Using Real Life Events in Story Telling

Remember the wonderful book Tell Me a Story in the Dark that I wrote a rave review about here?
The author, John Olive, has written a guest post about how to use your own real life events in storytelling. I'm excited to share his wisdom with you! Family stories are also a part of narrative therapy, which I'll discuss below his guest excerpt. So without further ado, continue reading below to learn how to bond with your children through stories all while using events from their actual lives.

John Olive is a widely produced (Manhattan Theater Club, Old Globe, ACT/Seattle, South Coast Rep, the Guthrie, and many others) and award-winning (Fellowships from the Bush and McKnight Foundations, from National Endowment For The Arts, a Kennedy Center Aware For Drama, others) playwright. John's plays include: Minnesota Moon, Standing on My Knees, The Voice of the Prairie, God Fire, Evelyn and the Polka King, etc.

Turning Real Life Events Into Stories

by John Olive

"Once upon a time, there was a [boy][a girl] [two boys][a boy and a girl] and one day their [Dad][Grandma][Mom][Mom and Dad][Aunt and Uncle] took them to the [zoo][beach][park][movies].
And then..."

What joy in that "and then..."! What a gift! To turn the events of everyday life into thrilling narrative. It will give the day importance and size. Richness. Drama. Turn it into something memorable, a genuine spectacle. 

A little imagination lets you do it.

You can say to your young charge, "This life we live isn't boring and featureless. Sure, there are a lot of people in this world, but there is only one you. My imagination lets me give the world epic size. You can do it, too Together, we can make it rare and wondrous. I'm going to teach you how." 

One possibility is to simply recount what happened. Perfectly acceptable. Because naturally you will condense the day's events and give them narrative shape. The trip to the zoo took, what, three hours? Four? Your story will not. By shaping the narrative, even though you strictly tell the truth, you will automatically give the story the power described above.

Of course, you could exaggerate. Just a little bit: "It was a sunny day."

"Dad! It was cloudy!"

You could exaggerate a lot: "Natalie and Benjamin rode into the park on their unicorns." 


Or, "The ramp descended and Natalie and Benjamin said good-bye to the one-eyed ten feet tall aliens, then got off the spaceship. They started swinging on the swingset and pretty soon a dragon swooped down. They hopped on board and it and carried them off toβ€”"


Why not make the story fantastical and crazy? It's fun and of course the kids know what really happened. The tension between reality and the way you describe it will give your story narrative power. And don't forget the old storytelling saw: "It might not have happened this way, but this is a true story."

Inevitably, though, you will have to tell this story, as opposed to reading it aloud (unless you have a children's author following close behind you, scribbling notes and madly typing into her laptop; I didn't think so). Telling may require a bit of preparation. Easy. Jot down a few ideas, "story points," as they're called in Tell Me A Story In The Dark (which of course you will buy, read, and take to heart). Let the kid(s) – the tellee(s) – be your guide. "What's in that grove of trees?" "Let's go upstairs." Stay relaxed.

And don't worry: you are creating stories for the easiest audience in the world. Ben and Natalie love you unreservedly. 


I appreciate how quickly John develops ideas that allow a child's imagination to soar. Lately I have followed his advice from Tell Me a Story in the Dark at bedtime, and my son loves hearing short stories about Lightning McQueen and Tow-Mater. After reading John's advice above, I know I can use our day-to-day events in magical ways as well. For example, chores can become mighty challenges that the hero navigates through to earn his glorious reward. We can story-tell about Simon plowing through mountains of laundry and pulling giant-sized toys back to his toy box hidden away in a magical cave. I can imagine my son laughing as we exaggerate his actions from the day. What a fabulous way to wrap up bedtime and send him off to sleep in a happy, loving world.

Similarly, narrative therapy uses stories to help people overcome problems and difficulties. By telling his or her story, a person can gain perspective about how their tale has been influenced by culture, family members, or random events. By taking charge of their story, people can grow their self confidence too. Problems are seen as externalized "things" to fight against, rather than permanent parts of one's personality. For example, in narrative therapy, a client fights against their alcohol habit, rather than labeling himself as an alcoholic. Doesn't that sound more empowering? Read more about narrative therapy here.

In addition to John's wise advice above, I also hope you find time to share your stories of tale and adventure with your children. Tell them how you overcame moments of sadness and frustration, inspire them with tales about your successes, and reassure them with stories of comfort and peace. Your example will help your children thrive amidst the ups and downs on childhood and adolescence. Start the habit of storytelling when your children are young so it will be easier to communicate advice to them as teenagers. Read more tips for dealing with teenagers here.

Have a wonderful weekend, and let your creativity soar with storytelling!

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