What My 5-Year-Old Cousin Taught Me About Storytelling

A few weeks ago, my aunt and uncle paid us a surprise visit. With them, came my little cousin. Guess who had the mission to keep him entertained for three days?

I don’t complain, though. I love playing with children. You can always learn a lot with them.

When children play, most of the time they are basically creating stories. The better you are with joining the story, the funnier you are to play with. It is as simple as that.

Of course, as a storyteller, I paid a lot of attention to the story my cousin was creating. While I let him lead it and create the plot, I would try to play my role and add to the story as much as could. Judging by all the laughter, he liked my ideas. And I loved his, too. Here is what I learned from playing with him.


Do not take too long before getting to action

Have you ever read a book where the author spent the first 10-20 pages just describing the scenario or the status quo of a given society? If the author is great with description and has a unique perspective on the world, it might be interesting.

Most of the time, though, it is just plainly boring.

Readers, viewers, listeners, whoever is discovering the story wants to see action. They want to know what happens next, not the shape of the doorknob!

While playing with my cousin, every time my sister and I tried to slow it down and to create a more elaborated scenario, he would get bored and make something happen. It would be a sudden earthquake, a tsunami, a plane crash. Something had to be happening. He let us create a scenario at the beginning, building up a house and everything, but once we had the foundations, it was time for action.


When in doubt, think outside the box

Stories can get boring. We know that. Especially in cases where you have limited resources (an empty scenario, few characters, a limited idea), it can be difficult to innovate.

My sister and I had maybe twenty pieces to create with, not counting the restrictions my cousin would give us, such as “these shoes can only be used by the mother” or “only I can drive that motorcycle”. We didn’t have many resources.

So there was a time, right at the beginning of the story, when we began to run out of ideas. We had already fed the baby, cleaned the house, arrested the thief and called the firefighter when we burnt the food. What else could we do in that scenario?

So I decided to do what I used to do when I was a kid: do the first thing that came to my mind. My character (the mother) suddenly decided to put shampoo inside the cup, instead of tea.

My cousin immediately began to laugh and created a whole new arc in the story starting from there. Shampoo in the cup. It was all it took to sparkle dozens of new ideas we could follow.

That leads us to the next point…


Say YES to ideas, even when you don’t know where they will lead.

Just follow the game. Let your character react.

If you ever played with a child, you know they have the most random ideas. They will see a teapot and suddenly say “an elephant just broke into the room!” But it is their story, not yours. They make the rules. You follow them.

That is why children can play for hours and hours straight, without ever running out of ideas: they do not say “no” to any idea. Do you think they know what will happen next? They don’t. And they don’t care! It’s up to the characters to decide, not to them.

So don’t overthink it. If you are stuck and you suddenly have an idea, try saying ‘yes’ to it. Don’t go “oh, but this won’t work because of this or that”. Let it be. See what happens. If it in fact doesn’t work, all you’ll have to do is get back to the point you were at and rewrite.

The other day, Hank Green tweeted saying that he had to let go of 8000 words he had written because he found out an idea didn’t make sense. Is that bad? Not at all! He earned writing practice and story wisdom. Much more than he would get if he had said “no” to his idea and let writer’s block win.


Give your characters strong and consistent personalities

When I first started playing with my cousin, I took the role of the mother. I gave her a name and a personality without thinking much about it. It just kind of happened. Likewise, I gave my sister’s character (my son in the story) a name, and following my cues, she gave him his own personality. My cousin seemed to love everything, so it was good.

The next morning, when he woke up, the first thing he did was asking me to play with him. I then got ready to create new characters and engage in a completely new story. But he didn’t want me to do that. As soon as we sat down, he gave me the mom doll again. And when I began to make her act differently from the other day, he asked me “no, you’re not like that! Why are you acting strange?”

He wanted the same characters again. It took me some time to figure out why.

The thing is: the characters I had created were unique. Without thinking about it, I gave them their own personalities and a set of characteristics that were different from any other characters my cousin had played with.

What I learned from his insistence on having the same characters again and again was that your characters should be unique. But more than that, they should be consistently unique. Give them a unique set of characteristics and keep them. That’s what makes the rest work. When you have a new idea and you choose to say “yes” to it, all you have to do is watch your characters react to the new situation you have just put them in. It should be easy if they have strong and consistent personalities.


I already miss my cousin. Not only we had great fun together, but he also gave me all these awesome lessons. That’s why I always say children are much wiser than grown-ups. And often a better company.


Have you ever co-created a story with a child? How did it go? Did they teach you anything in the process? Share it with us in the comments bellow!



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