Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Storytelling For Children

 By Jim Francis
©2002, Jim Francis


Can writing a children's story be easy? The answer is yes -- and no. Yes, because the basics are simple. No, because children are not simple. That's all very well, I hear you saying, but it doesn't tell me much. Many new authors do not recognize that the basic rules for writing a children's story are the same as for any story. With all stories, from flash fiction to family saga novels, the ideal is usually to start the plot when an extraordinary event changes the main character's life.

Story line equals the events in a character's life. It's possible, of course, to record mundane events. Usually these are of little interest to most people, and almost certainly of no interest to children. Therefore, the desired method is to follow an extraordinary event, starting the story as close to it as possible.

Next, for a good story you will need details that will locate and show the child your story world. For this you need to access knowledge the child already has. For instance, you might want to show a bird, perhaps a blue jay, a swallow, or a crow. One way to do this would be to name the bird and then give two or three details.

"The blue jay flew in and landed on the sun deck. Its blue feathers gleamed in the sunlight as it held its head high. The head turned first to the left and then to the right before it strutted toward James like a lord."

Flew and landed; this would tell any child that it was a bird. Blue feathers; this is a further indication that it is a bird, and shows the reason for the blue in blue jay. Strutted (a slightly challenging word) shows the arrogance of its nature plus its method of walking.

Then there is the simile, 'like a lord.' Most children are aware of the existence of aristocrats from stories, and will have a reasonable idea of what a lord is and what one might look like.

When using similes, keep the age of the child in mind,  allowing them to associate these with prior stories they've heard. When writing, try to recall stories that you loved as a child such as fairy tales or adventures like Peter Pan. In remembering these, not only will you be able to create similar items to stimulate the child's imagination, but you will also take your memory back to your own childhood, and put yourself in touch with childhood's needs.

When using description, remember that much of a child's learning comes from observation, from sight, but don't neglect other senses. Hearing and smell loom large for a youngster, and all five senses are important and should be used when necessary.

To plan a scene description, list all the details you can imagine. Then select the two or three strongest, most important details and use them to get across your idea and story. To visualize your scene, research by checking pictures and interesting videos. Many libraries these days carry a variety of travel and instructional videos. If these are not available, there are many good books and magazines that carry excellent photographs. And there is always Internet research.

Many people make the mistake of keeping the sentences of children's stories too simple. Yes, keep one idea to a sentence, but be a little challenging and add a few extra words, or perhaps use a stronger verb, or a descriptive adjective to clearly identify and modify that noun. Yes, adjectives are supposed to be used sparingly, but not eliminated. If the language didn't need them, they would never have been invented, so use them when required, but only then.

Dialogue is different. Children have a speaking vocabulary smaller than the one they can understand. Therefore, it's best to keep the dialogue sentences simple so that the child can relate them to their own life. 

Now for the story itself. What should it be like? Imagine a child confronted with a problem that requires their initiative and imagination to solve. Most children enjoy managing their own lives. If the problem is not an overwhelming one, they love a struggle to accomplish and achieve things on their own. So any story that shows a young person, or even a young anthropomorphic animal, working out a solution to its own problem will be enjoyed. If at any point an adult enters the story, be careful to limit the involvement so as not to distract attention from what the young person is achieving. If necessary, find a way to lessen the adult power in pre-adolescent stories.

The younger the child, the more reliance is placed on the action. As the age group gets older, then character thoughts can be introduced at the appropriate level. Now it becomes necessary to decide the time span for the story line. Very young children can normally handle only a few hours at most. A little older and a day might be suitable, and for still older children, perhaps a few weeks, or maybe a season.

Another good idea, when appropriate, is to include holidays and festivals. This will allow the reader to locate the story in time. With other countries or ethnic groups, use their holidays. If you are writing about a fantasy world, invent a holiday and attach it to a season.

When writing for children, write tight, spare prose to hold their interest. Too much verbal clutter, too many excess words, will soon lead a child, young or old, to a state of boredom. And don't patronize, instruct, or otherwise talk down to the child. Like adults, they are sensitive people and when condescended to are easily insulted.

Try to bring a sense of wonder to the child. Why is this like it is? Where did those things come from? Who lived in the past? How did they live? What problems do children in other lands face? Are their lives better or worse than ours? These and many others are all questions that will interest an inquiring child’s mind. Remember, what an adult might take for granted is often new and full of marvel for a child. Answer their need for knowledge through the drama of a thoughtful and well-written story, and reap the reward of grateful children.