Thursday, September 22, 2011

Serial Killer on the Loose: A Study in Storytelling

By way of introduction to the four topics on storytelling, I will use as an example a recent story I told to some of my students.

I am known as a weird and geeky sort of teacher. But it goes beyond the glasses and pocket protector and the fact that I teach math. I am also a recognized local expert in mythology, witchcraft and magic. I always introduce myself at the beginning of the year as having studied these subjects at University. And so I did in the Cultural Anthropology department--that was my specialty. But I back that up with offering several mini courses throughout the year in paranormal investigation, where I explain to students that I am an amateur paranormal investigator as well. I do another mini-course in monsters and mythical beings. And of course I ran the gaming club for the past 6 years. So I possess a certain cultural cache as being more than passing weird.

The reason I mention this is that it often helps in storytelling to possess that cache. In primitive cultures storytellers were often also shamans, priests, wisemen, elders or individuals set apart for that purpose. Fortunately in gaming we already possess a certain cultural cache in the title of GM. What we often don't do is build up the mystique around such a title. GMs are expected to have secret and special knowledge of the game if not the specific world or adventure we're about to assume control of. Play that up. Know your back story, or at least pretend that you know everything about it. Start to build some suspense by hinting that certain things might or might not happen. Especially in terms of player danger and excitement. But generally players will defer by social contract to the GM as storyteller--but anything you can do to elevate your status in that regard helps as a storyteller. This gives you authority when you speak--your players will want to listen from the start. But more on this some other time.

So I had their attention from the start. They expect a certain degree of weirdness from me, and I'm familiar with weirdness, especially a certain type of scary bizarreness. I'm also a teacher, so I command some authority. Well, it was 6th hour and the students had finished their work early. I let them talk for a bit, but they were getting a little too loud. So I got their attention again and no one questioned me as I rose walked over to the lights and turned both of them off. This is Opportunism. Realizing the opportunity for a story I was ready to begin one. This requires an ability to improvisationally take advantage of whatever situation arises and weave an appropriate tale. I know my students love ghost stories. They love to be scared, and they know I'm full of "inside knowledge" about such things.

As I walked to the light switch I began my tale, "I wanted to tell you this, but some of the teachers will a little doubtful about sharing the information with students so soon after the incident." I paused here for effect. "Personally, I think you need to know. As it has to do with your personal safety. It was actually on the news last night. You may have heard? About the body they found here at school." Several gasps and murmurs spread throughout the room. Of course no such body had been found. I was making it all up. But I had their attention. Everybody loves a good murder tale, and I had also achieved Immediacy. This had just happened. And Personal Relevance. I was giving them inside knowledge--other teachers didn't want to tell them. But I was. I was "letting them in". This also happened at the school. A body found here, where they spend 6 to 8 hours a day. I had their complete attention.

"The body was that of a Jr. High School age child, but evidently the student wasn't enrolled at the school. The body was found by the janitors as they were on the roof yesterday, mostly by the smell. The kid had been shoved into the bottom of a swamp cooler, but he was already evidently dead when he was put there." A young girl in the back covered her mouth with her hand in shock. Many eyes were wide in disbelief. Several kids were raising hands wanting to ask questions. But I wanted no interruptions yet.

"They think the body had been dead several days when it was put there. The decomposition was hastened by the water in the bottom of the cooler. The cause of death, they think, is strangulation. The neck had imprints, bruises, of finger marks. But the marks were really long. As is the fingers were very long. For this reason they are assuming the killer is an adult." Shock, disbelief and waving hands are erupting into rising voices of questions and comments.

"Who was the kid?!"
"Do they have a killer?"
"It was probably a teacher!!"
"How did they get up on the roof anyway?"
"There are stairs stupid."

And I take a few of these as my cue, "Actually they don't know who the child is at this time. They know he was 14 or 15, and that all children in the building are accounted for. So he evidently wasn't enrolled here. He may be a high schooler." Here I'm falling into my old rhythms so I amp up the weirdness a bit.

"The body was fairly badly mutilated however, so it may take some time to actually find out who it was. The Bite marks don;t seem to be human in nature. So the killer may have left the body hidden for some times in the woods."

"Bite Marks?!"

"Yeah, they appear slightly wolf like in nature. Whatever was chewing on him had large canine teeth and serrated incisors."

Amidst gasps and more strident muttering I hear the whispered oath "Skinwalkers ... "

Skinwalkers are a powerful local legend here associated with the local Ute Indian culture. The Native Peoples here don't talk about them much, because they believe it will summon them. I however harbor no compunctions. "There were hairs at the site that they've been unable to identify as well. They certainly aren't human. Strangely they can;t figure out how whoever the killer was got the body up on the roof. They would have had to carry it while climbing the side of the building. There was no evidence that anyone had been in the building in the last few nights. They checked the digital security logs."

"Mr. Jones, there's a place right over in the breezeway, where you can climb up the fence around the electrical power boxes. Form the fence you can get up there easily."

This is amusing that he would admit he knew this, but I take the suggestion and run with. "I didn't know that. Maybe we should notify the police about it. And anyway if that's what the killer did, he did so carrying a 120 pound body. Pretty strong."

The class is now terrified. You can see the fear in their eyes and hear their speculations about where and who it might be. We are a relatively small community so when names start coming up I take up the tale again.

"Piecing together what happened the cops think that the victim probably knew or trusted the killer. Or at least let him get close." Here I'm lowering my voice and stooping slightly, as if sneaking up to someone. "They think," I whisper "that the victim let the killer get close. That maybe the monster called him over to him. Maybe in some dark shadow under a tree or in the park. Probably at night ..." I'm leaning over now, my hands reaching out in the forms of bent claws. I continue the story almost finished now. The kids are also leaning forward, straining to hear my raspy whispering voice. "Oh, and one more thing I should say ..." And I pause longer than ever. "I'm lying my butt off right now."

They are frozen for a minute until the reality of my last sentence hits them. They push back in the chairs, some stand up. One little girl slams her hand down on the desk and shouts "I knew it! I just knew it!!"

There is laughter and groans and hugely audible sighs of relief. I laugh too, unable to control my mirth that they once again took the bait so willingly. The satisfaction in having pulled the story off so well is gratifying. My story vocabulary wasn't the best, but it served it's purpose. Pulling in local legends and commonalities in serial killing vocabulary. Along with the body language, also a part of vocabulary, adding to a realistic and believable effect I never could have achieved otherwise.

Such effects and tools are common to storytellers everywhere. And native ability as well as long practice make their application much easier. Over the course of the next few days I will examine each of these elements in detail and how they are best employed in gaming environments.


Master Of Grey Skull said...

I plan on adapting that story into a near future campaign!

Chris said...

Hey cool idea! You know, recently we talked about the Cleveland Torso Murders (which you should really research if you are into murder based campaigns--nasty stuff) and there was a noticeable difference in the stories. Even though the Cleveland murders are a true story, they lacked the immediacy and the personal relevance that my made up story did. Which was a confirmation to me of the importance of those elements in storytelling with power.

Not that such storytelling in itself can't be powerful it can, and the kids were totally engrossed with the tale, but it didn;t hold the same power. And once it was done the spell was over.

Stories in which we have a personal stake are always more powerful. and that is what rolepalying is all about isn't it? Being a part of the story?

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