How to Tell a Great Bedtime Story

From secret missions to daring adventures, coming up with a bedtime story isn’t as hard as you think. John Fox gives us his best tips for ditching your favorite bedtime book and coming up with your own storyline.

A dad with his two children snuggling up in bed together. There are illustrations around their beds symbolizing different bedtime stories.
Sammi McDowell

When John Fox’s twin sons were little, their bedtime stories were far more personal than the typical children’s book, whisking fantasy versions of themselves to far-off places to conquer foes and accomplish missions.

Fox, editor and founder of the virtual writing course site Bookfox, is a prolific and imaginative storyteller who relished the chance to tell personalized oral stories to help his kids wind down their days.

“I always made the main characters them,” Fox explains. “I have twin boys, Zack and Luke, so I'm like, ‘The main characters are named Zack and Luke.’ And if I really wanted to make it interesting, I’d have one be the villain, then one be the good guy. Sometimes they’d like that, sometimes they didn’t, so you have to figure out what your child can handle.” Fox would invent new stories each night, sometimes introducing wild new characters, like Freddie the Minotaur, inspired by Greek mythology, for secret missions and daring adventures.

The stories inspired and captivated his sons, but they also set them up for great sleep each night. Studies — and centuries of parental learnings — show that bedtime stories, especially original, personal oral stories, can be the perfect tool to help children transition from their busy days, understand the world in context, and wind down for sleep.

No matter your age, reading before bed is an excellent way to wind down. And for kids, the continuity of a set bedtime routine is critical — after all, one of the most common taglines for parents at night is “Bath, book, bed.”

Bedtime stories are a cue for kids to calm down, check out, and ready themselves to travel to dreamland. And the benefits don’t stop there. Studies show that children whose parents read to them in early childhood have better vocabulary, of up to 1.4 million more words than children who were not read to. Reading can help minimize hyperactive behavior and improve cognitive development.

Reading can help teach children right and wrong, as well as build confidence and creativity. But books can only go so far in nighttime adventures. Whether your children have memorized every book on the shelf, crave new adventure, or need help facing fears or challenges that aren’t easily addressed on the page, telling them an original, personal, oral bedtime story can customize the nighttime routine, sharpen listening skills, and allow them to close their eyes and immerse themselves in a story. Studies show that listening to stories can activate the parts of children’s brains that support both reading comprehension and mental imagery, giving them better creative and problem-solving skills. Even better, the story can evolve based on mood, interests, and schedule.

After all, asking a sleepy child to pay attention to the pages of a book demands focus that can be challenging as they start to drift off. By telling children stories that do not require following along with their eyes, children can fill in the narrative with imagery from their own imaginations, inspiring creativity, and the story can conclude as soon as they become drowsy.

And telling a story allows you to become more creative to fill in gaps left by no pictures. “An opportunity you have in oral storytelling is to use your voice,” says Fox. “I do different voices for characters and make my voice sound a little funny for one character or have another character speak in really, really short sentences; just give each character a little personality, and I make it up on the fly. Do I forget the right voice for the characters? Sure. But guess what? The kids will always remind me, ‘Daddy, that's not the right voice.’”

Telling a great story is nothing new — some of the world’s greatest narratives began as oral traditions, including Aesop's fables, many fairy tales and “The Odyssey.” Just ask anyone whose grandparent regaled them with childhood stories. Many oral traditions feature iconic heroes, like King Arthur of Camelot, or unsung protagonists, like Cinderella, whose origin stories date to ancient Greece. The protagonist can be as normal and everyday as the listener or as wild as the kid’s most imaginative fantasy friend.

Good stories are a chance to foster creativity and imagination for kids. Christopher Lutz of the aptly named bookstore The Curious Reader in Glen Rock, New Jersey, says that it’s especially important for stories to help build imagination and interest in exploration. “Stories, especially for children, are a chance to inspire curiosity. We want to give people an opportunity to see what’s out there and get whatever their heart desires. Too many adults have lost that curiosity. We see it all the time where, around middle school, curiosity can wane because so much of the reading you’re doing is very academic.” Lutz loves to tailor stories, whether oral or book selections, to give listeners something to think about or even dream about as they sleep.

