The Tyrannosaurus Game is a children’s book by Steven Kroll. It was first published in 1976, but I’m reading the 2010 edition which has completely new illustrations, and has changed some character names as well. (There may be other changes to the text!)
This book depicts nothing less than a fully-realized actual play example of the oldest story game there is, “continue the story from where I left off”. This has countless variants – word-at-a-time, sentence-by-sentence, keeping previous contributions hidden, alternating sentences with pictures, and so on.
It begins with a two-page spread showing and naming all twelve players. After a brief prologue where the class teacher suggests playing some kind of a game on a rainy day, the rest of the book is devoted to the game. We see the players all sitting together in a circle, agreeing on the rules: “I’ll start a story. And pass it on to Ava.”/”And I’ll pass it on to Susan.”/”And I’ll pass it on to Roberto…”
From then on, each page-spread is devoted to each player’s contribution to the game. Their words are given in full, accompanying the illustrations of the developing story.
The entire game is shown, every single word, right through to completion by the last player.
This is also the end of the book – save for one final page, with no text, that reveals where the tyrannosaur is hiding. (I won’t spoil it.)
There is much that is fascinating about this book. Every time I’ve ever played this kind of game or seen it played, the group invented a fairly haphazard narrative that nevertheless tends to hold its protagonist constant throughout. Often this protagonist is an unnamed, undescribed first-person narrator: “I did this thing. Then I did that thing.” (Two examples from a quick google, one with an “I” narrator – It was a warm sunny day… and Once upon a time there lived a man named Ted…)
In this book, something very different happens. In each of their contributions, the first eleven players add themselves to the story as new first-person narrators. This has the strange effect of giving the story a new narrator and a new perspective every few sentences.
While I don’t doubt this kind of storytelling could emerge organically – if the second contributor for some reason made a contribution following this pattern, then everyone following could follow this pattern – it strikes me as an unlikely way for a game to go. Indeed, the author’s description of the origins of the story makes it clear he is imagining how the game might work out, rather than observing kids actually at play: “I used to play a game with a child friend that involved our imagining a tyrannosaurus inside his parents’ living room sofa. The game would get boring, and I would start imagining that tyrannosaurus crashing through the living room window and making a huge mess. From there, it was a quick step to the old “telephone game” and the ingredients for this story.”
Nevertheless, it strikes me as a very interesting constraint to apply to collaborative story creation. By requiring every player to introduce a new perspective, you end up with something like a news report’s compilation of multiple eyewitness accounts, and you allow for an interesting Rashomon effect where different perspectives on the same events can result in very different interpretations. While the resulting story would be necessarily jumpy and incomplete, the result could be more satisfying for players, by giving each of them their own narrative voice that cannot be gainsayed. The constraint also forces a kind of indirect narrative that should hold the attention of adult players more than the anything-goes format of the typical sentence game.
As noted above, I think it’s unlikely this storytelling structure will occur by happenstance in any group playing a sentence game, so let’s codify it. We’ll call this game the Tyrannosaur Variant, after the book title.
SENTENCE GAME: THE TYRANNOSAUR VARIANT
- Get your players together in a circle. The first player begins by telling the start of a story in two or three sentences.
- Go around the circle taking turns. On their turn, the player adds one, two or three sentences to the developing story.
- The story must be told in the first person (using “I” statements).
- For their contribution, each player must introduce a new narrator who describes what happens when they encounter the events of the story so far.
- The last player has to finish the story. They are allowed to break the above rules – they don’t need to add a new narrator and can tell their part of the story however they want.
Overall, The Tyrannosaurus Game is a treasure of a book. It shows a diverse group of happy kids eagerly playing a storytelling game together, listening to each other and building on each others’ contributions. It serves as a strong example that hopefully has inspired, and will continue to inspire, teachers, parents and kids. This 1991 article from the Reading Horizons journal, Students as Storytellers in the Classroom, cites this book as a great example of a collaborative storytelling exercise, and the Kirkus review of the new edition shares my optimism: “Listeners might be induced to create their own collective yarns after seeing this one.”