I recently had a chance to watch this J.J. Abrams talk from TED 2007 where he brings up a storytelling concept he describes as ‘the mystery box.’ The mystery box is something shown to the audience that typically raises more questions than it answers. The mystery box shows everything it needs to at the time, but leaves the audience wanting to know more. Abrams gives some examples in his talk such as the opening ‘teaser’ in a television show, but what I found more interesting were his examples of films leaving the box closed rather than opening it up entirely.
Abrams talks about two movies, Jaws and Alien, where the monsters that sew terror throughout the films go largely unseen. By withholding information from the audience viewers are then able to come up with their own ideas to fill in the blanks. The creations of our own minds are often far more interesting than anything a filmmaker can come up with. In these two films the lack of seeing the monster actually make the monsters more frightening.
While J.J.’s focus seemed to come more from a visual or directors perspective – although he does discuss the concept in terms of character as well – the most important aspect of the mystery box is something he did not discuss. The most interesting use of the mystery box is in superfluous plot, such as back story or mythology. The art of minimalism and withholding information from the audience – showing restraint – is perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of writing. So often it is the case that making your audience ask questions and then not answering them is the best answer – especially when you, as an author, did not create the questions with specific answers already in mind.
An unopened mystery box is greater than the sum of its contents. For your audience it is unlimited possibilities to be debated endlessly on the internet. For individual fans the box contains what they personally believe to be the best of all options. For anyone who has perused a fan board, debates over the contents of a mystery box provide some of the deepest and most creative discussion. In fact it is a major source for fan fiction.
Something I found fascinating was the massive fervor over the ending of the show Lost. Myriads of fans were longing to know the ultimate contents of the mystery box that was the island. Sadly, once the box was opened, many of those same fans were the first to complain. While a closed mystery box represents infinite possibilities, an opened box puts the genie back in the bottle – infinite possibilities becomes a rusty old antique.
For those of you who have had the chance to play the Metal Gear Solid series you will probably quickly connect the games to the concept of the mystery box. The ‘Patriots’ are the ultimate example of the wonders of creating a mystery box and the dangers of opening it up. The box is created rather simply at the very end of the first game, with a simple yet mysterious comment. That comment and its potential implications created the box. For fans the meaning and importance of the line was debated for years leading up to the sequel.
The second game blew the box up. We got to see the box’s dimensions – we reviewed its exterior in excruciating detail – we examined the lock that held the contents inside. Sons of Liberty is a brilliant use of the closed mystery box. Rather than explaining the mystery box created in the first installment, the sequel answered those questions with even bigger, more outlandish questions. The first game raised the question of a secret organization influencing the white house, but the second game showed players an organization that controlled every aspect of the country and possibly the world. The new questions were things like, was it good or evil, was it alive or dead, was it even human? W?T?F?! Debate on these subjects could have lasted decades. Upon something like my fourth play through (you got to find all the clues) I had visions of these questions being asked of college students years in future – like how students today are asked about the significance of ‘rose bud’ in a film studies class… And then the fourth game came out.
I will admit that the third game did an admirable job of ignoring the mystery box as much as it could, but the fourth game set out to open it. Fans had debated and craved answers for years and finally they would have them. The brilliant questions raised would finally be given brilliant answers. So who were the Patriots, a global, seemingly non corporeal, long dead yet all powerful organization? They were none other than your dad and his commanding officer… oh and the cute nurse from the third game. Just keep the mystery box closed next time.