As I’ve said before, stories have been a vital part of my life for as long as I can remember. On a grander scale, they’ve been essential to our proliferation as a human race. The question I pose today, then, is how can I intentionally teach the art of telling stories to my kids?
Teaching story is a subject near and dear to my heart, as my one-year-old daughter is now geeking out over cause and effect. She’s also discovering that when she takes certain actions, she elicits a certain emotional response out of others. Those are the building blocks of story.
When my older child was three, I decided it was high time he learned about Aristotle’s Poetics. Wouldn’t want him loafing around the house in ignorance, would we?
If you’re not consciously familiar with Poetics, rest assured you have been influenced by its content. In it, Aristotle used his understanding as a scientist to dissect the structure and characteristics of the tragic plays of his day and try to find commonalities among the ones that worked.
Understand that Aristotle —one of the most famous ancient Greek thinkers, circa 384-322 B.C.—laid the foundation for our firmly held Western ideas about science, philosophy and storytelling. Poetics was so influential, in fact, that every major storyteller today—whether screenwriter, novelist or videogame designer—can trace his/her story arc back to what Aristotle first laid out.
And so in introducing this dense text to my toddler, I broke it down to the essentials. First, I told him a really fun, age-appropriate basic story with a clear beginning, middle and end (“One morning, a little boy woke up, he stepped out of his door to a fascinating new world of adventure, and he saved the day and returned to bed just in time for lights-out.”). I did this for several nights in a row, getting more outlandish and silly with each story. Since identifying with the main character is so important in an effective story, I made each night’s protagonist him—same name, age and life circumstances.
After about a week or so of bedtime storytelling, I asked one night how we should start the story. He repeated the beginning I had been using each night (“Once upon a time, there was a boy named [BLEEP]. He woke up one morning, and he climbed out of bed…”) I went on and, at certain exciting moments of the story (usually at the introduction of conflict, or the resolution of a specific conflict), I asked him “What happens next?” Then, when the timing was right, I asked, “How can we end this story?”
With each night’s story, my son took more and more control of the character’s actions. I stopped to explain when we needed more conflict for his character, or when we were getting away from the thing the character so desperately wanted in the beginning of the story. Once my son got the hang of Aristotle’s key concepts, I began introducing certain archetypes that keep popping up in human stories. These were blatantly ripped off from Joseph Campbell, whose The Hero With a Thousand Faces has been just as essential for writers as Aristotle’s work.
Five years later, my son has written his own comic book. He’s written a Spider-Man T.V. episode that won’t be getting past Marvel anytime soon, and he’s feverishly creating stories through words and pictures. His obsession now is computer coding, and he’s creating a myriad of playable stories—each more different than the last—thanks to some tremendous free coding sites and resources we’ve found around.
But it all started with Aristotle and Joseph Campbell—classical structure and mythic archetypes.
Parents, learn what these two giants have to say about stories, and dive into their theories as oft as you can. From there, you, too, will be able to develop significant figures who are key components of humanity’s never-ending love affair with stories and the masters who tell them.
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