Monday, March 17, 2008

What's in the Bag?


The writing assignment this week has to do with generating mystery.

The game, for the most part, in sketch writing is to get all your pertinent information out quickly so the audience can be on board and enjoy the scene. This exercise is about intentionally, and playfully, withholding information.

One of my favorite scenes from a Writing 5 show was written by Robowriters regular, David Devries. The set up is easy to get. A young man brings a young woman home to his apartment after a date. They start to make out on the couch and get interrupted by his roommate coming home. A very typical situation, except his roommate is dragging a large duffel bag across the stage and into his room. His behavior is also suspicious as he stammers over answering the question "What's in the bag?" His answer, "Apples."

He leaves, the couple returns to making out, the man enthusiastically, the woman a bit reluctantly. They are interrupted again by the roommate exiting his room and going to the kitchen. He crosses back through the living room with a large knife - for cutting the apples? - and returns to his bedroom.

David does a nice job of building the tension mixing the roommates creepy behavior with the woman's growing suspicions and the man's strong desire for some hormonal wrestling. The woman's suspicions are, of course, our suspicions, too. It's important to have someone in the scene going through the experience of the mystery with the audience.

In David's scene we do find out what was in the bag - I won't give it away, in case you ever get a chance to see it or read it. Suffice it to say, it's either really apples or a screaming handcuffed man in his underwear. Maybe I did just give it away.

I do think the mystery does need to be answered. It's very similar to an inappropriate response scene. If we don't understand what's causing the behavior, we're not in on the joke. Or, it means a character is behaving the way they are simply because they are being a dick, which is tough to justify and sustain.

A good way to start working on a mystery scene is to start with common, everyday locations and situations. A doctor's office, a coffee shop, a family dinner, a conference room, etc. And then figure out the slight curve you're going to add to the mix. We're generating mystery here, so it's important to start off slow and let it build.

I like the doctor's office idea and think an interesting scene might be a pregnant woman getting an ultra-sound for the first time. As it's going on, the doctor clearly sees something, turns the screen away from her, but keeps telling her everything is fine. He goes and gets an associate to take a look. I can build it with people's reactions to the screen or who it is he brings in. A nurse, another doctor, a priest, someone from homeland security. I will eventually have to answer "What's in the belly?" I don't know the answer and probably won't until after a first or second draft and perhaps doing a list of ten on the subject. Once I find the answer, I can rewrite my scene to make an even stronger build to that conclusion.


Thank you everyone who came out to the staged reading on Saturday. We had a very nice turnout. Jen Ellison, the director, also did an excellent job casting it and prepping us for it. The performances were spot on with my vision for the play. It's a difficult show to convey. There are a lot of stage directions and crazy Dada things going on. I think we did about as best as we could short of a full production, which will be in July at The Red Orchid.


On Friday, I asked...

"According to a survey by, the 'Tooth Fairy' gives kids on avergae what per tooth?"

37% said "$5"

25% said "$ .50"

No one said "$20"

And 38% got it right with "$2.62"

According to CNN, a survey of 150 mothers conducted by, an online toy store, says the Tooth Fairy is giving an average of $2.64, with 60 percent of respondents reporting that they give less than $3 per tooth. Stray too far above the average and you're bound to frustrate some other parents on the block. "If one kid gets $20 and tells the kids at school, then other kids go home and are upset they got less," says Dr. Rhea Haugseth, a pediatric dentist in Marietta, Georgia. However, those who stray too far below the average -- or, at least, below their child's expectations -- might find they have some explaining to do.

I never understood the Tooth Fairy thing. I lose a tooth and you're going to give me money for it? I never questioned what perverse things that fairy might be doing with children's teeth. Making necklaces or doing some odd twist on macaroni art, perhaps. But I did find it to be a vital lesson in business. I get money for losing a tooth. I take the money and buy candy with it to promote losing more teeth thus making more money. Back then, I was only making a dime a tooth. Damn. I should have stuck with it.


Miranda Tegan said...

Robo Questions--So, mystery without necessarily convincing the audience that it's something else? The reveal doesn't have to be the punch line?

Joe Janes said...

The reveal doesn't have to be the punchline, or, more specifically, the out to the scene. Again, going back to David's scene, once it was discovered what was in the bag, the scene became about the relationship of the roommates and one having to kick the other out.

Miranda Tegan said...

What's it called when you make the audience think you're talking about something else? Like it sounds your talking about porn, but you're really talking about Billy Joel CDs.

And how is that different than this mystery scene?
Because I find myself writing the other a lot, and I want to make sure I'm approaching this correctly.