what's in the box?
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!
Banes at 12:00AM, Dec. 3, 2020
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