart. One night my four-year-old son, a fanatic for everything connected with the Star Wars movies, asked me to tell them about the Stormtroopers and the Grapes. I don't know if he really wanted to hear it or was just being silly, but I took his suggestion as my inspiration for a story in which three Imperial Stormtroopers chase the fox away from the grapes and try to get the grapes for themselves, with plenty of slapstick action worthy of the Three Stooges. That story led to further requests such as Luke and the Grapes (he helps the fox), Darth Vader and the Mouse (a variation on the Lion and the Mouse), and one of their all-time favorites, Princess Leia and the Tortoise (she accompanies the Tortoise on his race against the Hare, and helps foil the Hare's attempts to cheat).
Kids love a surprise ending, and they also love a chance to show off how well they themselves know the stories. They get both of these when you take a well-known story as your beginning, and then about halfway through you simply turn off-course and start improvising new material. For instance, suppose that on their way to get their grain milled into flour, the Little Red Hen and her chicks meet up with some hungry mice, and that after they share some of their grain with the mice they get sidetracked onto some other adventure involving the mice. The kids will enjoy being able to tell you, "But that's not the way it goes!", to which you can simply respond that the story seems to be going a different way this time. From that point on everything that happens will be new and surprising, and will hold their attention in a way that an oft-heard favorite seldom does.
Improvising stories for children is not as tough as it might sound. For one thing, you have an appreciative, non-critical audience. For another, they probably will not have as extensive a knowledge of common plot devices as you have (from your own reading or simply from watching TV and movies), and will not recognize old plots dressed up with new characters and details. The important thing is to shut down your own internal critic and simply concentrate on telling a story that the children will enjoy, regardless of whether you or another adult would consider it worthy of a prize.
Inspiration for your improvised stories can come from many different sources. One long-running series of tales that I told my two oldest children had its beginning in a simple afternoon hike. One late fall day, after we'd had enough cold nights to kill off most of the weeds and send the snakes into hiding, we decided that it would be fun to hike along the creek that borders my parents' farm. We wore rubber boots so that we could wade through shallow spots if necessary, and I wore my belt-pack with a supply of snacks and juice-boxes. We walked for hours, taking frequent breaks to rest, eat snacks, or simply examine some wonder of nature. We crossed the creek to venture onto a strip of land along the backside of the farm where they had never been before. It was a fun afternoon, and was still in my thoughts that evening when they asked to hear something new for their bedtime story.
I took our hike as my basic model, "scaling it up a bit" to tell of a Prince and Princess who went on a great journey with their father, the King. The creek became a mighty river; the farm became our enormous kingdom; the hill that we climbed on the far side of the creek became a forbidding mountain range that separated our kingdom from the land of the Dwarves. They enjoyed that story so much that I continued the series for months afterward, sending the Prince and Princess on great adventures drawn from mythology, from Tolkien, or from the melting-pot of my imagination. Along the way they met new friends, including a dragon, a fox, and a friendly ghost. They saved the Dwarves from a Goblin invasion and were rewarded with magic tokens that would help them out in later adventures. The kids loved these stories all the more because they recognized themselves as the inspiration for the Prince and Princess.
Lately the kids have become devoted fans of Batman and Robin, and of course have requested stories about them. I used to read a lot of comic books in my youth, but none of the plots really stuck in my memory, so I had to make up new ones. I've gotten many stories out of the basic sequence of (1) Batman and Robin see the Bat-signal and call Commissioner Gordon for details; (2) they respond to the scene of the crime but the villain escapes (or has already escaped before they got there); (3) after various complications, they put the clues together and find the villain; and (4) they triumph in a climactic battle and send the villain off to jail (or to Arkham Asylum). This basic plot, with a variation of crimes and villains, has provided many stories that the kids have enjoyed.
Finally, what about those nights when you are tired and sleepy yourself and you just can't seem to get your brain to bring forth any of your regular stories? I actually find it easier on these nights to make up something completely new from whole cloth, rather than trying to stumble through a lackluster retelling of something I've done before. There may be a few long pauses while I try to think of what will happen next, but the kids are usually pretty patient because they like getting a new story. The effort of making up something new also helps me keep my attention focused; on other nights when I'm sleepy, I've been known to drop off and start snoring halfway through telling one of the old favorites.
Let's close with an example of an improvisation from one of those sleepy nights not long ago when I just couldn't seem to think of a story to tell. I started off with "Once upon a time," and then had to think of who the story would be about, "there lived a rabbit named, umm, Ralph." Okay, I had a character, and the character had a name. Now where did he live? "Ralph lived in a tidy little burrow at the edge of a cotton field." Hmm, now what could be interesting about Ralph? I thought of my wife's recollections of her childhood, living near cotton fields, and the irrigation that was used to water the cotton. So Ralph's burrow got flooded with irrigation water, sending him on a journey across the irrigation ditch to the unknown woods on the far side, to eventually meet up with the lovely Betty Bunny and her family. Further adventures led to the marriage of Ralph and Betty and the establishment of a new burrow near the cotton field, big enough for two and situated on higher ground to avoid flooding.
As you can see, a few variations and improvisations will provide a welcome relief from repetitions of your basic stock of stories, and in fact can add new stories to your repertoire to be repeated for future enjoyment. In the next issue of Circle Time e-zine, I'll write about encouraging your kids to tell stories.
This article Copyright © 1998 by Chuck Bennett (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: See my Storytelling Resources page for a listing of books that I recommend for learning various stories to tell to your children, and for links to free resources on the web with public-domain texts of many of these stories.
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