Monday, July 28, 2008


At our recent Robowriters meeting, we discussed a certain type of scene that I’ve noticed that uses a phrase over and over, sort of like a trigger point or a reset button.

As an example, a recent scene I directed for the sketch troupe Cell Camp featured the phrase “Take a letter!” over and over. The set up was a crazy man walks up to a mall information desk and demands that the assistant take a letter for him while he dictates it. The scene really begins when he demands “Take a letter,” at which point the assistant tells him he doesn’t offer that type of assistance, etc. After the first beat runs its course, and we think the crazy man will leave him alone, there is a pause and the crazy man says “Take a letter!” The next beat continues with him dictating a new letter. This continues on and on, each beat seemingly coming to a conclusion, until the scene ends as it started with the crazy man demanding “take a letter.” Blackout.

Part of the comedy comes from hearing this line delivered over and over, and each time the audience hears it, they know that they are in for another short ride of silliness in which the crazy man has to justify his reason for another letter to be written and the other character resists.

When you look at a scene like this, it is almost structured like a song. Each time you hear the repeating line, it acts like a chorus, and the verses are what fill in the story of the song (or scene, in this case). Following this example, you can even break the pattern of the scene by having a bridge near the end, which might be a walk-on by another character, a rant by one of the characters, or anything else you can think of. But it will always come back to that repeating phrase.

Another thing to note is that these scenes can work in two ways. One is where the line that is being repeated is always spoken in the exact same tone and emotion throughout the scene. The actual beat of the scene will vary in energy (most likely getting bigger and more frenetic as the beat builds) but the phrase will reset everything back to a normal level. The flip of that would be that each beat has a similar energy, and the delivery of the line changes (most likely gets bigger and more emotional) each time it is repeated. This is probably a result of which character is reacting more, the one repeating the phrase or the one hearing it.

Almost any line that you can attach some sort of emotional significance to will work. I would suggest making a list of 10 lines, choosing 3 you like, and then taking one of those and writing a scene with it.

Here are five I came up with:

But I made a casserole.
I don’t want to go to Iowa.
I’m sorry I offended you.
That’s what I’m trying to tell you!
Can I offer you a sandwich?

Taking “Can I offer you a sandwich” as a line, you can start a two-person scene with the first person asking that question, and then give the second person reasons for not wanting a sandwich (not hungry, just ate, etc.). The first person will of course have reasons for him to eat it (it’s delicious, it’s free, you’re too skinny, etc.). The person asking will obviously not take no for an answer. The scene could build for three beats, each time ending with the one fellow refusing the sandwich, then the other fellow seemingly giving up, but then asking again. The last beat could feature a rant by the person being offered the sandwich (this would be the bridge), then a pause, you think the scene is over, until the first character says, “You look really angry. Are you sure I can’t offer you a sandwich?” Black out.

So give it a try. Write a scene based on this idea. Then have a sandwich.

Chris Othic

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