The Magic of a Good Story

There is nothing like a good story.  Stories are powerful because, in each of them, there is an echo of the person we are, or the person we hope to become, or of the hurt we experience, or that thing we are longing for.

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Stories are for bedtime, for passing down history and tradition, for growing in relationships, for selling products, for entertaining, for teaching lessons, or for simply making the time pass more pleasantly while folding laundry, washing dishes, or commuting to and from work.

Story is everywhere.  So it’s for our children’s benefit that they are able to tell (and write) a good one.  But what exactly is the key to a good story**?  You’ve no doubt experienced that sensation when finishing the last page of a novel and wished that it didn’t have to end.  But you’ve likely experienced the opposite sentiment as well- reaching the end of the movie and asking yourself, “What was that even about?”

It’s almost like we have a built-in ability from birth to sense the difference between a good story and a bad one.  And a great story feels almost magical.  The exciting thing is, that, with practice, our children can create this magic on their own.

Although I don’t believe in providing a formula for our children’s writing, good stories tend to take on a similar form and display similar patterns.  Story Mountain is something we’ve used in our family to help us recognize these patterns.  Over the years, it has been the easiest way for our young ones to identify key elements in the stories they read and watch and, over time,  I’ve seen it transform their writing process as well.  It might be just the thing for your children to tap into the magic of story too!

I have found that both when I was teaching in the classroom, and now in my own home, when children first begin to write stories, they sound more like really long to-do lists.  “One day Susie woke up, then she ate breakfast, then she got dressed for the day, then she went to school… Then she came home and ate dinner and went to bed.  The End.”  Nothing magical about that story.  But now, because we’ve had so much practice talking about and experimenting with story they understand that their character must go “somewhere” and be changed.

In general, a story goes something like this:

Story Mountain
graphic created by Bryce Burton

So how do these elements of a story begin to sink in and become a  natural part of our story-telling?   Think about infusing them into these 3 areas of your day:

  • While you read aloud.  When you notice that a book you are reading highlights some or all of the elements in Story Mountain, ask your child questions about it (What was Henry’s problem?  What did he want more than anything?  What were some obstacles he faced on his journey?).  For a more formal lesson, you might choose to fill out a blank “Story Mountain” worksheet using a book you have read together.
  • While you watch movies.  Ok, not while in the cinema watching a new release.  That’s annoying.  But perhaps with a movie that your family has watched multiple times, try pausing it in various places or throwing out a comment here and there as you watch to draw attention to the inciting incident or the climax, etc.

A few weeks ago we watched While you Were Sleeping with Sandra Bullock.  Peter falls on the tracks and is saved by Lucy.  I yelled out, “How’s that for an inciting incident guys!  I have a feeling her life will never be the same after this.”  I got 4 pairs of rolly-eyes as a response.  “Oh, Mom.”  But they got it.

  • While your children create their own stories.  As they write (or dictate their stories), ask questions to keep them thinking about how to move their stories along.  For example, if they have written about a girl who has a particular problem and then get stuck, ask questions like, “What does she desire more than anything?” or “What could happen to her that would change the course of her life (inciting incident)?” and hopefully the ball will get rolling again.

A while back, my youngest daughter had picked one of those “dime-a-dozen” Disney Princess books from the library (not my favorite).  Later that week, one of my older daughters who was 9 or so, read the book and then said to me, “Mom. This book is so boring.  It goes like this” and showed me a flat line with her hand that reminded me of the line on the hospital monitor when the heart stops beating.  Exactly.  A story with no shape, is a story with no life.  If there is no conflict, no journey, no rising action, no obstacles, no climax, no change in a character, then it really is not much of a story at all.

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A story with no shape is a story with no life.

(Important note for older children: After mastering the concept of “plot” or Story Mountain, The “journey” portion of the mountain may begin to take on a shape of its own.  

A common question that is often asked is, “should we map or plan our stories before we write them?”  It depends.  If your child is consistently producing “to-do list stories” then mapping it out with your child before they begin to write may be helpful.  The folks at Pixar wouldn’t dream of writing a story without a solid structure or foundation.  However, the more a child understands the key elements of story, the less they will need to “plan” or map.  They can begin to let the story take its course and will be natural for them to include each essential element.  Oftentimes their story may lead to a climax and resolution that they did not foresee when they started, and their story may be better for it.  If you do any digging into whether or not published authors outline their stories before writing them, you will find a pretty even split between those who plan their stories and those who don’t:

“I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write.” – J.K. Rowling

“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!”- Ray Bradbury

Want a blank copy of Story Mountain to use with your family, plus a more in-depth description of each story element, some questions to ask and a list of books and movies that help reinforce the concept of story?

Download the Workbook Here!

**In this post the story elements I refer to can also be referred to as the “plot” of the story.  Other aspects of writing such as characterization, setting, themes, etc. are the meat that is added to the bones of the Story Mountain framework.

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