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The Mystery Box

Banes at 12:00AM, Dec. 3, 2020

what's in the box?

Ah, December!

We're in the final month of the year, and Christmas is in sight. If you celebrated Christmas, or any other gift-oriented holiday, you probably remember the anticipation before the big day, and the excitement over what would be waiting for you.

It's the anticipation and curiosity about unanswered questions that drives the “Mystery Box” approach to writing…and marketing.

The Mystery Box is an approach that JJ Abrams talked about in his 2007 Ted Talk:

With this approach, the audience meets characters in the middle of a mystery, raising big questions about the past (“how did they get there?”) and the future (“what's going to happen to them?” “What's going on with this island?”).

It's an effective strategy to start a story - but if the questions keep piling up, raising the stakes, but there are
no answers to be found in the end, it can lead to a divided, angry audience. LOST is the most famous example of the power and peril of this approach.

But The X-Files fell in to this kind of trap years earlier, with the questions and mysteries about the government/alien conspiracy growing and growing, making the answers unsatisfying, or too long in coming.

In my opinion, a piece of fiction doesn't have to answer every question, regardless of a few demanding fans.

But the writer should have SOME answers, good ones, to the big questions at least.

An interesting story I read about a weird sci fi movie called The Matrix: the studio had no idea how to market this strange story, until some clever soul thought of the “What is the Matrix?” marketing angle. I remember those commercials, and that question, and a lot of people really wanted to know the answer.

I'm not sure if that counts as a mystery box, but it was a brilliant way to pare down the complicated story of that movie and how to promote it to a simple question that had a fantastic answer.

Having compelling questions to answer is a basic building block of writing stuff that people want to read or see. But too many questions with no answers, or reliance on gimmicky marketing is a risky game to play.

Have a good one!




Kanes at 6:46PM, Dec. 3, 2020

The Matrix is an example of how giving a chance to something strange and new can go really well. Cinema and mass media underestimate their audience in general, and that's why we see the same formula repeated over and over again in television these days. I hope they take risks next year

Gunwallace at 1:35PM, Dec. 3, 2020

The Matrix is perhaps an example of finding out too much of what was in the box. The later films show us too much of the contents, and it turns out what was inside was just some a ball of string, a couple of paper clips, a musty old sock, and a flyer for a really lame dance party.

bravo1102 at 8:13AM, Dec. 3, 2020

Not a box. An onion. Peel off layers and get deeper and deeper and finish the storyline. And then that can lead to the next one. But carry on plots too far and the audience just won't care anymore. Or they'll go "who's that? Where did that come from?" The writer failed to keep them caring. Once upon a time a whole story plus subplots had to fit into under 100 minutes of screen time. That's tight, diciplined writing. Something J.J. Abrams has no clue about.

usedbooks at 6:35AM, Dec. 3, 2020

Incidentally, this is why I decided to conclude Used Books. (It is taking a while to get to.) However, I am already planning a follow-up series. With the conclusion in mind, I can comfortably answer questions and resolve arcs left and right.

usedbooks at 6:32AM, Dec. 3, 2020

This is definitely a pitfall for long-running series. If your entire cannon revolves around a single question that continues unanswered for several seasons, it loses interest. Better to answer a question and have the answer lead to something bigger. Or better still, resolve the plot and take the characters onto something new. A good arc doesn't stretch beyond two seasons at the most (one season is better). That's the main reason I prefer anime, which tend to tell a story in a season or two and conclude. You can effectively run a longer series if you're willing to "open the box," solve the current plot, and create a new scenario. (Stranger Things does this well. As does The Umbrella Academy.)

MOrgan at 2:52AM, Dec. 3, 2020

I think Literature Devil on Youtube did a good examination of JJ's mystery box idea.

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