For past ten months, my wife and I have been telling bedtime stories of our own making to our older daughter (who recently turned 4). We do it on alternate evenings. The stories have a nearly-constant set of characters who face various situations (from real-life-like to quite imaginary).

Though it has been well-received by the audience, there is now an element of dread. Though some repetition is OK, and there is even explicit demand for some re-runs, we would like to vary stories to make it more interesting both for us and for our daughter. However, my wife and I are struggling to come up with somewhat novel plot hooks, and story elements. An extra complication is that to make stories relatable, we must avoid some of the richer elements of adult fiction. Also because of time constraints we construct stories mostly on-the-go.

Are there lists of story elements for young children? Any other resources to enrich oral storytelling for young children?

  • I think it's on-topic, as you are looking for help with elements or a concept. But I'm not sure oral storytelling fits (I'm still new here). Either way, I'm curious to see what kind of answers come up.
    – K Johnson
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 0:52
  • Welcome to Writing.SE Boris! I think this is firmly on-topic here. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun!
    – Secespitus
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 8:33
  • 5
    @bumpy About oral storytelling... Didn't The Hobbit start as an oral story? Didn't the Iliad? Didn't the fact that they started as oral works influence their structure, pacing, characters...? If those works would be on topic here, it could be argued that this should be too. I guess it could also be argued against it. Maybe there's a good meta question in here!
    – xDaizu
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 10:07
  • 1
    I read quite a few stories for both our sons, including the Narnia series and The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings. The older of the two asked me to re-read his firetruck book 23 times in a row one afternoon. He was younger than four at that time. But sure, "some" repetition is okay. :) Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 17:34
  • Do you game? infinite sources of inspiration there.
    – Sarima
    Commented Mar 23, 2018 at 14:33

7 Answers 7


First, a piece of advice. Don't turn your bedtime narration into a job, or it will quickly become stressful for you and unenjoyable for your children. It should be completely okay (and I guess it is for your children) to read from a book, if you don't have an idea for a (new) story every night.

Now, to my answer.

Few professional writers have to come up with novel ideas every day (e.g. those that draw daily comic strips), and they usually spend the whole day on generating that idea or even work in teams (e.g. late night show writers). You, on the other hand, only have a minute or so to collect yourself while your kids lay waiting expectantly, so you have to make use of what's already on your mind.

There are some resources, such as fairy tales (that you can vary, expand, and adapt, as the storytellers of old have done) and the books the other answers have named, but I feel that if you begin to do research for your bedtime stories you are already on the way to loosing its fun.

So what I would do, and what I have done with my son a few times when he was young, is threefold:

  1. Simply adapt anything that goes on in your mind to your children. There is no reason you cannot begin a story to your four year old with a dad leaving his home to go to his office. Or with a four year old being disappointed about not getting another ice cream (as your own child was that day). And then just let your imagination run. Let the dad's boss turn into a gnome and the dad have to catch him and return the office to order. Let the child learn that the ice cream was corrosive and has eaten a hole in the earth. Mix your day with the last book your children read or anything else, freely. I mean, Tolkien came up with the Hobbit because it was his job to study old tales, but yours isn't, so don't try to compete with him. If your job is selling cars, tell tales about selling cars. Make them fantastic by inserting elements from what you gleaned your kids watching on tv that afternoon while you cooked.

  2. Make the narration interactive. Ask your children: What happens now? Did the dad catch the gnome-boss? Did the child fall in the hole? Then after their answer come up with what happens next. Children love to tell stories, they have ideas, so "make use" of them as co-narrators.

  3. Read from a book, if you aren't in the mood to invent a story today, or even take a break and read for a few months, until the mood to tell your own story overcomes you again (if ever). Don't get into a competition with other parents about who is the best and most creative parent and whose kids have the most best fun life.


Any and all children's media that you already consume alongside your children anyway.

All the books, tv shows, radio plays, songs (!) – everything that you children read, listen to, and watch, and you are exposed to because you are in the same room with them, provide plenty of ideas for stories, characters, and topics that you can easily vary, mix, and combine with elements from your real life (even adult life, if you "downtune" them to the level of your children).

  • Thanks for good advice. We've been regularly doing 1,2 and occasionally 3 (though the parent-made stories for us are in addition, not in lieu of book-stories), and I can attest that these are good ideas.
    – Boris Bukh
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 8:49
  • 4
    To me, this answer makes bedtime storytelling sound kind of similar to DMing an RPG game (both in improvisation(1) and interaction (2). Even the "read from a book (adventure) if not in the mood" (3)), which is an angle I never considered before and I think is just... brilliant!
    – xDaizu
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 11:02

I gave your question some thought, and I figure the best source of inspiration for you would be an encyclopaedia. Let me explain: your regular characters can travel to distant lands where they'd encounter new views, customs, wildlife etc. They can travel back in time to various interesting historical periods. They can pop into famous fairy tales (like Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood) and shake things up a bit.

You can then shape the plot around where you threw the characters this time, and what you'd like to tell your daughter about that place/period/whatever. For example, send your characters to Japan, and you can have something centred around the Hanami.

Good luck! Bedtime stories are awesome.

