How to Tell a Bedtime Story
Tommy Thompson is just a normal five-year-old boy. Except that he is nocturnal and his two best friends are Ollie and Hank—a scholarly owl and a mistake-prone hawk. Together, the three of them have battled alligators, dragons, and malfunctioning security guard robots.
I learn more and more about Tommy, Ollie, and Hank each night when I’m putting my sons to bed. The three characters have adventured in and out of trouble, developing their own personalities with each passing story.
Bedtime storytelling is hereditary, I guess. I grew up hearing stories from my dad about a little boy named Apple D. Dapple. Creating bedtime stories can feel intimidating to new dads, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be fun—and incredibly formative for your children.
Of all the stories I’ve read, none have been more captivating than J.R.R. Tolkien’s distinguished Lord of the Rings trilogy. And, after A Tale of Two Cities, no books have sold more copies than Tolkien’s. The man knew how to tell a good story. None of us will likely sell 150 million copies of our bedtime stories, but we can learn a few simple tricks from the master to refine our dadcraftsmanship.
“Courage is found in unlikely places.” – Tolkien
Frodo Baggins. Hiro Hamada. Woody. The Little Engine That Could. Harry Potter. Each of these protagonists are remarkable because they’re relatable. They’re normal and we’re rooting for them.
To build a great story, start with an unlikely hero. Tommy Thompson is a lot like my oldest son. He’s fun and mischievous and occasionally naughty. He lives at night, but his adventures often mirror our adventures that day (with a monster or dragon thrown in). But above all, Tommy is someone my sons cheer for and someone who chooses courage.
“A safe fairlyland is untrue to all worlds.” – Tolkien
Frodo fought his weaknesses and battled dragons. The Little Engine took on those who thought he couldn’t. Harry Potter warred against he-who-should-not-be-named. A good story demands fearsome foes and impossible odds. My oldest son loves the bad guys—the bigger, hairier and scarier the better. Your kids might prefer other sorts of villains. But there must be conflict for there to be a story.
“Still round the corner there may wait, A new road or a secret gate.” – Tolkien
How will your hero overcome the problem? Woody needed Buzz Lightyear to conquer Sid Phillips and protect the other toys. Hiro Hamada needed to garner all his creativity to take down evil Professor Callaghan. Your hero will likely need companions—Hermione Granger, Gandalf and Ollie the Owl each serve as allies to their friends. Together, they’ll need to find a way to resolve the conflict. If you find your story is growing uncontrollably and stretching too long into your kid’s sleep, make it a “to be continued” story for the next night.
“The greatest adventure is what lies ahead. Today and tomorrow are yet to be said.” Tolkien
Starting your bedtime storytelling can be intimidating. Make it fun and give yourself permission to hit dead-ends, understanding it might take a few weeks to develop your craft. And, if you’re stuck, work from something you know. A good friend built his bedtime story around his memories from playing Mario Brothers. Start with a children’s movie or show or comic book from your childhood. Your kid won’t know the difference and you’ll have a basic storyline to get you started.
The good news is your kids crave time with you more than they crave award-winning scripts. Hold them close and have fun and you’re 90% of the way there.
Postscript: Don’t miss another fathering bedtime tradition: Tooth fairying. Photo courtesy of Kelly Lapp Photography.