Mystery Diapers

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?

J.J. Abrams

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.

A literal mystery box that actually worked because what was IN it didn’t matter to the plot. All that mattered was that everyone WANTED it. Huge lesson here!

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!

38 comments

  1. “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?”

    Potential is meant to be fulfilled, and hope is meant to be put on something concrete. On their own they don’t mean anything.

    Abrams’ problem is that he is more enamored with feelings than he is with storytelling. He can add all the glitz and mysteries he wants, but if it’s in the service of nothing then it is worthless.

    This is why nothing he has ever written has had a satisfying ending. He is more focused on the journey than the destination. But if the destination isn’t worth reaching then what is the point of the journey?

    I hope he asks himself that one day.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Exactly. And it’s not just Abrams, it’s a whole generation of writers inspired and influenced by him. Set-up is the easier part. You have to pay off these surprises or else like you said, the mystery box is meaningless.

      The journey and the destination are both important. Sacrificing one for the other is just bad storytelling.

      It’s a shame, because Abrams is obviously talented. He just had a formula of limited utility that he sticks to. It almost seems like he’s stubborn about it because it’s become his trademark.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. JJ’s mystery box is a good explanation for how people experience a story. But from an artist’s standpoint it is incomplete. The storyteller should know the answer to the questions he’s asking. He should know how to string the audience along.

    I suspect because he’s such a fanboy, much of his enthusiasm for telling stories stems from not knowing himself what’s in the mystery box. And so when it comes time to pay off all that waiting, he disappoints time and time again.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “The storyteller should know the answer to the questions he’s asking.”

      Ideally, yes! I’m a fan of so-called “discovery writing” myself, because my stories rarely hew 100 percent to my outlines—if I think of a BETTER way to structure something while I’m writing, or a better plot resolution—I’ll go with it if I can make it work. But I still strive to ensure it makes sense and is satisfying. I don’t just set things up with no plan and hope to fill it in later, and I’d certainly never do that if I were writing a serial, episodic set of books or a TV show.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Joseph

    So JJ Abrams is basucally a pantster?

    Alexander

    Ya know call me old fashioned but I like story telling where an episode ends. Though honestly I like arc stories more but they have to end do another arc can start.

    xsvier

    Liked by 2 people

    • Even pantsers, if there’s a great mystery driving the story, should have a plan for what it is. Even pantsers patch holes up in revision.

      “Where’s Luke?” is the mystery of TFA. JJ left it completely open ended because he didn’t have an answer. The contrivance of the map (aka Macguffin) is glaring when viewing TFA and TLJ in sequence.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hah I’m tempted to delete laser sword franchise talk, but you make good points.

        I thought TFA’s plot re: Luke was decent, but still a bit of a head scratcher because it was so out of character for Luke to up and quit, AND he seemed in TLJ like he didn’t want to be found at all…

        Liked by 1 person

    • He sounds like a pantser, but one who doesn’t do the follow-up work being a pantser requires.

      I also like storytelling with an end. That’s why I don’t plan on writing franchises or endless series . . . but I can respect those who do. Some people love that. Which is great!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alexander
        It’s a both/and.i don’t mind stories that end. I also like long running series that eventually come to an end. Sorta like Balzac, Thomas Hardy and Blanco Ibanez

        Liked by 3 people

  4. One of my least favorite things about “mystery boxes” is when characters don’t communicate vital information to each other in order to build tension for the audience. For example, cop shows having a running plot involving one of the characters fired or suspended or brought up on charges and in the season finale it turns out that it was all an elaborate ruse by the boss to catch one particular bad guy who had a mole in the department.

    Just once I’d like to see a cop get taken off a case and sent home and just go home. Sit around, have a few beers, go fishing. And the boss’ brilliant plan to get the detective to go rogue and solve the case outside channels falls totally flat.

    In fact, I’d love to write a story like that–it opens with the cop being taken off the case and sent home and then I never mention that case again, instead it turns into a romance or something.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yes! The constant, logic-defying lack of communication is maddening. It CAN be worked into a premise—maybe some characters are just jerks, or maybe nobody trusts each other for some reason, and the lack of communication done for spite has real consequences later in—but it requires a deft hand.