  • Thanks for the ideas! Time-travel into periods is a great source of plots that we have not explored. Travelling into fairy tales would also definitely be fun :-) Will check out encyclopedia for more.
    – Boris Bukh
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 8:55
  • Using an encyclopedia this way would also be a great way to introduce your child to new words, and the time travel idea can introduce them to new places and cultures. +1 Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 14:47
  • 1
    An encyclo..what? Is that a similar website to Wikipedia?
    – sam_smith
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 22:44
  • @simon_smiley :D Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 23:22

Children's Writer's Word Book

The Children's Writer's Word Book is a very good resource for what you are looking for. It is quite readable (will hold your interest) and has enough material to help you generate unlimited plots and story elements all the while providing ideas that will be age appropriate and yet not simple and boring.

It also lists numerous resources which can lead you to other helpful information.

The book is not just a list of words though it does provide word lists that can also be very helpful in stimulating ideas for story generation too.

Another book that is also good is Writing Picture Books. It can help you to think about what a story is and how to make it come alive in pictures and provides plotting ideas that will be interesting. Since it is based on telling a story visually, it will help with your oral type of stories as you attempt to describe the scenes.


Apparently what my grandfather used to do, telling a story to children, was to ask them -- what do you want in the story?

And apparently they'd reply things like:

  • A spider
  • A palace
  • Toffee-paper

And he'd make up a story with those elements:

  • A new (semi-random) story, because it's based on a new input (seed) from the child[ren]
  • Extra-entertaining for the audience, because you'd wait to see when and how your story-element, which you suggested, would come into the story

Also, the next morning he'd ask the children to repeat back the story as they heard it and remember it -- and he'd write that down. It's said that he reckoned that they'd remember only the most interesting bits, forgetting the rest overnight, so it was their version of it that was worth recording.

I'd also agree with Chris Sunami's answer: "collections of traditional folk and fairy tales from around the world".

More specifically (off the top of my head):

  • Aesop's fables (classical Greek)
  • La Fontaine's fables (classic French)
  • Br'er Rabbit (southern USA)
  • Stories of Mullah Nasreddin (Sufi)
  • Jataka Tales (Buddhist)
  • not to mention the Brothers Grimm, Hans Anderson, and ...?

I'd guess they are public domain with copies free to read on the internet. Some are "for children of all ages" i.e. adults, but you could skim them or adapt them; and they often have "morals".

You might also find collections by Googling for country-specific stories -- Canadian folk stories for example ... or Nigerian, etc.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE ChrisW! Interesting answer, especially the last part about only recording what your audience perceives as important. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun!
    – Secespitus
    Commented Mar 23, 2018 at 14:06
  • Yes that last part (i.e. his writing stories professionally) makes it on-topic to this site.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 23, 2018 at 15:53
  • That's also how the "oral tradition" must have worked, once upon a time.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 23, 2018 at 16:05

Yes, collections of traditional folk and fairy tales from around the world. Although there is a limited number of well-known stories that are retold again and again in the modernized world, they represent just a small cross-section of the endless number of enchanting, psychologically rich stories, from every culture and nation, found in the folk tradition.

Not only can you tell these stories just as written, they also lend themselves well to variation and adaption, to being rewritten and remixed, not just for children but for adults. I always recommend anyone who has trouble with plot and story structure to read more fairy tales.

One additional bonus is that fairy tales are believed by some researchers to be psychologically beneficial, and another is that stories from other cultures can teach a lot about how other people see the world. With that said, however, you may wish to be alert to hidden messages under the surface of stories that you might not agree with. For example, a number of the otherwise enchanting stories from the 1,001 Arabian Nights have a disturbing undercurrent of misogyny.


Our son is still very young. In addition to the other excellent answers, we also make up stories that reflect things we want to teach him. For example: if during the day he doesn't listen to us when we ask him not to do something, because it's dangerous; the night time story will be about a baby monkey who got into trouble rushing up a tree when daddy monkey asked him not to.

Another fantastic resource are story cubes, which are available in many different themes. The idea is to incorporate all the images on the dice into a story. Not only can it give you some ideas for bedtime, it can be a fun imagination-building game to play with the kids. We play with everyone taking turns to add a few sentences to the story based on the dice.

enter image description here

(I don't know if there are other such products out there, I just know of this one brand. I am not affiliated with them)


You're looking for a random story generator

There are lots of those on the internet. The first one I found Plot Generator. It gave me quite a few prompts that weren't child-suitable, but I hit gold when I randomly generated a Fantasy Blurb.

Garth Butterscotch, the Troll
A Fantasy Novel
by Untitled writer

In a cave there lived a beautiful, bendy troll named Garth Butterscotch. Not a magic sensational, killer cave, filled with soup and a false smell, nor yet a pink, minuscule, violent cave with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a troll-cave, and that means shelter.

One day, after a troubling visit from the dragon Charity Wu, Garth leaves his cave and sets out in search of three giant trousers. A quest undertaken in the company of girls, people and fluffy robots.

In the search for the dragon-guarded trousers, Garth Butterscotch surprises even himself with his intelligence and skill as a housekeeper.

During his travels, Garth rescues a kettle, an heirloom belonging to Charity. But when Charity refuses to try shouting, their friendship is over.

However, Charity is wounded at the Battle of Blenheim and the two reconcile just before Garth engages in some serious shouting.

Garth accepts one of the three giant trousers and returns home to his cave a very wealthy troll.

I also found the Scholastic Story Starters, which are completely kid oriented, and should generator child-friendly plots.

Look for Mythology collections for kids

Generally speaking, myths and legends tend to be the opposite of child friendly. But a lot of work has been done collecting the less adult myths (or sanitizing the more adult myths) and collating them together for children to read. As a bonus, this gives you a good opportunity to introduce your child to other cultures they might not interact with on a regular basis.

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