Good Storytelling: Insights From A Two-Year-Old

Believe it or not, but the dozen or so English phrases my almost-two-year-old grandson has mastered illustrate all the elements needed in the writing of good fiction.

I recently spent about a week with Max and got to hear him talk. He only has about twelve words/phrases total, plus a few family terms like “Mommy” and “Daddy.”

He can say:

  • There it is.
  • Oh yeah!
  • Rrrrr (motor noise)
  • Awwww!
  • No! (disagreement)
  • I don’t know.
  • Uh oh!
  • Oh no!
  • Ouch!
  • No-oooo. (smiling response to humorous teasing)
  • Oh!
  • There you go!

As  linguist, I have studied language structure and acquisition, both adult and child language acquisition. I have always been fascinated by the universals of how children learn language around the world.

As a writer, I have read many books on the craft of writing. And now here I am faced with the fact that children also learn the universal elements of story, as well as language. Linguistics and storytelling, already forming in the mind of a toddler. Is storytelling hard-wired?

My grandson had these concepts under his belt for quite a while. And then, they were the first phrases he learned to say, the first ideas he felt the need to communicate. So all day long, he walks around (runs, actually, more often than not), looks at the freeze frame of any event in his life, analyzes it and immediately gives it one of the twelve labels below. Like any good writer, he describes his life as a series of scenes, each with a storytelling purpose.

Granted, his terminology is unique, but if you don’t believe that these simple phrases do indeed illustrate the commonly-accepted elements of a good novel, go read something by Donald Maas or James Scott Bell.

Here’s his vocabulary list again as he would say them (I’ve added some consonants to a few of them, to make them recognizable), together with the corresponding elements of writing craft:

1.  There it is = Narrative Description

2. Oh da! (‘oh yeah!’) = Joy and Beauty

3. Rrrr = Action

4. Awwwww = Love and Relationships

5. No! = Conflict

6. I don’t know! = Tension and Suspense

7. Uh oh! = Trouble and Challenges for the Main Character

8. Oh no! = Tragedy and Challenges

9. Ouch! = Pain and Suffering

10. Nooooo *smiling* = Humor

11. Oh! = Resolution

12. There you go! = Good Ending

Well, there’s also Da (or Apa, i.e. ‘diaper’), and that would be, well, you know…


About billdavisthoughts

From San Diego, CA. I've been a missionary and Bible translator in the Philippines for over 30 years and have travelled as a language learning consultant to 15 countries. I play piano and guitar. I write, read voraciously and love to work on word puzzles. Married for 35 years, we have two daughters and two grandchildren.
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2 Responses to Good Storytelling: Insights From A Two-Year-Old

  1. Estelle castillo says:

    I love this blog kuya bill. It is so full of…..grandad love!

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