May I Interest You In A Deception?

It happens like this: A well dressed man in an expensive car is talking on his cell phone as he pulls up to a stop sign. He doesn’t notice a kid on a skateboard zipping into the crosswalk. Bang! Kid runs into car and falls across the hood.

            As the horrified driver jumps out, a nearby pedestrian also rushes to the skateboarder’s aid (secretly placing a very broken cell phone on the pavement next to him). “Oh my God!” the pedestrian cries. “I think he’s unconscious!”

            But before the driver calls an ambulance, the kid sits up and says, “No, no, I’ll be okay, don’t call 911. I think I can stand. Can you give me a hand?”

            Soon they are assisting him to his feet and dusting him off, and he’s asking for his skateboard and phone. Oops.

            “How am I going to afford to replace it?” the poor victim cries. Maybe he adds, “My father is gonna to kill me. I promised when I borrowed it that I’d bring it back in good condition!”

            The pedestrian is talking about police reports and insurance claims and how much the boy might be awarded, which is rattling the driver. But the boy appeals to the driver with a simpler scenario: “Just cover the phone so I can get my Dad a new one and not get a beating. I won’t report the accident.”

            Odds are a couple hundreds dollars will pass hands before this little one act play is over.

            And it is a one act play. It’s a short con with two actors: The kid who takes the fall and the good samaritan who is nothing of the sort in real life.

How might you work this con into your writing?

            Imagine a scene at the local police station, where a detective is interviewing a young man who has been struck by a car. Perhaps the police rolled up too quickly for the actors to complete their con, and they took the skateboarder in for questioning. Add to this the thought that the accident was caught on a traffic cam that the detective has reviewed…Which shows the same skateboarder in a very similar accident six hours earlier. And 24 hours earlier. Three times in a row!

            The detective might say something like, “You seem to have trouble with that intersection. How many times have you been struck by a car there—and isn’t it a coincidence that the same pedestrian stopped to assist you each time?

            There are probably at least a half million people working cons and scams across the country today. Most of them don’t get caught. Most of their victims don’t even report these crimes. Cons tend to stay under the radar, and most of us know little about the art of them. Which means they don’t pop up in fiction very often, but they should! What wonderful grist for the creative writer’s imagination mill. Whether it’s a long con dressed in a business suit (Google Bernie Madoff) or one of the hundreds of tried and true short cons, there is plenty to work with for your story or script.

Using the Writing Prompt

            The PDF handout reviews the rules of the con and gives some fun examples of classic short cons, then challenges you to write about one. You can take the perspective of a con person (maybe a new trainee?), a victim, or a bystander. One fun way to use this prompt is to try to write an opening para for a story in which we meet the main characters as a con unfolds. Another idea is for the reader to be puzzled by the prep activities of someone who is planning a con—until the deception is revealed, perhaps in the second or third paragraph?

HANDOUT