Writing Backwards — Stunt to Story

Ian Thomas
Dec 20, 2016 · 6 min read

It’s 3am. You haven’t slept for two days now. Strange things are 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 woman screams. 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, waving the gun close to you; 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.

Let’s just clear up, to start with, how the disappearance was done. Very simple; the woman was a stunt performer. 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 performer 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.

We started this one with a simple request from our stunt team. “We want someone to jump out of a first floor window and disappear. And we don’t want the players to know how we did it.”

This was for our event God Rest Ye Merry, a Christmas ghost story set in the 1950s. The house, a rambling old mansion set on Dartmoor, was perfect for our needs, and on our site visit we scoped out the perfect window, which happened to be in an upstairs bedroom.

So, from a writing perspective, we knew that our stunt performer Kiera Gould would be the one who jumped. And it made perfect sense that, for a ghost story, the disappearance would be due to ghostly goings-on. It follows, then, that this must have been how someone died. And that the players would see this as if it were a vision — it would be a haunting. To make it extra-scary, we would have them seeing it late at night.

The first concern came from the stunt team. The window Kiera would be jumping from was a bedroom window, and we expected two players to be in bed asleep. What was to stop the players leaping out of bed and interrupting the stunt, ruining the gag? We came to the conclusion that we’d put a barrier between the bed and the window, and settled on a baby’s crib, since there was one in a nearby room. We would fix it to the floor.

This immediately led to story. The woman who had died had a baby. So who was she, and what happened to the baby?

Someone came up with the genius idea that Kiera should come in, distraught, with the baby under her arm — a dummy, obviously — and should throw the baby out of the window first. Not only would it add to the horror, it would mean there would be a moment where the players thought that the baby-throwing was the whole gag, and, internally, they’d relax — just as Kiera jumped.

“Wait,” said the stunt team. “If there’s a baby involved now, they’ll work extra-hard to interrupt the stunt. Can we introduce some other barrier?”

So — why was the woman distraught? Well, we decided, she’d just shot her husband, and now, filled with regret, was going to commit suicide. So we would give her a revolver. The scene would start out in the corridor, with the sound of a revolver firing and a scream. Now, as the woman ran into the room, she would be brandishing the revolver, “accidentally” waving it towards the players — who she, being a ghost, couldn’t see. This acts as a psychological barrier to anyone wanting to get involved; a gun being waved in their face. Particularly one they’ve just heard fired.

An interesting facet of our barriers — the crib and the gun and, in fact, the mood we’ve engendered up to this point — is that we’ve almost certainly shut down the player’s desire or ability to stop the woman jumping but, crucially, they think it’s their own choice. They will think they’re unable to act through their own fear, rather than through our railroading or design.

So there was the basis of the stunt. On top of that, we built up and layered story — the room was filled with mementos from the young couple’s marriage; elsewhere in the house you could find evidence of the husband’s debts and excessive gambling habit; newspaper clippings reported their deaths; family stories told of the tragedy; a wooden plaque on the crib named the baby Gwendolyn. And sometimes, if you listened carefully, you could hear a couple arguing, muffled, through the wall.

From a very basic moment idea, we now had a chunk of story, a very visceral moment, that was wound into the fabric of the house and the event and which fitted our themes. We knew roughly when it would happen — around 3am Saturday night.

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.

Ian Thomas

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Ian is a narrative designer and writer of games, films, larp and books. He's the founder of the story-for-games company Talespinners: https://talespinners.co.uk