Need more guidelines? There is no limit to who a story can involve or what a hero can do, but the stories should follow a regular structure, Fox advises. And a great kids’ story shares a lot of similarities with the best adult books. “Obviously you can't have certain topics in a children's story, and there are language components. But think about all the story structure beats. You're still looking for a climax, you're still looking for a good conclusion, you're still looking for problems or a goal for the character,” he says. “There's actually a lot of overlap between how story works in a novel and how story works in a children's book.”

For Fox, there must be a plan. “I think that the critical thing is to start with a character who has a problem or a goal,” he advises. From there, though, it’s up to the narrator and the listeners. Fox often builds his stories around his sons, Zack and Luke, or Freddie the Minotaur. “But the character can be anything or anyone,” he says. “You can have the two-headed snake. You can have Daisy the Flower, Bill the Buffalo, or, you know, just a normal kid.” With the character set, it’s time for the mission. “So a problem could be anything from self-confidence to bullies to a missing toy to a tooth getting ready to fall out. Or they could be giant problems, [something like], ‘Oh, the Big Bad Boulder Monster is trying to defeat us in Magical Land,’” Fox shares.

And the mission can be as fantastical or as relatable as a child wants it to be, Fox recommends. “So maybe the mission is to get friends. Maybe it's to adjust to a new school. Maybe it's to get the Emerald Gem that was stolen by the Wicked Queen of the Attic,” he muses. “I mean, whatever that goal is, you have the children work towards it or you. The characters work towards it.”

Lutz agrees. “If I was going to invent a story tonight, I would try to do a character that the audience would relate to. And maybe have that character do some familiar things that the audience would be familiar with, to make it sort of soothing,” he says. “I’d have some positive outcomes to their interactions with the world around them — that would be good. I think that would be a good start. Curiosity is a terrific thing because it'll give you something to think about, with ideas tumbling in your head as you nod off to sleep.”

From there, it’s off to the imagination races. “Once you set up that premise,” Fox says, “the kids are hooked. They’re like, ‘I want to know more. Tell me that. Tell me what happens, Mom or Dad,’ and all you have to do is throw problems in the way and make it difficult for that character to either solve the problem or to get to follow their mission and achieve their goal. So a boulder traps them in a cave or people won't eat with them at lunch, whatever they're going toward, making it difficult for them to get there.”

There’s also a chance to alter the amount of engagement for a listening child over the course of the story. “In terms of crowd interaction, I would try to make it so that I was telling them something and that they could sort of nod off as they listen to the story rather than interacting with them,” explains Lutz. “For going to sleep, I prefer to start with active listening and then slowly become passive listening as the ideal.”

Growing up in Vermont, Renée Fox (no relation to John) eagerly awaited bedtime stories with her siblings, when her dad would regale her with stories of a folksy superhero version of her beloved stepmom, who tackled low-level criminals with her Birkenstock sandals.

“While books were welcomed for my siblings and me at bedtime, the immersive and comedic element of the original stories were a special treat,” Fox recalls. “They often included themes that were important to my parents to convey to their kids — treating others well, not littering, and other morals for kids. The endings taught us that goodness wins; they were never scary and always funny!”

Renée Fox says that her parents' stories even helped her warm up to bedtime, superseding the usual bedtime battles that parents often brace themselves for. “As a kid, bedtime was not my favorite time of day, but these stories gave me something to look forward to: What would they think up next?” she muses. “They also brought comfort and security at a time of day when the activities halt and imaginative minds wander. The endings always included a Birkenstock sandal print left at the scene, with the police puzzled as to who had solved the crime.”

As Renée Fox’s parents demonstrated, within the bounds of the story, you have twists and turns and opportunities to captivate and inspire kids, adding personal morals and missions.

But even if kids are the harshest critics, the pressure is low, and the point is fun with bedtime stories. In fact, the stranger, the better sometimes, according to John Fox. “If you lay down the rules of the story, like, well, of course, the unicorn can fly. And of course, Magical Mushroom Land exists, they'll just roll with it. So don't take any time justifying the story. Just go straight for the magical.”

“And my personal preference is ending on a happy note,” says John Fox. “You have them ride off into the sunset or into the Magical Mushroom Land and, voilà, it's bedtime.”

Do’s and don’ts of telling a great bedtime story

John Fox, who offers a virtual course on writing children’s books, shares his top tips for telling a great bedtime story:

Don’t be intimidated

If there’s one thing to keep in mind, Fox wants people to know that they can do this. “Remember that humans are natural born storytellers. And every single person reading this has told thousands of stories about their life to friends, to families, over e-mail, over video chat. It's more intimidating than it seems, but you've done this thousands of times. So, relax, and if you mess up, you always have next night to try again.”

