My Quick Trick for Making Up Children’s Stories: Use Three Acts!

Sometimes I take story requests from my kids: “Mommy, tell me a story about a giraffe!” They think I somehow have a story about everything up my sleeve. I don’t — I have to think fast.

"Giraffe Bot" by sticky comics. Used with permission from http://stickycomics.com

“Giraffe Bot” by sticky comics. Used with permission from stickycomics.com.

So, I’ve come up with a quick way of making up a story. These stories are not always the best , but sometimes I surprise myself. All it takes is quick thinking.

I call it THE THREE-ACT STRUCTURE OF CHILDREN’S STORY PLOTTING.

Here’s how to do it.

STEP ONE: Start with a character and give them ONE character trait.

Since it’s a children’s story, I like to make the character kind of silly. My character is going to be Gilroy, the hungry giraffe.

Gilroy was a giraffe, and he was hungry. Not just regular hungry, Gilroy was hungry ALL THE TIME.

STEP TWO: Give the character a goal.

Gilroy’s goal will be to eat ALL THE LEAVES.

Gilroy loved eating leaves. He liked to eat ALL THE LEAVES. He would eat all the leaves from a tree, until not a single one was left. It was Gilroy’s favorite thing to do.

STEP THREE: Come up with a setback that prevents the character from achieving their goal.

The thing that gets in the way of Gilroy’s goal will be the fact that birds live in the tree he’s eating, and they don’t want him to eat ALL THE LEAVES.

One day, Gilroy was eating ALL THE LEAVES from a delightful green acacia tree. He ate all the leaves from one branch. He heard a little chirp. He ate all the leaves from another branch. There was a louder CHIRP. He ate all the leaves from another branch, and a great big loud CHIIIRRRPP! made his ears rattle.

“Excuse me,” said a chirpy voice, “You’re eating all of my leaves!”

“Tree?” asked Gilroy. “Is that you?” Gilroy didn’t know trees could talk.

“I’m not a tree,” said a little brown bird, who hopped onto the branch Gilroy was eating. “I’m a bird, and l live in this acacia tree. I don’t appreciate you eating all of my leaves!”

Now you have a character, a goal, and a conflict.

This is where the THREE ACTS come in. A three-act story structure requires three mishaps, each worse than the last. This can easily be applied to a children’s story — three big events happen, each with escalating tension.

STEP FOUR: Come up with three setbacks that get in the way of the character’s goal. Each setback should build on the earlier events, but each should be more extreme than the last.

  1. The bird asks the giraffe to stop eating his tree. Gilroy says, NO. The bird flaps at his nose. Gilroy eats anyway.
  2. Five birds ask Gilroy to stop eating their tree. Gilroy says, NO. The birds fly around Gilroy’s head, flap-flap-flapping all around his ears and eyes and making his mane into a great big mess. Gilroy shakes them away and keeps eating.
  3. The whole flock of birds asks Gilroy to stop eating their tree. Gilroy says, NO. The birds pick him up by his mane and tail and nose and by the tiny hairs in his ears, and they flap-flap-flap and fly him away from the tree.

See? Now we have three events that happen, and they’re about the right length to allow for the brevity of a children’s story. (I didn’t fully draft this part of the story in this post. It could be a little more full, but there are enough details for you to get the idea!)

STEP FIVE: Come up with the conclusion to the conflict. There should be some kind of character development for the main character, to give the story emotional resonance, and also something kind of silly, because I like to add silly stuff to my children’s stories.

The birds flew Gilroy far away from the grove of acacia trees, and set him down in the grasslands, where there was not a tree in sight. He watched the birds fly away. His stomach grumbled. Gilroy was hungry. He was VERY hungry. But there were no leaves to eat.

He bent his long neck down and took a little bite of the grass.

“Hmm,” he said. “This isn’t bad.”

He looked across the vast grassland. “I’m going to eat ALL THE GRASS.”

There you go. One children’s story about giraffes, and I didn’t even have to think too hard to write it. It’s not the best story ever, but it’s enough to satisfy my kids’ craving for a story. If I come up with a really good story, I write it down. And if I still like it after writing it down, I rewrite, revise, and repeat. Maybe someday, one of these stories will turn in to an actual book!

Do you have a storytelling tip? Feel free to share in the comments!

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