Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Practical Guide to Telling Impromptu Bedtime Stories

Over the last two years, I have become quite proficient at the art of the impromptu bedtime story.  The impromptu bedtime story is to grandfathers what fire was to the Neanderthal...a survival technique.

As a creative writing major and a lifelong poet and writer, I took for granted that I would be good at it. But I have learned through experience that this requires a quite different skill set which at times is completely contrary to creative writing.   So I thought I would document here some of the basic techniques to telling an efficient bedtime story.

1. Always keep the goal in mind.  Your object is not the Pulitzer Prize.  Your object is not to keep your readers involved and interested.  Your only object is to put your listener to sleep.

2. Begin dramatically and strongly to capture interest and attention.  This may sound contrary to Technique #1 but before you can bore someone you need to get their attention.  Remember that before the story starts, they are usually frantically obsessed with finding excuses to stay awake.

3. Catch them where they are.  Use their current excuse a subject for the story.  For instance - Conner often uses hunger ("I want cheeeese!").  So the story might start, "Hey!  Do you want to hear a story about the giant rat that stole Conner's cheese?!" 

4. Make them (and yourself) the main characters of the story   "One night Conner went to the refrigerator with Diggy to get some cheese and found a giant rat who grabbed the cheese and ran away with it, crashing through the kitchen wall.  Conner and Diggy ran after it!"   NOTE: Sometimes if the child is feeling homesick, it is good to substitute Daddy for yourself.

5. Quickly transition to a series of short problems and solutions  For instance - "The rat was too fast so Diggy and Conner decided to use the flying bunk bed."    (Since Conner is usually in his bunk bed at this time -- although still looking for excuses to get out of it - turning it into a magical flying bunk bed is a pretty standard story-telling strategy.

6. Transition into speaking more slowly but don't allow any pauses.  Keep the series of problems and solutions moving.  For instance - "But the bunk bed wouldn't fit through the hole in the kitchen wall so Conner and Diggy ducked when the bed crashed through knocking plaster down on them."

7. Keep it simple.  Problems and solutions don't have to be fancy, creative or complex.  Remind yourself that this is not a best seller.  For instance - "The mattress started to slide off in the wind and Conner and Diggy had to pull it back and hold it down.  The rat dropped some of the cheese and Conner tried to grab it as the bed flew past and almost fell out but Diggy caught him and pulled him back in.  The wind was cold so Conner and Diggy pulled up the covers.  Etc.

8. Stop being interesting.   Start talking in a soft monotone. 

9. Add description and subtract action.  "They were gaining on the rat.  He was getting tired and kept looking back at Conner and Diggy with drooping eyes and they could almost grab his long scaley tail which was wagging back and forth in the wind which was blowing the blue sheets of the bunk bed and making them flap around against the big pillows where Conner was pressing his head and Diggy almost grabbed the cheese when the rat turned but then the large brown rat went around the corner and...etc. etc.

10. Do not worry about how you are going to end the story.   There does not need to be a surprising O'Henry twist at the end of the story.  In fact, there will actually never be an ending.  If the child is still awake by the end of the story, you just have to start all over.  

11. Continue talking no matter what until you hear heavy breathing.  At this point, if you are lucky, the story doesn't need to make sense and even complete sentences are unimportant.  Only the continuity of sound.  "And then the rat and the bunk bed floated into space where there were stars and some dinosaurs rat's friends helping cheese and the wind died down and it was warm blankets cheese Daddy Diggy, Conner bunk bed flying full moon blah blah blah happily ever after."

12. Be very very slow and quiet while disentangling self and leaving room


  1. Very cute. I'm sure you've got the technique perfected ;) I still like a good bedtime story myself. Having no one to read to me nor I to them, I put an audio book on sleep timer. Usually sticking to books I've already read at night because I soon lose track of the story anyway...

  2. Amazing! Simply amazing. What a lucky fellow is Conner.

  3. What? Don't leave em laughing. LOL

  4. Hahaha! As a brand-new grandparent I will certainly remember these awesome instructions!

  5. lovely. Made me think about the post you wrote about your grandfather. I have nine grandchildren and have never read or told a bedtime story.... sadly lacking in Grandmotherly skills. You are lucky my friend.