OK let me just get this out of the way now. Screw mystery box writing. We’ve seen it in Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Touch, The Event, Prometheus, Surface, The 4400, Fringe, Cloverfield. Basically any series built around some kind of ambitious mystery that sounds really cool on paper, but the TV show or movie never divulges the goods. Don’t know what mystery box writing is? Maybe you’d like to wait around for the next six years while we meander our way through a series of several articles vaguely referencing the concept until we’re finally out of other ideas. No? That sounds terrible? Of course it is! For those of you unfamiliar with the idea of the mystery box it comes from a famous TED Talk done by J.J. Abrams.
In the video, he discusses the core concept that informs a great deal of his storytelling. When Abrams was young, his grandfather gave him a box of magic tricks, but Abrams never bothered to open up the box because the mystery of what could be in there was inherently more interesting than whatever was in the box itself. When he grew up, he would use that experience to start a trend that continues to be used to this day by lazy storytellers as a huckster marketing ploy.
Mystery Box In Action
The key to mystery box writing is having something really cool like a monster, alien, or supernatural phenomenon, but not knowing what it exactly is. To be fair, that can make for some compelling storytelling in terms of building a great set-up that hooks an audience in, but I take serious exception to it when the people writing the thing don’t know what it is either. Look, I come to most of my fiction with a simple expectation: Someone is going to tell me a story. I want that story to be well-crafted and at the bare minimum feature some basic literary elements and the skeleton of a fleshed-out plot. And yet, somehow people feel like they can just skip that in favor of presenting me with a very fancy-looking box.
Battlestar Galactica is the target of so much of my ire because of this narrative technique. Everyone was just so fascinated with who was or wasn’t a Cylon. Everyone, myself included at one point, was endlessly curious. I was watching the show on borrowed DVDs when my friend made the mistake of telling me that after the series had ended, the writing staff admitted to not knowing who the Cylons were until they just decided to pick them out by randomly pointing fingers. All of my admiration for what I thought was well-crafted, political sci-fi show dried up and was suddenly replaced with a seething sense of rage. These hacks had soaked up praise and money like over-hyped sponges when they didn’t even know the basic core facts about their own premise. Why? Because people love a good mystery box.
Mystery Box Monsters
The worst part is that the mystery box can be made from the most insubstantial ancillary material. J.J. Abrams literally used the same trick twice with both Cloverfield and Super 8, where the main driving thrust propelling the narrative was the question, “What does the monster look like?” Both films were nothing but a protracted tease with little glimpses before a final third act reveal of what the creature in question actually looks like. The worst part is that the Super 8 monster and Cloverfield monster look pretty similar. J.J. Abrams's protege Damon Lindelof is perhaps one of the worst mystery box offenders.
Lost in the Mystery Box
Of course everyone knows about Lost and the enigmatic secrets of the mysterious Island. All of the wonderful red hearings like the Others, the Dharma Institute, and the Valenzetti Equation. All of the mysteries ultimately lead up to a pay off where the entire cast reunites in a non-denominational church with no answer about what the island really was, just a celebration about how much they enjoyed each others company after being put through six seasons of mysteries that went nowhere and preachy soccer mom yoga platitudes. But easily one of his worst offenders was the Prometheus script.
Prometheus Opens Up A Pandora's Box of Mystery
This film had a pretty easy order to fill. We just needed a satisfying origin for the Xenomorph. Nothing more. We practically already have one with Ridley Scott admitting that the original alien space jockey horseshoe ship was a bomber containing biological weapons. There you go. Bam. Done. Just establish that the weird space jockey’s made the Xenomorph as a biological weapon and that’s it. That’s all we needed, instead we get this convoluted exploration of the nature of faith amidst philosophical musing of life and death and our ultimate place in the universe and this strange black goop, and then this weird sparkling goop that creates H.R. Giger horror movie monsters when it’s convenient for the script. Taking something simple and making it more ambiguous does not make it better. It just leaves everyone ultimately unsatisfied.
