In 2007, JJ Abrams gave a TED Talk about the role of mystery in stories.
He called it the Mystery Box, and it represents the questions that are raised to keep us interested in the story.
In summary, it’s showing something mysterious and revealing the truth over time – or never.
You can watch the talk here to better understand it. (Note: has a little bit of cursing on par with LOST)
Even a casual viewing of LOST provides evidence of the mystery box. There’s so much about LOST that’s withheld from you until the last possible moment.
Do you remember the whole mystery surrounding Henry Gale and what it meant to be an Other? Talk about mystery box. Or what about the whole mystery of the Island in general?
But are mysteries – the answered and unanswered ones – good or bad?
We’ll explore that question by looking at stories such as LOST, Star Wars, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Falling Up’s discography, and Inception.
When the Mystery Box Is Good
Wonder is the major draw to the Falling Up albums. It’s thinking you know what the songs are about, then discovering something new, a connection here, a thought there.
It’s wondering who in the world is Beatrice, and what VFD really stands for, and where is the sugar bowl and why it’s so important in the first place.
It’s wondering what Quigley whispered to Violet up there in the mountains, although we have a few thoughts as to what it was.
It’s going through LOST again and having your first thoughts mix with what you know to be true but can’t quite remember.
It’s wondering who Rey’s parents are and why Luke was hiding out on a mountain when he knew there was a Death Star to blow up.
Satisfaction When You Come Back
It’s being able to watch LOST again and know what some of it means and putting the pieces together again, this time in a more satisfying way because you know a lot more things for certain.
It’s knowing that Dom is the one who caused Mal to kill herself, and it’s this flaw that makes him a hero.
It’s knowing who Lemony Snicket is dedicating the books to, and feeling a stab in your heart every time you remember that she’s the Baudelaire’s mom.
Did Count Olaf really murder the Baudelaire parents?
That question alone will force you to rethink everything you ever thought you knew about the series. And, it will drive you back to the beginning, where you’ll experience all the wonder all over again. You aren’t really sure, so you start to ask the same questions again, wondering if you’ll be able to find more answers.
Seriously, though: did Count Olaf kill your parents?
There’s just enough kept in the dark that any manner of theories can, theoretically, make sense.
Count Olaf can be an orphan because of your parents, and he’s leading the charge against the Baudelaires because they owe him.
Dom can be dreaming ever since he tried out Yussef’s compound.
All of Falling Up’s albums can take place in one huge, continuous story.
Rey can be Obi Wan’s daughter. Or grand-daughter, as the theory now (more believably) stands.
Because the mystery box exists, there’s ambiguity, and you are free to fill in the gaps wherever you want – so long as it (mostly) fits.
When the Mystery Box Is Bad
Wonder Without Satisfaction = Confusion
When there are too many questions without any reasonable answers, confusion sets in. And while doubt can be a good thing to make you dig further into the material, confusion will divide and send people away.
How many people never experience the perfections and imperfections of Inception because the movie was “too confusing” the first time they watched it?
How many people were confused by the ending of LOST, thinking that the characters were dead the whole time?
That isn’t to say that every question should be answered. Questions, confusion and doubt are what makes stories more mysterious and enjoyable. But when it’s overdone, it can cause problems.
Should You Use the Mystery Box?
The answer is both an adamant yes and a somewhat cautious no.
The Mystery Box has to be handled carefully. While confusion and doubt can spur you on to revisit a story, it can also do a whole lot of turning away. Answer some questions and leave others unanswered. Just make sure it’s balanced enough that people can still return to your stories, with either revelations of truth or theories of their own.
What do you think?
How do any of your favorite stories use the Mystery Box?
How can you use it in your own writing?
Let’s talk about that in the comments below!