Ask the Kids: What Makes a Great Story

It’s week two of fall break, and yes, now I remember what it’s like to have all three kids around all the time.  It’s basically impossible to write with everyone in and out and bored and playing and loud and…louder.  So.  Since I can’t write as much as usual, I figured I should take advantage of their being around to ask them some questions.  As you know, I’m working on listening more these days, so this is my chance to find out what they like in a story.


What kind of stories do you like best?

Lucy (5) – Stories about princesses and I like stories about pets and I like stories about witches, stories about castles, stories about horses.

Scott (8) – Mysteries and tragedy

Ellie (10) – Adventures that explore fairy tales

Which do you like better, a happy ending or a sad ending?

Lucy (5) – Sad endings. Because I usually like the sad endings when they have…like,that it’s having a scary story. I like those scary stories.

Scott (8) – In a series, a happy ending to the series but sad endings to the books.

Ellie (10) – Depends on the story. Like when somebody loses somebody, when somebody dies, I like that. I don’t like other sad endings, like the good guys lose.

When you are making up your own stories, where do you get the ideas from?

Lucy (5) – I see pictures and get the ideas.

Scott (8) – Other stories and things I’ve experienced myself.

Ellie (10) – Other books and things that happen in my life. Mostly from books really.

Who is your favorite story character and why?

Lucy (5) – Hermione.  I don’t know why.

Scott (8) – Jaques Snicket, because he carries the most mysteries.

Ellie (10) – Sabrina from The Sisters Grimm, because she’s like me.  A lot like me.

Pretty interesting stuff.  I mean, a lot of it I knew.  It’s not a big surprise that my five-year-old likes stories about princesses or that my big kids love characters from their favorite books.  I knew Scott was into  mysteries and Ellie prefers fantasy adventure.  The part that really got my attention was the happy ending/sad ending bit.  Did you catch that?

They all love a sad ending.

Not a depressing ending.  Not a bad ending.  But they like the sad in there.  They want to be scared.  They want some grieving.  I think maybe the sticky sappy happy world of so many modern children’s stories (books or movies) is actually really unappealing to them.  Good to know.  Good because it helps me as a writer of stories for kids and good because as a mom it makes me pretty happy that my kids prefer a little grit to their fairy tales.

I also loved the totally opposite reasons that Scott and Ellie chose their favorite characters.  Ellie loved that she could see herself in Sabrina.  She wants to relate, to be in the story.  Scott chose the character that was the most mysterious, the one he knew so little about, the one with all the tantalizing clues that made him want to know more.  He wants to solve a puzzle, and the person who offers him the most challenge interests him the most.

Just goes to show you that we’re all looking for different things when we turn to stories. To learn. To escape.  To be challenged.  To be dazzled.  To feel something.  To not have to feel anything.

Not every reader is looking for the same thing.  Not every listener is hoping for the same experience.  I think that gives us a lot of freedom as storytellers.  I can tell the story I have inside me.  If it has the ring of truth (remember they didn’t want anything too scrubbed up and happy), it doesn’t matter if it’s cerebral or earthy, funny or scary, whimsical or realistic.  It will find an audience somewhere.  It won’t be for everyone.  (Better let go of that dream now.) But it will be for someone.

So what do your kids like?  Have you asked them?  Maybe they’ll surprise you.  Or okay, maybe they’ll just grunt.  That happens, too.  (If it helps, I bribed mine with banana bread to give me some answers.)  And maybe, just maybe, knowing what lights them up will give you a new way to connect with them.  Because maybe you like sad endings, too, or maybe you know about a mysterious figure that will capture their imagination, or maybe stories from your past will show you as a character who is very like themselves, a person they can relate to.

Ask.  You never can tell what they’ll say.

I know I’m already making my next list of questions.


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