I’ve written quite a few murder mystery theater shows in the last three decades. It has never come easy. And while they are full of laughs - my own stories creep me out! I’m supposed to be writing one right now for an upcoming event for a repeat audience. That is especially hard because they know my schtick! So I’m procrastinating by writing about writing mysteries.
I am first and foremost a performer. I write my own material as a matter of convenience and necessity. After thousands of performances I know what works with audiences and what doesn’t. I write the way I speak - the way most people speak - disjointed - stream of conscience - sometimes I ramble and... babble. I think twitter makes us better writers because it forces us to communicate more concisely in 140 characters or less. (Also great for joke writing - but I don’t have a punchline to go with this statement.)
Although I am not an English Major and am often grammatically challenged...I have managed to be rather successful in the murder mystery theater genre - and with a few other non mystery scripts as well. (Ask me sometime about my Off Off Broadway show “Invasion of the Ooogs”)
I often start with the motive. Why did Mr. A kill Mr. B? What events preceded the decision by Mr. A to kill Mr. B? Then I think of what kind people they are. Are they both just horrible people? Are they desperate people? Are they greedy? Selfish? Mr. A has to feel justified in doing the unthinkable. Was Mr. A horribly wronged by Mr. B? Was Mr. B someone we can care about? What is the more interesting motive? Creepy to think about this stuff, right? Usually the events preceding the decision had to have happened before we meet them at the mystery event. The past is prologue -right?
That brings me to the format. The format for my interactive Sharpo Murder Mystery Theater Shows presents a world of fun and excitement but also so many limitations! Not so much with budget...(Stage blood isn’t all that expensive) but with time. You have precious little time to introduce the characters, give some back story, have the actual murder(s) occur in front of the audience, find clues, interrogate audience members and cast, and of course break for meals and for the audience to write out their solutions. So many great ideas have occurred to me to use in my shows that I have had to reject because of the time it would take to tell it, show it, or otherwise communicate it to my audience.
It is exciting to use text clues, and twitter clues and youtube clues but sometimes that tech actually slows down the show while everyone logs on etc. Some locations have wifi issues and phone reception challenges. My multimedia clues won’t work in those instances and it is important to have subsitute clues ready!
The great thing about the format is that I know how to lay out my story.
Cocktails and mingling
Thirty minutes of mystery (Act 1)
Thirty minutes of mystery (Act 2)
Fifteen minutes of mystery (Act 3)
Curtain Call and Prize Ceremony
So during that cocktail hour I have the opportunity to create the atmosphere for the mystery and improvisationally get out some of that prologue...But since not everyone will get this exposition during that time I will still need to incorporate it into Act One - either before the murder happens or as the clues unfold the back story is revealed (This is obviously more interesting but can leave less savvy audience members scratching their heads.) Anyway in Act one I need to have a murder occur in front of everyone and the detective begin to investigate. Usually the first two or three clues are uncovered before the meal break.
After the tables are cleared and Act Two begins I need to have the remaining clues uncovered along with the big dynamic “plot twist” (Whatever that will be) and also some big action that rivals the death scene in the preceding act. By the end of Act 2, I have an obligation to my audience to make certain they have enough information to solve the mystery and answer the questions:
Why did they do it?
What was their opportunity to have done it?
It has to be solvable on the merits of deductive reasoning but challenging enough to satisfy the mystery lover. It has to have a great balance of intrigue, suspense and laughter in order to be successful.
So... I’ll be up all night for several nights writing this new one. It’s already creeping me out so I hope you enjoy it when you come see the show.