      Also: your story idea sounds great—talk about a classic misdirection! I love stuff like that.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Misha,

      You described EXACTLY what’s been bothering me with the Harry Dresden book I’m reading (#2: Fool Moon) I know Jim Butcher is very popular and I love his Codex Alera series.

      But the Lt. Murphy character is a big ball of dumb old cop clichés. And on top of that, she and Harry (supposedly trusted friends) don’t communicate vital information repeatedly just so that, for the sake of the plot, Harry is constantly in jeopardy and facing arrest. At his own friend’s hands. Because she won’t ask him obvious questions. And he won’t tell her things she obviously needs to know,

      I’m consistently told how good the series is but I’m having trouble finishing book two and not throwing it at the wall.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m going to be guilty of something that I hate… but the series does get better. Starting with the third book the supporting characters are a lot better fleshed out, and the politics between the different supernatural groups drives the series up until about book 10, when the big war reaches a conclusion.

        Then the series changes again and becomes more of a superhero than a detective story.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Potential that is not realized is just wasted potential. Every mystery that is set up must have a clear answer, or at least an answer that makes sense in the fictional world.

    Even the Pulp Fiction example works!

    “What is in the briefcase?”

    “Something everyone wants.”

    That is a relatively clear answer, all things considered.

    Few (if any) writers are talented enough to set up a mystery THAT IS CENTRAL TO THE STORY and decide to figure it out later. I hope that JJ Abrams will learn his lesson about this. He can set up mysteries, but he cannot solve them.

    Liked by 3 people

    • John

      It reminds me of that movie with Robert De Niro whosecteam has to recuperate a briefcase. We never know what’s in it but everybody wanted it.

      Alexander

      Is a mystery box another name for mcguffin?

      xavier

      Liked by 3 people

      • No, a McGugffin is not a “mystery” in the narrative sense because it’s importance to the story is a constant, no matter what the object itself happens to be. Finding out what is in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction wouldn’t make any difference to what Vincent and Jules do, or chance their motivation. They have a job, and that’s all we need to know.

        If, on the other hand, we saw Vincent and Jules going from place to place, terrorizing and killing people, without knowing who they worked for or what their employer wanted, they would be a “mystery box” in the narrative sense. The audience would be wondering, “Who are these people and what do they want?”

        There is a pair of characters in the TV series “The Umbrella Academy” who are like that.

        Liked by 3 people

      • A MacGuffin CAN be a mystery box. A mystery box doesn’t have to be a physical object. It’s really just a thing that the characters don’t have an answer to but want, or NEED, to know.

        Like

      • I would argue that a mcguffin and a mystery box are different.

        The mcguffin moves the plot along, often by a desire to possess it. What it actually is is not that important I believe you were referencing the movie ‘Ronin’, which had Robert De Niro in it and the plot revolved around a briefcase. The audience never learns what is in that briefcase.

        A mystery box is the plot or is at least really important to the plot. Finding out what it is drives the story and/or answers important questions about the story.

        Ronin = mcguffin
        Lost = mystery box

        In ‘Ronin’, the action and character interactions matter. The briefcase is just something valuable that they all want, which gets the plot going. While it would be interesting to know what was in it, the contents are not necessarily important. All that matters is that it is desired.

        In the TV show ‘Lost’, the nature of the island, its inhabitants, the connections between the plane crash survivors, the sequence of numbers, etc are what drives the plot. The answers to the questions truly matter to the story. If those answers are not carefully thought out and planned ahead of time, the conclusion will be awful.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, exactly. A mystery that is central to the story that is more than a mere MacGuffin is VERY tough. And mysteries tend to be used to gussy up a relatively straightforward
      plot which detracts from the simple beauty of a straightforward plot told well.

      Not everything has to be a full-court three-point shot, after all.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. All of the above having been said, I think that it is also possible to err on the side of revelation, and that error is far more common today, particularly in films.

    Spoiler (if that applies to a classic film made 80 years ago) for Citizen Kane.

