How to Tell Stories to Children

by Andrea Nolen


One of my favorite books on writing isn’t technically about writing at all, it’s titled How to Tell Stories to Children, by Sara Cone Bryant. Bryant was a storyteller– someone who told stories to live audiences. She would travel from school to school treating children to Aesop’s Fables, The Brothers Grimm and the like.

Sometimes the children weren’t well-behaved and many of Bryant’s insights came from figuring out how to get the kids’ attention despite themselves. Bryant was working in the early twentieth century, but today, when a reader’s attention is distracted by their iPhone, laptop and whatever else, authors face the same problem. How do we engage readers? How do we tell stories for readers?

My writing training came from learning how to ape academic prose, and then from investigative journalism, but these aren’t my favorite types of writing to read. I like to read fiction from writers who tell stories, such as Roald Dahl or Mikhail Bulgakov. A couple of years ago I asked myself, “What is it about these fiction writers that makes me enjoy their work so much more than newspaper articles, or most contemporary fiction writers?”

I haven’t found a simple answer to that question. At New Pop Lit we’re trying to find an answer, or answers. However, I’m sure that any good answer must take the following into consideration:

A) Enjoyable writing is personal.

B) Enjoyable writing has structure: a beginning, a middle and an end.

What is personal writing? In a nutshell, the first chapter in Bryant’s book, The Purpose of Storytelling in School, says this: children, adults too for that matter, care about writing when they feel that they are seeing into the life of somebody else. People care about personal writing, even if the subject isn’t personal. For writing to feel personal, it needs to be honest.

In my own experience, I can’t stand to feel lied to. If I think that the author is lying, or putting on a persona that isn’t authentic, or holding back what they really think, I get ticked off and stop reading. I feel as though my time has been wasted, or at worst that I’m being preached to.

On the other hand, if I think that the author is sharing a cherished observation with me– or at the very least is searching for truth– then I keep going even if I don’t like what he’s saying or his work is difficult to read. Personal writing is truthful writing.

From my point of view, for a writer to achieve personal writing, he must have an authentic voice and enough respect for his readers to be truthful to them.

What about structure? Bryant adapted written stories for storytelling by condensing them. The ‘tellable’ version needed a beginning, an end, and a bridge between the two. The bridge must be a clear sequence of events expressed simply and briefly. The bridge should have only the most essential events leading up to the climax.

Ernest Hemingway’s writing style is paired down and direct; events are immediate and from the perspective of the narrator (from Hemingway’s perspective!). His work follows many of Bryant’s suggestions for making written prose “tellable”. The Sun Also Rises is remarkably fresh and entertaining considering it was written almost ninety years go.

‘Modern writing’, like Hemingway’s, was popular writing: it aimed to entertain the reader. The period of modern writing coincides with the heyday of the short story, when Joe Public read short works by popular writers in widely circulated magazines. That whole reading culture has pretty much dried up; at New Pop Lit we’re going to revive it.

So what does a ‘tellable’ story look like? In her first example, Bryant reduces the story of The Nurnberg Stove by Ouida down to its ‘tellable’ form:

1. Introduction of Hero and his aspirations.

2. Jealousy of Villain.

3. Crisis

4. Hero’s journey to redemption.

5. Resolution

The written version of The Nurnberg Stove that Bryant works from is 2400 words long– too long for telling. She never actually says how short is short enough; but less than 3000 words reminds me of flash fiction.

For The King of the Golden River by John Ruskin, Bryant recommends pairing down 8000 written words to less than 2400; making the language simpler; and only using essential descriptions. Veteran online writers have recommended to me that posted stories be no more than 2000 words long. Perhaps flash fiction is the heir to modern writing.

It’s hard to adapt written stories that are introverted and overburdened with description to storytelling. In my experience, a lot of contemporary literary writing is highly descriptive, highly allegorical and not of the form ‘beginning-middle-end’. I have to work hard to read it. Maybe ease of enjoyment is why I’m drawn to ‘modern writing’ or folktales from previous centuries.

I’m not saying that all enjoyable writing has to be personal or structured as I’ve described, but I do think that learning how to tell a story well is an essential start for any writer who wants to really engage his audience. Mastering storytelling should be like mastering ‘Life Class’ for a fine artist

Neither am I trying to smear the reading public by saying they’re ‘like children’. I think that we all are somewhat child-like in our approach to reading because we all want to find it enjoyable and be entertained– that’s not a bad thing! Most newspapers tailor their writing to a sixth-grade level for that very reason: people want easily-digested information. I believe that fiction writers, like newspaper editors, should embrace readers’ desire for an enjoyable experience and reach out to their audience in a way that makes people want to read them. That’s what we’re about at NPL.

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