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Upper Intermediate ESL lesson activities; The River Murder Stories

Updated on January 25, 2013

Everyone loves a good story and students of English as a Second Language are no exception. A story can give people something to talk about, especially if it is a story that is interesting. If the story is part of a psychological or personality game it is even better.The personality game below is borrowed from the novel, The Pigman by Paul Zindell.

The novel itself is well worth a read but within the pages of Mr. Zindell's work is a fun little psychological game based around a murder story. I have used this story successfully as part of an English Corner and also as a warm up activity in a class on the subject of crime. This story is ideal for upper intermediate to advanced students. Here I will outline two versions of this activity. In both versions the objective is to stimulate conversation and to get the students talking as much as possible.

The Murder Story.

There is a man and a woman who are married and live in their home in a small town. There is a river that runs through this town. There are two ways to cross the river. The first way to the river is to use the bridge. The second way to cross the river is to pay a boatman to take you across in his boat.

The man who lives with his wife is a businessman and he needs to leave town for the weekend on business. His wife first begs him to take her with him but he refuses because he knows that she will be bored on the business trip and get in his way. She then pleads with him not to go but to stay home with her. He refuses this as well because this trip is important to the success of his career. He must go.

The wife's reasons for not wanting him to go is that she knows that if she is left alone in their home she will become lonely and will look for companionship with a stranger who lives across the river. The husband leaves on his business trip and the wife, left alone decides as she knew that she would to spend the night the stranger's house.

The next morning she leaves before the sun rises to return home hoping that she can get home before her husband returns from his trip. When she reaches the bridges she sees that on the other side there is an Assassin waiting to kill someone on the other side. The wife then goes to the boatman and asks him to take her across the river. The boatman tells her he can take her across but only if she pays him $100. Not having the money the wife goes to ask the stranger if he will help her. The stranger refuses insisting that this is her problem, not his and that if she hadn't made the wrong decisions she wouldn't have to deal with this.

With no other options the woman tries to run across the bridge. When she reaches the other end of the bridge and meets the Assassin he pulls out a knife which he uses to kill her.

Each person in this story is meant to represent something in life. The characters of the story can be ranked in order from who is the most responsible for the woman's death to who is the least responsible. The order that the characters are arranged in reveals which of these things is the most important in a person's life and which is the least important.

Man: Monogamy

Wife: Fun

Stranger: Sex

Boatman: Money

Assassin: Adventure

How to Use the Story in the Classroom

What each character represents in Mr. Zindell's original version might be different from how I list them here. Since this is only a game this doesn't really matter. I actually have trouble remembering which character is supposed to represent which trait. Because of this I've assigned different traits to the characters each time I've used this in class. Accuracy isn't really what matters here. Getting the students talking is what matters. If you don't tell them that you made something up, they wont know and will rarely question it. The items can be changed to fit the needs of specific classes.

Version 1: I'm Gonna Tell You a Story

The first version of this activity is simply telling the story to your students and illustrating the story on the blackboard as you're talking. After telling them the story try to get them to talk about how they might rank the characters in the story. This allows students to express their thoughts on who is most responsible and why that person is at fault. Telling the story should take about five minutes. The open discussion from the students should take anywhere from five to ten minutes. You can then reveal the secrete meanings of each of the characters and the students can discuss whether they think that there is any merit to the personality side of the game or if it actually reveals anything about them. When using this for English corner my students went in many different directions with the conversation. They asked questions about the game itself, they talked about personality, Chinese zodiacs, western astrology, palm reading and many other subjects.

Version 2: Acting the Story Out

The second version of this activity, which could be more fun, is the use of a script which gives dialogue to each of the five characters plus a narrator. Instead of telling the story to the students you can pick six of the students and have them act the story out in a role play. Having the students role play the story may add to the length of time depending on how much dialogue you give them. This is great because it increases the student talk time. After these six students have acted the role play out you can ask them to remain in character and have the rest of the class ask them questions. You can also have the rest of the class decide who is the most responsible as with the first version of the activity. Just for fun I would give the role of the Assassin to a girl.

I'm providing a script here that can be used as a handout for the class. This of course can be modified depending on your needs.

Handout: A Script for a One Act Play

Narrator: Our tell today is a sad little story about a cheating wife who is killed in a small town. This story begins with as the woman's husband tells him about an important meeting.

Husband: I have to go to out of town tomorrow for an important meeting.

Wife: I wish you wouldn't go. I'll be lonely here without you.

Husband: I don't have a choice. My boss told me that I needed to go and I can't say no to him. If I don't go he'll I may as well look for a new job.

Wife: You could take me with you.

Husband: I can't do that. I only have the one plane ticket. You'll be in the way. Besides, I wont have any time to spend with you. I'll be in meetings the whole time I'm there. With nothing to do and no one to talk to you'll just be bored. You wont have any fun.

Wife: I guess you're right. I hate being bored and having nothing to do. I hate being lonely too. You know that I don't like it when you leave me here alone.

Husband: I know honey but it's just for a couple of days. I'll be back soon. I promise.

Narrator: And so the husband left his wife at home while he went out of town on his business trip. Bored and lonely, the wife went to a bar that night where she met a tall, dark stranger. She spent the night with the stranger at his home on the other side of the river. The next morning she rose before the sun wanting to return home before her husband arrived. When she got to the bridge though she saw an assassin waiting on the other side.

Assassin: This bridge is a fine place for murder. And there is a sweet young lady coming this way. Maybe she has money in her pockets. But she has stopped. No, now she is running the other way. She must have seen me waiting here for her.

Wife: There is a man there across the bridge. I saw him holding a knife. If I go across I think he'll kill me but if I ask the boatman up the river to take me across I'll be able to get home safely.

Boatman: How can I help you?

Wife: I need to get across the river, sir.

Boatman: I can take you but it isn't free. To cross the river will cost you $100.

Wife: But I don't have any money.

Boatman: I'm sorry but that is my price.

Narrator: So the woman returned to the stranger's house to ask him for help.

Wife: There is an assassin at the bridge and the boatman wont take me across the river unless I pay him. Can you loan me $100 to pay the boatman and I return the money to you when I am able.

Stranger: No. I don't want to give you any money. I didn't make you spend the night with me. You made the choice to come here yourself. Your problems aren't my problems. You'll have to deal with this on your own.

Wife: I don't understand. Why wont you help me? What else can I do?

Stranger: I don't care what you do but I want you to leave. This isn't my problem. Go away.

Narrator: The wife then returned to the bridge where the assassin was waiting.

Wife: There is nothing else I can do I guess. If I run fast enough maybe I can slip passed him.

Assassin: There she is again. My nice young lady has come back to me. She is running, trying to get passed me.

Narrator: But she wasn't fast enough. The assassin caught the wife and killing her slipped her body over the side of the bridge letting it fall into the river.

Copyright Notice

© Copyright 2012. Wesley Meacham- This article is copyright protected and is the property of Wesley Meacham. All images in this article, unless otherwise stated, are the property of Wesley Meacham. Please do not copy this article in whole or in part without giving credit to the original author.


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