The Drawing Board Part 2 - Story

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For my purposes today, I will assume you have read last week's blog about Place, Character, and Situation.

I see story as the nitty-gritty details of the larger Situation. Sure, a mad scientist has taken over the daycare and is turning the children into mutants. But, is that the whole story?
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Why, for example, is this happening now? Did the doctor just arrive in town, having fled his homeland? Why the daycare? What is the ultimate plan? What is the role/goal of the patrons going through the haunt? Are they there to save children? To kill monsters? To confront the doctor?

The story is the narrative that brings patrons into the haunt and keeps them engaged throughout.

Pro haunts that advertise well start telling their story in their ads. They introduce their main character and maybe tell some of the backstory. I heard of one particular haunt that built their story around killings that actually happened in their town. By taking real facts and interweaving them into the narrative, they were/are able to get people asking, "Is this really what happened?".

Now, this particular haunt created a web page combining real and fabricated quotes form real historical figures, so anyone "researching" the story would find much of the same info on other sites. It's pretty easy to imagine that some of those sites actually took their info from the haunt site later. Reality and fantasy blur. From there, the haunt can add bits to their story as the years go by. More and more people buy into it, they tell their friends, and so it goes!

So, how do you come up with a story? Inspiration is everywhere. History can provide story, as can myth, urban legends, video games, comics, and on and on. If you've done your work on developing the place, characters, and situation, then you can come up with a story mostly by asking and answering a few questions. Who is the main driver of the story? What is their motivation? How did they get this way? What is their goal? What things have they done to achieve it? What things are they still doing or about to do? How can they be stopped? Do they face any opposition from other characters? What is THEIR motivation? You can really get deep doing an exercise like this.

You don't have to tell your entire story to your patrons, but it really helps for you to have it in mind when you are creating your scenes. Your story tells you how old and decayed the sets, props, and even characters should be. Was there violence? How will that inform the design of the waiting room, or the ranger's cabin, or whatever? Will you tell your story chronologically, with each scene building upon the next, or will you tell it out of order, with clues and references built into each scene? For example, maybe the very first scene is a small crater with a strange looking meteorite in it and scientists studying it. Instead, maybe the first scene is mutated monsters and only at the end do we find a bunch of scientists enslaved by the intelligence within that meteorite and worshiping it like a god?

Only when you know the beginning, middle, and end of the story will you be able to decide what order to tell it in, or what elements to show and which to hint at.

Of course, anyone these days can create a website or a Facebook page and have all kinds of "news articles" related to their story. Diary entries work well too. What about video or audio interviews with victims? Once you know your story, you can start telling it days, weeks, or months before anyone arrives in line. You can continue to tell the story by having a queue actor telling the story, or acting in ways appropriate to the story.

In a demented daycare, for example, why not have a policeman "interviewing" people waiting to get in, using his questions to hint at the horror within? Once you have the story, find ways to tell the prologue or at least hint at it. It "primes' them for their experience!

Personally, I like a twist somewhere in the story. For instance, maybe a hospital is ground zero for a zombie outbreak. However, maybe the "zombies" at the hospital turn out to actually be ghouls, made by a scourge of vampires that has taken over management.

The big climax of the haunt could be in the primary lair of the queen vampire, somewhere in the morgue. The whole story could be set up to make people think they are dealing with zombies, but with little clues throughout the haunt. A small feral child sings "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat". Maybe graffiti scrawled on the walls paraphrases Leviticus 17:14 - For the life of all flesh is its blood. Maybe the "zombies" occasionally moan "blood", or one of them cackles, "Lives, I need lives", catching and eating bugs a'la Renfield. Little hints like that can seem surreal and even creepy the first time through, and also lend layers of meaning after the final reveal.

Sometimes plot twists are like a Emo Philips joke. They are inherent in the careful setup, but play on our expectations.

Does your haunt have a story? Do patrons learn about it for the first time before they get to the haunt, as they are standing in line, or in their first scene? Is the story told through your props, sets, characters, scenes, costumes, and all the actions of your actors? Do you have an unexpected twist somewhere in the story?

What haunts have a story that you enjoy? What makes it special?

Please share it in your comments. As always, Happy Haunting!