    The point of “rosebud” isn’t in the final revelation to the audience, it is in the fact that it remains a mystery to the characters–the audience is given not an answer to the riddle but a demonstration that the riddle doesn’t answer the questions that the characters really want to uncover.

    Can you imagine a modern remake of Citizen Kane?

    “Charlie! Stop playing with your new sled–which is called ‘rosebud’–and come in and see your new stepfather who is wealthy yet emotionally distant and abusive.”

    “But mommy, I don’t want to come in! I want to continue playing with ‘rosebud’, my new sled, because I am somehow aware that this moment will be the last time I truly experience the carefree innocence of a child!”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Misha,

      Thanks very much for clarifying the 2 tropes/narrative techniques.

      So a mystery box must be answered at the end of the story in order (a) to make sense of the characters’ actions/dialogue (b) to provide the central dynamic of the whole story

      xavier

      Liked by 1 person

      • Misha, using an unopened mystery box at the end can be great, introducing some ambiguity without being obnoxious. It lets the reader imagine further adventures, which can be a sort of wistful, for lack of a better word, way to end a story.

        Like

    • Excellent point! It’s such a fine line that gets stepped over miserably.

      Do you think it’s a problem that AUDIENCES are increasingly unable to understand subtlety, and so writers are trying to meet them where they are?

      I almost think this might be the case . . . yet Christopher Nolan’s successes don’t bear that out. Yet he’s just one guy though.

      Like

  7. The key problem with the J.J. Abrams stuff is understanding that he’s a fucking talentless hack, a third-rate wannabe Spielberg without one original bone in his body, he’s the Chuck Wending of film, basically a commercial director jumped up because his parents were producers or something. All of his movies are soulless garbage that ape sentimental speilbergian American empire crap.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. SPOILERS FOR LOST & The X-files:

    The Mixed GM said: “….In the TV show ‘Lost’, the nature of the island, its inhabitants, the connections between the plane crash survivors, the sequence of numbers, etc are what drives the plot. The answers to the questions truly matter to the story. If those answers are not carefully thought out and planned ahead of time, the conclusion will be awful…..”

    —-The irony is they were given a timeframe to wrap up their story and still it ended badly though I do know some who love the ending.

    In my opinion it didn’t have to be the greatest answer to the mysteries you list, just something interesting that fit the story; early on viewers guessed the Island was purgatory and really, they should have stuck to this if it was something the writers considered and abandoned because it had been figured out so early. Some version of purgatory explains a lot while still leaving room for character growth. But I don’t think they had to go into the finer workings of Purgatory, as that would perhaps ruin the mysterious vibe of the show.

    —It’s a fine line as not knowing what could happen was a large appeal of the show, they had to provide some answers while keeping the vibe. Not an easy task. The direction they went in by the last season was a big mistake, spending time with characters in a fake after-life experience parallel to the story on the island. The whole cork concept was awful too, felt like something they came up with at the last minute to give stakes; all of a sudden pulling some rock out would unleash more evil into the world. Terrible.

    —Like people have noted, the briefcase in pulp fiction works, is interesting and there’s no sense of dissatisfaction in not being told what’s in it.

    —Lost felt like they just kept throwing interesting ideas into the mix and not considering how it would all come together or not; the only tv show worse than this is the X-files that a) never was allowed to properly end and dragged on and on into pointless reunion series b) had too many concepts added to the “mythololgy” that none of it made any sense and c) had terrible anti-climaxes (the original conspirators burned up in a warehouse by weird looking aliens) as well as just ignoring things that had happened. The CSM is a long haired lunatic in a cave blown up by a missle. Then he’s back again. This wasn’t some surreal mystery that tickled the senses but just another sign of fatigue of the storytelling.

    —Most scifi/fantasy shows get canceled before resolving anything, Lost was given the chance to know their goal line and work towards it and still somehow fumbled the ball.

    cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    • Storytelling fatigue explains a LOT of this, as does the reality of the television marketplace. If a show makes tons of money, it must go on. And on. And on. And on. Both for the viewers and the advertisers.

      Like

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