How to plan a story | Writing with kids

Loads of tips for using questions and prompts to guide reluctant writers and teach them how to plan a story.
My girls loved to write stories. In their free time, if their noses weren’t buried in a favorite book, they might be found with pencil in hand, ideas spilling into their spiral notebooks like water from a rain spout. They didn’t need much coaxing from me; they wrote because it was fun!

On the other hand, my son Ben, though he loved to tell stories out loud, wouldn’t write one down to save his life.

My Child Can’t Write a Story

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear from moms who have a Ben of their own. They don’t know how to help their child get past tears and pencil-throwing. They don’t see how he’ll ever write a decent sentence, let alone a whole story.

This post was gleaned from a series of email conversations I had with one such mom, “Amy.” The trouble began when she handed her son a graphic organizer on which to write ideas for what could happen at the beginning, middle, and end of his story. To Amy’s dismay, all he wrote was “Once upon a time” and “The end.”

She emailed me in a panic.

I sent Amy a number of ideas for how to plan a story with her son. You’ll find those suggestions—and more!—below.

Work Together

Follow instructions.

Sometimes, brainstorming sheets aren’t self-explanatory. If you’re using a writing program, lean on the teacher’s guide, which is loaded with tips and guidance. Look to the parent instructions to direct the activity rather than rely on worksheet pages alone.

Teach, train, and encourage. 

Until a child has learned the skills to be a good brainstormer, you’ll need to work closely with him. Reluctant writers in particular should not be left to write on their own. Don’t let this discourage you. As mom, teacher, coach, and cheerleader, your goal is both to encourage your child and train him to think. That’s what brainstorming sessions are all about!

Plan to do the writing, if needed. 

Young or reluctant children can shut down if expected to do too much writing. Independence will come in time. For now, know that it’s okay to take over the writing for your child.

Start with story ideas, not title ideas. 

Writing the title first can back a child into a corner. He might think of a great title, but sometimes he can’t come up with any ideas to go with it. That’s why the title should actually be the last step of brainstorming.

Plan the Story

Consider the genre.

If it’s an adventure story, your child will want to think of a main character, an exciting or exotic setting, and a problem for the character to solve. If it’s a funny story, help him decide on a main character who finds himself in a humorous situation.

Pump out those ideas!

Brainstorming should produce more ideas than your child plans to use. If he can’t think of anything now, he definitely won’t have much to write about later. He might need to pick a new topic that he can tell more about.

Start at the beginning.

Talk about different ways the story could start. Ask questions to prompt ideas, such as:

  • Who could be the main character in your story? An animal? A person? A make-believe character?
  • What problem might need to get solved?
  • When does the story happen? One winter? Last Tuesday? Yesterday? 
  • Where does the story take place? In the kitchen? Under your bed? At the soccer field? On a strange planet?

Once you’ve come up with ideas together, write some of them on a whiteboard. Then, have your child pick his favorite “beginning” and write it on his own worksheet. (Again, if this results in tears or tantrums, don’t hesitate to write the ideas for him.)

Brainstorm for the story’s middle and end.

Keep asking questions to prompt your child. Help your child include elements that support the story’s theme.

Think of a title.

Now that you know the direction the story will take, it’s time to brainstorm for different title ideas.

Put It Into Practice

Here are some ways to coax more content from your child.

Beginning

Ask questions. For their lesson on humor, Amy’s son wanted to write about a monster. It’s good to ask questions such as: What funny situations might a monster find himself in? Could he get stuck in an elevator? Could he have trouble learning to skateboard? Or maybe he looks silly—a pink monster who wants to be scary but only ends up making people laugh.

After tossing ideas around together, you might say: OK. We’ve decided that Mike the Monster has bad breath. Why is having bad breath a problem? For the beginning of the story, let’s make a list of funny things that could happen because of his bad breath. 

As you come up with possibilities together, jot words and phrases on your whiteboard.

  • no one likes Mike
  • green cloud when he talks
  • grass withers and dies
  • food spoils
  • paint peels
  • pets faint
  • people’s hair falls out

Middle

Keep directing your child to include humorous elements such as ridiculous situations and silly solutions.

Mike is a mess! What do you suppose would be some ways he could try to solve his breath problem? 

  • eat mints
  • gargle with mouthwash
  • chew on parsley
  • wear a surgical mask
  • wear an astronaut helmet

Great ideas! What funny or ridiculous things could happen as he tries these different solutions? 

  • his breath gets worse!
  • astronaut helmet explodes
  • buildings fall down
  • forest catches fire
  • cars melt

Brainstorming is about throwing out ideas. Don’t worry whether an idea is good or bad; just keep talking about funny situations that could happen. When several ideas stick, your child can add them to the worksheet.

Ending

How do you want the story to end? What solves the problem? 

  • police chase Mike to city dump
  • lost and hungry—eats muddy shoe, rotten fish, moldy cheese, old tires
  • suddenly, flowers start to grow
  • people’s hair grows back
  • rainbow appears in sky
  • town people welcome Mike
  • everyone saves their garbage for him to keep his breath sweet

Can you see how helpful it is to direct the conversation and prompt your child through questions and dialogue?

Later, when it’s time to write, your child doesn’t have to use every single idea. Show him how to pick a few from each section that seem the most humorous to him.

Happy writing!

Loads of tips for using questions and prompts to guide reluctant writers and teach them how to plan a story.

Photo: Ben Francis, courtesy of Creative Commons

2 Comments

  • Posted March 11, 2015

    Jennifer

    Very good information. I do a journal time with my 5 yr old. I write the topic or question and she will draw a picture to answer. If she wants to write a story, I will write the words for her to copy.

  • Posted March 12, 2015

    Kim

    Thank you, Jennifer! It’s so important to preserve our kids’ words before they can write them down themselves. I love that you’re capturing her 5-year-old ideas!

Leave a Reply