Writing Backwards: Stunt to Story

It’s 3am. You haven’t slept for two days now. There’re strange things happening in this mansion. You’re upstairs in your bedroom, in bed with your partner, but the lights are on; you’re both too scared to turn them off.

There’s something about this room. When you came in, you noticed the wedding pictures of the young couple, and the photos of their baby daughter. You know it’s a daughter, because the crib is still here, beside the bed; the name Gwendolyn hangs on a wooden plaque at the end of it. You turned the photos face down, because you realised who they were; the young couple who died here years ago. You’ve read the newspaper reports, and heard the family stories. You’ve found letters: receipts, bills, final demands.

And you’ve heard things. A baby crying, although you couldn’t find the source. A man and a woman arguing, muffled, through the wall; something about money. And, twice now, a gunshot, somewhere outside through the corridor. You’ve never found where it came from… although there was blood on the bathroom floor.

And now, tonight, you hear the gunshot again. And the baby starts crying outside your door. A girl screams. And the door flies open. There stands the young mother, dressed in black, the baby bundled under her arm. She’s in tears, makeup running. In her right hand she brandishes a revolver. She runs into your room and turns around, frantically warning away her pursuers. Except there aren’t any pursuers; the doorway is empty – but she can clearly see them. She runs to the window, still waving the gun; opens the window; and throws the baby out.

At this point, you, the player – because you are a player, and this is a moment in a live-action game that you’ve been taking part in for the last few days, having taken on the role of a 1950s character – might realise something. If you’ve got enough detachment from the terror of the moment, if you can draw yourself back, you can think “Ah. I get it. I understand what’s going on. The baby’s clearly not real. it’s all fine. It’s just a play, a scene, a trick. I don’t need to panic.”

At which point the young woman jumps out of the window.

When you’ve recovered yourself enough to get to the window and look out, there’s nothing below; no baby, no woman, nothing at all.

The Disappearance

Let’s just clear up, to start with, how the disappearance was done. Very simple; the woman was a stuntwoman. Below the window, we’d built a stack of cardboard boxes (stunt people like to land on these) topped with a mattress, all built on top of a large tarpaulin, and surrounded by eight people. As soon as the baby came out of the window, we knew to be ready. As soon as the stuntwoman hit the mattress, we picked up the corners of the tarpaulin and ran, dragging the whole thing around the corner. Then we disassembled the pile and hid it. Yes, there was a bit of noise, but people were screaming, so that covered it nicely. You can see a video of the rehearsal here.

So that’s that cleared up. Let’s look more deeply at the writing of the scene. Because it’s backwards.

Story from Shutting Down Player Choices

When we started this ghost story – one of many substories that were taking place in the haunted mansion over the weekend – we only knew one thing. We had Kiera, our stunt woman,  who wanted to jump out of a window; and a suitable window that happened to be in a bedroom. So clearly our story had to involve a young woman. Where did we go from there?

A lot of writing for interactive fiction – particularly for our brand of live events, but also for computer games – is about dealing with the fact that players have choice and, ideally, shutting down a bunch of choices you don’t want them to take while still giving them the complete illusion that they have free choice. In this case, there was a choice that the players had which we definitely didn’t want them to take. We didn’t want them to leap out of bed, grab the girl, and stop her jumping, although it was perfectly possible for them to do that.

So firstly, we came up with the idea of a barrier between the bed and the window. After some discussion we decided this could be a cot; there was one in the house that we knew about. We’d just screw it to the floor so it couldn’t be moved; it wouldn’t look out of place in a family room.

Great! So our story has now expanded; the young woman has a baby.

Wait! A brainstorm moment, as someone comes up with the idea of the double-bluff gag; throw the baby first. This double-whammy nicely bolsters one of our overriding design principles, that of “scare the player, not the character” by which I mean that if we can make the player (rather than their character) unable to believe what they’ve just seen then we’ve ‘won’. If we lull them into a false sense of security with what’s clearly a dummy baby, the jump will be so much more effective.

So. Another part for our story – she throws the baby out.

But hang on, said the stunt team, that’ll make the players even more keen to leap out of bed and stop her… we need some other barrier…

So we gave her a gun. An intangible barrier, to be sure, but having a real-looking gun waved in your face is a definite psychological barrier. Particularly one that’s just been fired. Okay, so we can use audio to make the sound of a shot – so who has she just shot? So that leads to more story – who she’s just shot and why.

And when you bear in mind that this is all happening to players who’ve already had their nerves frazzled over the passage of two terrifying days, then we’ve almost certainly shut down the player choice of ‘leap out of bed’, but – and here’s the important thing – they think it’s of their own free will not to make that choice. They think it’s their failure to act through terror.

And now we have our story. A young couple fall out over money (gambling debts), the wife shoots the husband and in despair throws her baby out of the window and jumps after it. And out of that comes the rest of the piece; newspaper reports, entries in the family tree, receipts from bad debts, arguments through the wall, photographs, dried bouquet of flowers, and the rest of the environmental storytelling that fleshes it all out. There’s a lot more on what we finally came up with here.

It’s an odd back-to-front way of writing, but it definitely pays off in this sort of scenario.

Want to know more about the event? It was called God Rest Ye Merry, and ran in January 2015, organised by Crooked House, the events group I co-run. There’s a lot more about it – and the other ghosts – on the website.

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