Do give the hero a goal

“But whatever character you start with, all you have to do is you either give them a problem to solve or you give them some sort of mission or goal to go towards.”

Do make the hero familiar

“I have twin boys, Zack and Luke. So I'm like, ‘The main characters are named Zack and Luke.’ And if I really wanted to make it interesting, I’d have one be the villain, then one be the good guy. Sometimes they’d like that, sometimes they didn’t, so you have to figure out what your child can handle.”

Do make the hero your child’s age or older

“I will say that the kid has to be the age of your child or older. That's really important. You can't have a younger character. Kids aren't interested in that.”

But don’t introduce adults

“Most of the time it's good to keep adults out of the narrative,” says Fox. “Because both in children's books and in oral storytelling, remember that that children's stories are a place where they can play, act, and pretend that they are the adults, that they are the ones who solve all the problems — all the responsibility is up to them. So I suggest you wipe all the adults out of the picture and have the kids occupy their own imaginative space.”

Don’t censor yourself

Sure, don’t go wild with naughty themes or scary concepts, but otherwise, let your imagination run wild. “If you get an idea, just roll with it, right? This isn't the Louvre of storytelling,” says Fox. “This isn't Carnegie Hall. This is you with your kids, and you always have a chance next time if you severely mess up. So just roll with whatever comes into your imagination.”

Do allow questions

“Usually children interrupting is a bad thing,” says Fox. “I think when you're telling the story to your kids, children interrupting is always a good thing because they have a question or they want the story to go a particular way. And to me, that's an opportunity. I'm getting direct feedback, like as a novelist, as a writer myself, I write. And then years and years later, I finally have people give me feedback. But if you're telling someone the story orally, one of your kids, and they can be like, ‘Oh, I hope he doesn't do this.’ You're like, ‘Oh, I'm definitely gonna have him do that.’ You know, go to the scary place or try to fight the dragon or whatever it is. And don't be afraid to jump in the subplots as well to answer a child's question. So always view interruptions from the children as opportunities.”

Don’t explain

“I see this all the time in children's books that I read and so I would guess that parents are probably doing it when they're telling stories. They try to justify how the unicorn can fly into Magical Mushroom Land, but kids don't think that way. They don't. They don't need an explanation. They will just accept.”

Do lean into the senses

Books have the benefit of illustrations. Fox often encourages his writers to let the art do the work: “Usually you need a lot less text and let the illustrations do their thing.” But that opens up new opportunities when you’re telling a story without pictures. “When you're doing oral storytelling, I think you need to be judicious with senses. If there is a smell of a flower, sure, you can mention the smell of gardenias. Or you can mention the feeling of wind on their backs. But a few senses go a really long way, right? I tend to prioritize the storytelling because that's sort of the plot engine that the kids are most interested in, but a few senses absolutely makes the kid feel like they're there and sort of immerses them in the scene.”

Don’t keep the story going too long

As tempting as it is to embark on the Neverending Story to tell over many nights, keep your story contained. “The downside of serialization is that it's harder to get up and go to sleep, which is often the gist of the children's book or the oral storytelling to begin with, because they're like ‘Ohh, I'm gonna stay up thinking about how this story might end.’ And you're like, ‘No, child. You must go to bed now.’”

Do re-introduce characters

Like Bonsai Robin or Freddie the Minotaur, repeat characters are great, as the story doesn’t pause in a way that precludes kids’ wanting to go to sleep, defeating the whole point. “There is a form of serialization that works, and this is the format of ‘The Simpsons.’ Every ‘Simpsons’ episode, it starts all the way back at the beginning, right? Like it's not sequential — the series doesn't build. You don’t have to watch the previous one to understand the next one. It all goes back to zero every single time. So if parents wanted to create a set of characters that are familiar, and they have an adventure and the adventure ends. And then the next night they start over with those same characters, but they do something different. That'll be a form that will: 1. entertain the children, because they get to know them. And 2., the children will actually go to sleep.”

Do end on a happy note

“To end the story, you have to go back to that first problem that you had or that mission that they had, right? And have them either solve the problem or succeed in their mission, because that will make the story feel like it's ended.”