Recently I watched this TED talk by J.J. Abrams. (Warning: The video includes a scene from the first episode of Lost which may disturb some viewers.) In it he said:
Maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement. Mystery is an important part of plot and capturing people’s imagination. It’s the essence of the ‘hook’ which draws a reader in.
Let’s face it, if we know all the answers up front, what is the point of continuing to watch the movie or read the book? It’s the fact that you do not know/understand certain aspects, and the answers are not coming easily, which brings you back to the story again and again until you know it all.
The truth of this reasoning is being drummed into me every day at the moment. You see, I live next to a school. Being summer holidays right now, the school is using the time to renovate their yard.
The yard used to be covered in bitumen, but a couple of weeks ago they ripped it all up in preparation for building something new. To begin with I’d look out the window to see how far along they were in their work. As the days went by, I became hooked.
Because I can’t for the life of me work out what they’re doing. Once the bitumen came up, they dug a shallow trench in the shape of an oval, lay concrete at the bottom of it, and then built two walls of bricks in the ditch. You can see the result in the photograph at the top of this post.
I’m completely flummoxed. Each time I walk pass the window I just have to look out, because I want to see if there are any new clues. Anything which could tell me what they’re doing.
And of course, the best part of not knowing is coming up with theories. When they first drew the oval, I thought it was going to be a race track, but the ditch put a hole in that theory. Next I thought they were laying the foundation for a covered area of some kind, but that’s not coming together either. So I’m back to square one.
However, in the process I’m learning how to structure mystery.
- Progress is essential. If nothing is happening, then even an intrigued watcher will lose interest because you’re not showing them anything new.
- Theorizing should be encouraged. If the watcher comes up with their own theories, then they feel like part of the process, and have a vested interest in seeing if their theories are true. It also provides you with that glorious moment when you twist the plot and the watcher has to start theorizing all over again.
- Controlled confusion can work to your advantage. The watcher doesn’t need to know exactly what’s going on at every minute. In fact, the best mysteries are the ones which, in the process of revealing the answer, force the watcher to go back through all their assumptions and work everything out afresh – either in their heads, or by watching/reading your work again.
Have you had similar mysterious experiences in your life? Do you have any suggestions on what the mysterious oval could be? I’d love to hear your comments. In the mean time, I have to get back to my window.