Tell Me a Story in the Dark

It’s bedtime plus 30 minutes, and the Essence of Sweetness, the Center of the Known Universe — for now, let’s call her Natalie — is drawing a line in the proverbial sand:

“I’m not tired. It isn’t even dark. I can hear kids playing outside. No fair!”

“Natalie, you should have been in bed a half hour ago.”

“I’m not going to bed.” 

She faces you, wearing her patented make-me smile. 

“No way, José.”

You groan inwardly. Not again.

Ah, but this time you have a card to play, and it’s an ace. 

“Natalie,” you say in your patented calm-but-stern voice, “if you put your jammies on, brush your teeth and get into bed like a good girl, I’ll tell you a story in the dark.”




And off she rushes, quickly donning PJs, brushing teeth and leaping into bed.

You enter Natalie’s room. She’s in bed, but the light’s still on. It’s one of those dreadful overhead units, bright and garish. The place feels like an operating theater.

You turn off the light.


The room changes. What had been familiar and dull is now charged with possibility, with imagination. 

New shapes appear. Moon-driven shadows emerge. Strange, moving wedges of light from passing cars cross the walls. It’s not scary, though. Not really.


Because you are there. So, yes, the room bristles with potential, but not with demons and scream-producing monsters. Your presence makes it safe.

You settle yourself in. Perhaps you sit on the floor or pull a chair up close. Or maybe you get into the bed. Get comfortable.

“Tell me a story.”

“Shhhhhhhh.” You pause for effect. This is it. Storytime.



You’re a touch nervous. Who wouldn’t be? You have a basic story in mind — maybe you’ve recently read a book or seen a movie that you want to share, or perhaps you’ve read Tell Me a Story in the Dark (bless you), and you’ve found a story you want to try out. 

But you certainly haven’t memorized the story. A lot of it will be semi-improvised. 

It’s even possible that you have no idea at all what you’re going to say.

Natalie grows impatient. She starts shifting around in the bed, adjusting her blanket and stuffed animals.

Not to worry. You and Natalie have experience with stories in the dark. (That’s why she’s suddenly so cooperative; she loves these bedtime tales.) You know what a piece of cake this is going to be. You know that as soon as you install yourself in the dark bedroom, next to your child, the story will flow.

Easy. Easy? Really?

Well, OK, I can’t absolutely guarantee this. I can’t offer you your money back. But I’ll bet you a nickel — heck, I’ll bet you a whole quarter — that with a little practice and a lot of love, you’ll become a maestro of the bedtime story. Inside everyone lurks a master teller of bedtime tales. 



I remember the first time I told my son, Michael, a story in the dark. 

It was a sticky-hot night in the middle of a brutal Minnesota heat wave. We lived in an apartment without air conditioning before we moved to our current home with (ahhhhhhhh) central air. Michael (who was 2 1/2 years old) was suffering — tossing and turning, sweating and moaning. 

I stood in the bedroom door, listening to the rattling window fan and my unhappy son, wondering what to do. 

Then, without really thinking about it, I went in and knelt down next to his crib.

“On a hot night like this, Micky … ”

He jumped. The loud fan had prevented him from hearing my approach.

“ … what we need is a ghost story to send shivers up and down our spines.”

He listened. I’ll never forget it: He lay on his tummy, bediapered butt sticking up, eyes round pools of wonder.

This story happens in one of those modern housing developments at the very edge of the city. You know: cheap houses and no trees. Parks where nobody goes. At the edge of the development is a cornfield. Beyond that, a valley, filled with trees. And an old rundown house.

This story’s about a guy named . . . Chuck. 

Chuck? Sure, why not? Chuck. 

And one day, Chuck leaves his air-conditioned house and heads out across the cornfield.

You can do it, too

Thus began the story that became known as Ralph, The Sad, Sad Ghost. I ahemed and stumbled, took lots of lengthy pauses, and made up the story in situ, not at all sure of where it was going. I had only one clear idea: a ghost. Apart from that, I was working with, telling from, whole cloth.

I told myself that there was no way the little dude would remember my story. He’s only 2 1/2. He has the attention span of a grasshopper. 

But the next morning, as I served Michael his nutritious cereal, I asked him if he had any memory of the previous night’s story.

“Ralph the ghost,” he said, eyes shining.

And thus, with Michael to lead the way, I became a master of what I now believe is a unique (and ancient) art form: the story in the dark. I’ve created dozens of stories (yes, they’re in my book). 

I’m planning to teach a seminar: Tell Me a Story in the Dark. 

I am bedtime stories. 

Bedtime Stories “R” Me. 

And bedtime stories are you, too. 

You can, I’m convinced, become a master, too.

What to give it a try?


Nonsense stories can be entirely improvised. 

One sure-fire option is to let your child decide what the story will be about. 

For example:

Teller: Give me three items, and I’ll make up a story featuring all of them. Three things. (Note: When you’re improvising stories, focusing on three things can be extremely helpful. It automatically provides structure and build.)

Tellee: Okay. A . . . cloud. A watch. And a . . . school.

Teller: A cloud, a watch and a school. Okay. One day, Harriet the Cloud was zipping through the sky. Back and forth, back and forth. The other older clouds said, “Harriet, why do you behave like that? Can’t you see we’re all moving in the same direction? C’mon, stop messing around.” 

“I just gotta be me!”

So, one day, Harriet was flitting through the sky — bored, probably. She happened to look down. Below her was a school. And there, in the school parking lot, was a ... Harriet squinted. She couldn’t quite see it. “What is that thing? Is that a …?”

Can you guess?

Tellee: It’s a watch.

Teller: How did you know? You’re amazing. It’s a watch. And you know what else?

Tellee: What?

Teller: It’s a magic watch.

Of course it’s magic! Again, how else can you come up with story material from three small objects? 

Does this watch stop time? Give its wearer the power to disappear? Make people do whatever he wants them to (small children would adore this idea)? Become older?

And here (if you’ll permit me a brief aside), we’re borrowing freely from a certain very popular movie from the 1980s, starring a prominent actor, in which a 12-year-old becomes very grown up. 

Don’t be ashamed (or afraid) to borrow (make that “steal”) material like this. It makes the telling easier. And one of the grand aspects of this form is that material that feels old-hat to you is fresh and original to your young tellee(s). Besides, those nasty movie studio attorneys can’t reach all the way into your kid’s bedroom. At least, not yet. 

I won’t take this any further because, after all, how likely is it that your kid will come up with “a cloud, a watch and a school”? 

But I think you get the idea: freely use talking objects and lots of magic, and there’s a good chance that you’ll come up with something captivating.

Indeed, it might be possible to come up with a generic story to fit almost any combination of objects. Here are some ideas:

• Make sure that one of the objects enjoys the magical power to fly.

• Let another object be running away from home.

• Maybe the third object is evil, trying to make the runaway object believe he can live on his own.

• Fashion a chase.

• The flying object stops the runaway and exposes the evil object as a fraud.

• Mr. Runaway goes home, where he is greeted with joy and love.

Depending on how elaborate you make these on-the-spot stories, a single telling might involve several improvs. 

These stories will inevitably involve talking objects. How else can you spin a coherent story around three otherwise unrelated items?

 This story is an excerpt from John Olive’s new book — Tell Me A Story In The Dark: A Guide to Creating Magical Bedtime Stories for Children — which teaches parents how to tell stories, including how to adapt classic tales especially for their children, and how to make up their own exciting narratives. Learn more at or