Bedtime is supposed to be an enchanted time of confidences, lullabies, embraces and relief. But nothing can break the spell for some parents like a request from a child for a bedtime story.
There are those among my friends who are born storytellers. Listening to them, you'd think they'd spent their lives rocking and whittling and spinning tall tales. They seem to have made some mysterious connection with the universal subconscious, and from their mouths -- complete with sound effects, songs and accents foreign -- a personal folklore burbles forth like water from a spring.
Now, I am a writer and have even recently knocked off a children's book, so you might think that my son Jake must be especially privileged to have me at his bedside every evening, delving deep into my fertile imagination and weaving magical extemporaneous tales worthy of direct transposition and eventual paperback publication. But as Jake will tell (or won't tell you if he wants any dessert), I am a miserable story teller: an Aesop with writer's block, a constipated Uncle Remus.
If Jake's requests (not that they're that frequent anymore) don't panic me, the words "Once upon a time" will, and before I know it I will have dragged Jake into a murky and ill-governed kingdom full of characters with spur-of-the-moment identities such as Fletcher Fly or Connie Condominium, with no moral or resolution in sight: an unraveling universe of caprice and random disaster worthy of the ayatollah's mother country.
If, to escape the chaos of his father's exhausted imagination, Jake falls asleep, then I am saved. But more often than not he stays awake and alert, expectation losing to doubt in his large brown eyes. I'll have gotten Grover Groundhog wishing he were a chili bean, or Phil O. Dendron lamely longing to be picked, and finding no way out, no tidy conclusion suggesting itself to me, I will turn to Jake and ask, trying to mask my desperation, "And what do you think happened?"
"I don't know. You're telling the story."
"I know that, but I thought you'd like to guess what happened next."
"because it's too hard."
"Well then," I say, rising to my feet and tucking in his blankets, "you think about it tonight, and in the morning you can tell me what happened."
It is one of those ploys for which parents hate themselves: right up there with "Grow up" and "We'll see." Perhaps you have never stooped so low in the storytelling business, but before you do, I thought I ought to take a stab at devising some tips for bedtime yarn spinners. Even if I turned over a new leaf by 8 o'clock tonight, I think it would be too late for Jake, but my baby daughter Casey is a stone's throw from verbalism, and there may be hope for her. The Beginning
Never begin a story with the words, "Once upon a time," or "Once long ago" not to mention "Once, in a kingdom far away." These will only remind you of the story you blew the night before, or of the great classics of the past, to which your story won't be able to hold a candle.
Don't begin your story until you have the beginning of a story in mind. This should be self-evident, but it isn't. A lot of people expect the story to tell itself. It won't. Delivery
Anyone who has tried to retell one of Jack Benny's jokes will tell you that in storytelling, delivery is everything. This isn't much comfort if your timing is lousy, but it's cause for hope if you're working with shaky material. (Besides, I'm offering advice here, not comfort, so try to pay attention.)
If you've reached the point in a bad delivery where your voice has begun to double back on you, like diet-cola after-taste, your hope is to turn the story over to somebody else. I don't mean this literally, of course; your child wouldn't stand for it, and nobody's going to let himself get roped into finishing off somebody else's story. What I mean is you might try using somebody else's voice. Even if you're deaf as a post, you must be able to affect at least a couple of different accents. I for one have had some luck with Billy Carter's and Alistair Cooke's. I don't know why -- maybe we all carry around with us these other personas waiting in the wings for a schizophrenic cue -- but an accent helps a story take on a life of its own. Of course, you run the risk of scaring your children to death, but do they want you to tell them a story or don't they? Sources
Just because you're making up the story doesn't mean you've got to do it entirely on your own. All great artists steal stuff, and so should you.
People think the only proper source for fairy tales is folklore, preferably of the Black Forest variety, which sticks them eventually with witches and trolls and transcendental frogs and a lot of other things they don't know anything about. Give up this paralyzing prejudice and start putting your own folklore to use: comic books, "I Love Lucy" episodes, office gossip, class-action suits, your mother's operation, commercials, historical novels, the news -- whatever comes to mind. Characters
Most children's stories are about children and bears and elephants because it's easier to make up stories about children and bears and elephants. Don't discard such species just for originality's sake. If you're going to start casting aardvarks and bustard-quails for your story, be damned sure you know what you're doing. Of course, if this advice comes too late and you've already blurted something about, say, an anemone, then forget their anemoneness: Dress them in pantsuits, and put them someplace familiar, like a housing development. Setting the Scene
Always set your stories in totalitarian countries. Monarchs tend to clear the air, and -- face it -- they symbolize parents. Besides, your characters ought to be able to find a policeman when they need one. Plot
Everyone can make up a plot or at least adapt one. The trick is to know when you've got enough of a plot to get the job done. Overplotting is the storyteller's downfall. Keep it simple. All Barry the Bear has to do is go out into the snow when all the other bears are sleeping and get cold and hungry and afraid and go back to bed, and you've got a story. He doesn't need to have a philosophical debate with a crane, or fall in love with a beaver, or overcome a crocodile. Remember: Neither you nor your child has all night. Conclusion
Be sure you can tie up all the loose ends of your story when the time comes. Tidy conclusions are what your child is looking for when the room is dark and there's a scratching at the window.
If you've got to come up with a moral, try not to be too pushy about it. The old Naughty-Ned-Gets-His-Comeuppance scenario went out with birching and detachable collars. In story telling as in life, preaching won't get you into heaven, and since it serves no other demonstrable purpose, you might as well dispense with it entirely.
Find it in your heart and storyline to let the child triumph in the end, if only by sheer force of will. You can always throw your weight around again in the morning.
Well, I don't know how you feel, but I feel a whole lot better. I recommend your putting these suggestions of mine to work this very night. Just because they haven't worked for me is no reason they shouldn't work for you.
In the meantime, goodnight, sleep tight, and don't let the bedbugs bite.