Recently, I was asked to entertain a four-year-old while her mother – my friend – ran some errands. The little girl wanted to hear a story and refused to nap until I told her one.
Because I write short stories, I figured that coming up with a story would be easy.
However, the girl had some requirements. The story must include a rooster and a magic carpet. I needed to move the story forward to some sort of conclusion so that my little friend would be satisfied enough by the ending of the story to take a nap. I needed to be convincing, and I couldn’t spend too much time tripping over the narrative. Otherwise, the girl would realize that I don’t know what to say next.
I quickly scanned my brain for all the old reliable story lines, mostly fables and fairy tales: “Little Red Riding Hood”, “The Tortoise and the Hare”, “Cinderella”. But this girl had probably heard it all. After all, her mother likes to read to her on a regular basis.
I needed to come up with something unique. I wanted to tell her the best story she’s ever heard because I wanted to charm her. I could care less what most people think of me, but – for some reason – I always seek the approval of small children.
I quickly realized that this would be the toughest “writing” exercise I have ever done in my life. And I thought that some of my professors throughout my many years of writing classes had stumped me. Nope. This was the writing exercise to top all writing exercises: create a story in real time and make sure it appeals to a child.
Eventually, I came up with something pretty ridiculous, funny, and cute. It included both a rooster and a magic carpet. When I wasn’t sure where to go next, I would ask the girl to “choose her own adventure”. What do YOU think happened next?, I would ask. And she would usually give me an idea that was better than anything I could invent. So the story moved forward through a joint effort, and I don’t even think she realized that she was helping me make up half the story.
This experience taught me a few valuable lessons about storytelling. First of all, the best stories are the most immediate. When we write, especially on a computer, we sometimes have too much time to think. We can sit there and agonize over sentences and rewrite whole paragraphs when we should be focusing more on the driving force in the story.
How am I going to get from Point A to Point B without totally losing the attention of the reader or, in my case, the little girl? Trust your instinct for narrative.
Second, the best stories have the most memorable details. The little girl gave me my details, and she loved it when I inserted them into the story. Each time the rooster or magic carpet appeared in the story, she would giggle. When I saw her a few days later, she still made references to the magical rooster and the way it saved the farmer’s roadside fruit and vegetable stand. Wouldn’t it be nice to have readers who were always remembering small moments in your writing?
Finally, allow yourself to be surprised by your own stories. I was continually surprised by where this story would go, since I had no plan at all. By the time I got to the end, even I was entertained. You have to allow for magic to happen in your writing.
(Photo by Cloodlebing and Great Kindness)