By Tim Porteus

ON THE first day of term this week, a dad who I know from an East Lothian school came up to me and asked: “How do you do it, Tim, I mean make up a story every night? I started it but now my son wants a story from my head every night and I’m finding it difficult.”

It was a rushed encounter and the dad had to head off for a meeting and so we had no time to chat.

“Write about it,” he called out as he vanished around a corner, “and I’ll read it.” And so I think I shall.

A story from your head is a term I use to describe a story either made up on the spot or a remembered story that was made up at an earlier time. So essentially it’s a story that isn’t written down anywhere or got from a book.

Of course, reading to, and with, children is really important. But making stories together with a child is a really bonding experience and a fantastic way to encourage the child to explore and develop her or his creative imagination.

This dad’s child is quite young but the process I’m about to describe can be used for any age group, and indeed yourself.

Firstly, I want you to think of a mountain. You are standing at its base on one side and you want to get to the other side. In order to do so you will need to climb to the summit first. This mountain in your imagination is going to initially help you make a story, because it’s called a story mountain.

So now you are standing at the base of the story mountain. You need a few things before you begin your journey to the summit, and the first thing is a character or characters.

This is the first question to ask your child: who is in the story? Let them decide, and it can be anyone or anything: a dragon, a princess, a footballer, Spiderman, a Minion, a witch, a boy or girl, or even your child themselves.

Next question is to find which place the story begins, that is what the setting is for the beginning of the tale. So you can ask where the character is.

It can be an imaginary setting or a real one, perhaps even local, it’s up to the child; for example, answers might include “the dragon is hiding in a school” or “the princess lives in a cave”.

Once you have a character or characters and some kind of setting you have the beginning of the story. “Once upon a time, a dragon was hiding in a school…” “There was once a princess who lived in a cave…”

You can now help the child to add a few details if you wish by asking simple questions about the characters and/or the settings. For example: “Why is the dragon hiding in the school?” Or: “What does the cave look like?”

Questions like these can help direct the story towards what is going to happen, and that is the next part of your journey up the slope to the summit of your story mountain.

So the child may say: “The dragon is hiding in the school because it’s scared of a bigger dragon.” Or: “The cave is cold.”

Now we have the characters and setting, it’s time to make the climb to the summit of the story mountain. This climb represents the issue within the story: a problem, a task or quest, a desire or dream to be sought, a need for change or something to be found and so on. In other words, it’s the beginning of the adventure.

It’s at this point that beginning the process of visualisation is useful. Visualisation is a technique used by storytellers to help them remember a tale and tell it in their own words. It involves actually imagining yourself in the story, as if you are there.

So before you set off on the story, imagine the dragon in the school, enter into the image in your head. Is it your old school, what does the dragon look like, where in the school is it hiding, what are its emotions?

Likewise with the princess, can you see her in the cave? Enter it in your imagination and look around. Is it large or small, cosy or scary? Where does she sleep and can you see the princess shivering in the cold? What is she feeling and thinking?

This is what story is all about, entering the world of imagination. It’s not the words you need to remember but the images in your mind. It’s like they become a memory which you can later describe.

Your child will have his or her own visualisations, but you can help develop that by asking questions and allowing the child to describe what he or she sees.

Painting vivid moving pictures in your mind’s eye is the key to not only remembering but developing the story.

So now we may have a terrified small dragon hiding in the dinner hall of your child’s school, and a shivering princess sitting by a small campfire in a huge cave, feeling hungry.

The next step is to find out what is going to happen. This begins us on the journey to the summit of the story mountain. To give the child ownership of the story, ask him or her questions like: “So does the big dragon find the one hiding in the school?” Or: “What does the princess do to make the cave warmer and get something to eat?”

Now we have the issue that takes us up the hill to the summit. The summit represents the transformative moment in the story, the thing or person or happening that alters the course of events. In any story, this is an important ingredient.

So perhaps we will end up with: “The big dragon flies into the playground and all the children run. But the teacher comes out and is really strict and makes it go away so the children are safe, and so is the wee dragon.” Or: “The princess goes fishing. And she sees a pirate ship while she’s fishing and decides she wants to be a pirate instead.”

So the headteacher and the pirate ship are the transformative factors in these examples. They change the course of the story, and in doing so the journey back down the other side of the mountain can now take place, for this represents the conclusion or ending of the tale.

Is it a happy, sad, funny ending? So questions like “what happens to the wee dragon?” and “does the princess enjoy being a pirate and living on the pirate ship?” may lead to answers that the wee dragon loves the school and becomes a part of the P1 class and learns to read, and that the princess becomes the pirate captain.

So now the base of the other side of the mountain has been reached, with the story’s ending. Now you can take away the structure of the mountain and lay down the bones of the story you have made along the journey.

Here are the bones: wee dragon hides in a school from a bigger dragon, teacher chases bigger dragon away, wee dragon decides he likes the school and stays and joins P1; princess is in cave cold and hungry, she goes fishing by the sea and sees a pirate ship, she joins the pirate crew and becomes the captain.

The visualisation technique can now be used to put flesh on the bones, giving it more detail. You can revisit the tale and develop it later, or leave it as it is.

In telling the story, don’t think of words, think of the images created in your head, then the words will come naturally as you describe what you see.

This way you will remember the story. You may tell it slightly differently each time, but that’s fine. Your child may remind you of how it was told before, as he or she will have their own visualisation of the tale.

Or your child may ask you for a different story, in which case you are back at the base of another story mountain ready to climb it!

Happy storytelling!