What's in the Box?
An iconic part of the movie Pulp Fiction is the McGuffin that Jules and Vincent deliver to their boss, Marcallus Wallace. It's a briefcase that, when you open it, glows on the face of the person looking at it and absolutely astonishes them. Is it some kind of treasure, or some kind of magical or fantastical artifact? We never find out. It's never revealed.
Alfred Hitchcock said the McGuffin is a plot device to get everything in motion, and that it doesn't matter what it is. Pulp Fiction brilliantly played with that notion. Mission Impossible 3 did the same thing, with everyone chasing the important item called “The Rabbit's Foot”, while never explaining what it was.
I wouldn't want this kind of thing done too often (at least not in the Mission Impossible way; in Pulp Fiction it was more of a subtle joke; in Mission 3 it was fun, but could also be seen as lazy writing if the trick were done too often).
But this topic really isn't about the McGuffin concept - it's just something that got me thinking about unanswered questions in fiction.
Breaking Bad came up in our last Quackcast and I said how must I like the ambiguity about Walter White's fall from grace at his old company - he believes he was betrayed by his old partners, but that's just his opinion, and Walter is not necessarily a reliable source on that. The series never answers definitively what happened there.
We also mentioned the Sopranos. A lot of fans were NOT happy with the series end; the fate of the family…and the Family…are never shown. Does Tony live or die? Is he arrested or does he go free? There was a lot of controversy among fans over that one.
The ending of the Blair Witch Project never reveals who or what was tormenting the lost campers, or what actually happened to them before they disappeared. And I loved it. It was chilling, and left it to our imagination. Not always the right move, but I think it worked perfectly there.
There was a scene in Stephen King's book “The Stand” where the villain prepares to have his Antichrist child with Nadine. She looks at the villain and starts screaming, but it's not revealed what she sees. She does end up pregnant, and the story does have an ending (which I don't really remember; it's been awhile). But what she saw is not revealed - probably mercifully.
In the classic “What's in the Box?” scene at the end of SEVEN, we kind of NEED to know the answer. And the answer is suitably horrific to measure up to the dread we're feeling during that scene, and to motivate the grim ending of that story. By the way, it's horrific without showing anything! But that's another topic.
It seems like overall, leaving certain side details unexplained is okay. Leaving certain motivations ambiguous or with several possibilities can work. Not answering the big plot questions in a story is probably a bad idea - or at least a lot more risky.
Having some mystery to a story, stuff that's never answered, can be a powerful way to make a story's world feel more real. It can also be a source of frustration to viewers and readers.
Have you left unanswered questions in your stories, either on purpose or by accident? Do you like the idea of leaving some questions ambiguous, or is it just lazy?
What are the unanswered questions you liked in fiction? Which ones did you hate?
Have a good day!
Banes at 12:00AM, May 9, 2019
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