I watched Red Letter Media’s review of Star Trek: Picard the other day. As usual, good stuff . . . underneath the bizarre and generally inappropriate humor.
I particularly enjoyed the discussion as to why the much-vaunted idea of the “mystery box” so often results in bad storytelling.
First, what is a “mystery box”? The term first came into the wider public’s consciousness thanks to J.J. Abrams, who got his big break with the TV show Lost:
If you read Frank Bruni’s profile of J. J. Abrams in Sunday’s magazine, you know that the filmmaker regards his work as the creation of mystery boxes. He laid out his thinking at a TED conference several years ago: “What are stories, but mystery boxes? . . . What’s a bigger mystery box than a movie theater? You go to the theater, you’re just so excited to see anything — the moment the lights go down is often the best part.”
What Abrams was talking about specifically was something he got at Tannen’s Magic, in Midtown Manhattan, more than three decades ago — a real box with a question mark on the outside and unidentified objects shuffling around inside. By the time of the TED conference four years ago, Abrams had gone 35 years without opening his box. Kept closed, “it represents infinite possibility,” he told his audience. “It represents hope. It represents potential.” And who would want to give up those things?
Translated, a mystery box is something unexplained that keeps a viewer or reader interested. After all, they have to figure out what’s in it! What’s the reveal? Where’s the payoff?
This isn’t bad storytelling advice. You always want to leave something there for your audience to care about. If they don’t care, they won’t be your audience for long. I’ve written before about some advice I got, which was to have two unexplained things at all times. These don’t have to be big mysteries, just something your characters (and audience) wants or needs to know or obtain, but doesn’t or can’t at the present time. They are there to propel your characters, to provide a goal, create urgency, and raise the stakes.
Then problem comes when, as discussed in the Picard review, the mysteries convolute what is otherwise a straightforward plot. And you have to resolve every mystery in a satisfying way, or the audience will no longer trust the writer.
With too many mysteries, this is a tall order. And many mysteries for the sake of having a mystery to make a simple premise seem “smarter” or “deeper” is one of the sins Red Letter Media casts at Picard‘s feet. The Abrams-helmed installments also suffered from this overreliance on the mystery box. Reading a synopsis of the final one was actually comical, because it was so stupid.
Think about it: If you have situations where the audience is ahead of the writer, and says to itself, “Why did the villain do something so stupid when they could have just done X and gotten away with it?” or “Why didn’t the heroes just check Y or talk to so-and-so?” you have a problem.
Simple can be good! Simple doesn’t mean simplistic!
You can go for maximum drama . . . but you also want your story to have its own functional internal logic. Both are important. I err on the side of shoring up the logic first and making sure the dramatic moments make sense, but your mileage may vary.
The point is that mystery boxes have the potential to create too much inconsistency and leaps of logic, where characters act really stupidly in a way that ruins the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
The tendency seems to be big in TV writing, where the showrunners need the viewers to keep tuning in episode after episode. Ditto with long book series. But is this good writing?
I’m not a fan personally. I like plots that resolve and stories that end. The tendency to drag mysteries out beyond the point of absurdity is one of the things that used to bother me about comic books when I was a kid. Much better to have one mystery solved and then create a new one instead of stringing the audience along month after month, year after year.
One of the best ways to raise tension is to create a clear goal but keep throwing obstacles in your heroes’ way. Like mysteries, these don’t all have to be earth-shattering, but make it hard for them.
Mysteries, like everything, are not a one-size-fits-all solution for every single writing situation. The danger comes when a writer tries to show off how smart they are by taking a good, clean concept and mucking around with it so everybody will say that he’s a really clever guy.
Too many mysteries. Too many surprises. Too many unanswered questions drawn out way too long. Too many plot holes and intellect-insulting lapses in logic. And too many underwhelming or flat-out lazy reveals in a bid to be shocking and smart.
There are surprises in many of these boxes. And they’re shocking all right, the way brown and smelly surprises wrapped in little packages tend to be.
Real-world examples of these storytelling principles abound in my books, and I actually pay off my readers in a way that is dramatic and makes sense. Buy The Last Ancestor here!