The Walking Dead Needs No Mystery Box
What makes me furious is that you can have suspense and tension without just forcing the audience to wonder what your show is actually about. I mean, nobody is wondering what The Walking Dead is about. Sure, it might be a soap opera with zombies, but at least we’re not kept in the dark for thirty episodes about some ultimate origin about what the walkers truly are. We know their undead reanimated corpses. We’ve seen them everywhere. But again, people keep watching, not because of some trumped up fancy box, but because of actual substantive appeal inherent to the show.
No Mystery Boxes Needed in Westeros
The same goes for Game of Thrones. It’s a bunch of morally bankrupt people killing each other and ignoring every outside threat they run into in their attempt to grab power. And yet, people still watch. They watch because they want to see how these characters will interact, not because we’ve been teased for seasons on end with scales or maybe a dragon wing? Are we going to see dragons? Are they just big lizards? What do they look like? No. We get to see the dragons. And the incest. And the brutal, brutal murder. Thank you! Sure, there are larger mysteries like who Jon Snow’s real parents are, but those are more tangential details that are supported by numerous hints and anecdotes and the show gives you more than enough clues to guess at the larger answer behind it without wondering when your going to see something cool.
Breaking the Mystery Box Wide Open
What really defines the mystery box is that it’s a setup without a pay off. It instantly promises something cool without ever having to deliver upon it. It creates this perpetual carrot and stick feedback loop between the creators and the audience with us constantly being teased with just a little nip of the carrot. But the real truth is that the carrot is actually rotten or maybe it’s not even a carrot, but instead it’s a plastic carrot. The end result of a mystery box is usually disappointment. Sure you can try to argue that it wasn’t about the destination it was always about the journey, but dishing out the same kind of ambiguity that litters freshmen creative writing classes is not good storytelling!
Does the Mystery Box Really Make things Better?
And the thing about freshmen creative writing classes is, usually their teachers try to shake them out of the bad habit, because it’s just lazy writing without purpose and serves no practical use if nothing is ever explained or justified. Only a real handful of creatives can really get away with it. Mad geniuses like David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky. But the rest of you using it as a lazy excuse to throw in dramatic non-sequiturs need to just stop. We can all pretend that the polar bear, the Dharma institute, and Walt being special somehow made Lost a better experience. But honestly, what brought most people there was the simple drama of a bunch of people crashed on an island. The simple dynamics of survival and the Lord of the Flies drama was compelling all by itself without the need for a smoke monster.
Mystery Box Consumption
The mystery box has become the 21st century media equivalent to the 19th century snake oil salesman. We’re lured by some mysterious fantasy of the mundane crossed over with the fantastic, but all we are is being conned for our time and money and given nothing in return. There is never any payoff worth our emotional investment, so it’s time to take a stand. The next time J.J. Abrams slaps the Cloverfield name on some indie movie or produces a new tv series where there’s a kid, alien, dog, gerbil, or whatever with special powers, we say no. You show your cards up front or take your snake oil back to Hollywood and cry yourself to sleep on your bed of Star Wars money. Not all genres entertainment needs some hook that we’ll follow to a disappointing conclusion. Just look at previous shows like Surface or The Event that fizzled out while trying to hit the same jackpot as Lost. If you do have some kind of great mystery at least do the audience the courtesy of doing some pre-planning, so you’re not making it up as you go along.
Stranger Things Does the Mystery Box Right
One could argue that one of the biggest hits of the summer, Netflix’s Stranger Things falls into the purview of the mystery box with it’s parallel dimension and nasty cgi monster. But the difference is that the Duffer Brothers took the time to outline a 30 page document explaining the rules of the parallel universe and where the monster came from along with what it actually is. They did their homework, so at least they knew the rules of their own universe. And that means if they ever have the chance to continue the series, they are in a position to give the audience a massive payoff for all of the set-up established in the first season. And if you don’t have some big payoff planned, an interesting set-up is good too. The 100 is a great example. Just throwing characters in an interesting setting and seeing what makes them tick in life or death scenarios is all you need for good entertainment. So while you await the next augmented reality slusho viral marketing scheme I’ll be over here watching more Mr. Robot and shotgunning House of Cards.
Do you like mystery box storytelling or hate it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.