Writing as Mystery and Discovery


unknownToday I watched a TED talk given by writer/director/producer J.J. Abrams.  In it, he discusses something called a “mystery box.”

I remember as a kid sitting in the floor in front of the television in those weeks before Christmas, my eyes glancing over to the smattering of presents under the tree.  I knew that some of them were for me, perhaps one of them at least.  I would look at the shape of the box, dream about what it could be, but all I could see was the brightly colored wrapping paper in which it was cocooned.

On Christmas morning, of course, we would all open our gifts and I would find out what was inside, but that feeling is something everyone loves…that feeling of dread or excitement to want to know what is in that box.

Basically there are three storytelling techniques to learn from the “mystery box”:

  1. What Is In the box? – We instinctively don’t like to be surprised by things.  Sure, they are delightful, but we like to know what is going on in our world and this translates to storytelling in a delightful way.  If we can provide some kind of mystery for the reader as to what the truth might be about a situation or character, and we can drag it out for a while, we will turn the thumb-screws of suspense in that reader.
  2. What You Don’t Show – Don’t be afraid to let the audience sweat.  One example Abrams gives is the “idea” of the shark in Steven Speilberg’s “Jaws” rather than the actual mechanical shark shown at the end.  If we don’t show the audience the monster or the danger, only hint at it, we can heighten the suspense for the reader.  I love to hint at it and never show it, only the effects of it. (Something I’ve been experimenting with for my new short story compilation).
  3. Bait and Switch – Show the reader something that you want them to see, something that is inviting, and then when we actually reach the place for it to be revealed then switch it with something else.  In “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” for example, the movie is not really about an alien, but about a divorce.  In “Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein (not the film, dear God) it is not really a book about an alien invasion as much as it is a treatise on the need for a strong citizenry, a responsible citizenry.

Ultimately, says Abrams, that thing in the box is really strength of character.  There is an investment that we make in the story as a reader when the mystery box is used which causes us to desire that connection to something realistic and human.

Don’t forget to strengthen the characters, because that is what readers are expecting when they tear off the wrapping.

You can find the entire TED talk here:

Youtube LogoRoger Colby is a novelist, blogger and writer who is a product of a lifetime of reading great science fiction. His passion is to write innovative science-fiction stories that help long-time science-fiction readers like himself find addictive things to read. You can find his books to the right —>

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