Today’s reblog is courtesy of Justin Kawnacki, who discusses the “mystery box” style of storytelling, as popularized by J.J. Abrams and the show LOST. This kind of storytelling has driven many of the biggest successes on TV and streaming in the last decade or two.
Still, shows like LOST and Game of Thrones prove that just because you can capture audience attention with this formula, it isn’t necessarily easy to wrap up these shows in a satisfying way, or even in a way that avoids outright enraging your audience.
In the case of Lost, those myseries were compelling questions like: Who are all these people? Where are they? Why are they there? (When are they there?) How did their plane crash? How will they survive? What unseen force is behind all of this? Who can we trust?
In the Abrams formula for storytelling, more mysteries = better stories, because every new answer creates more new questions. This means the audience will keep coming back to scratch their intellectual itch, and spread the word about the mysteries in the process.
To be fair, in the case of Lost and other stories that have used this model — including Game of Thrones, Westworld, and nearly every Christopher Nolan film — he’s mostly right. Audiences do love mysteries, and they enjoy trying to piece hidden clues together in order to see if they can figure out the ending before everyone else does.
But: a mystery is not necessarily a story.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with using the Mystery Box as a storytelling tool.
The problem is the way it’s been used, and the troubling effect it’s had on audiences.
Let’s take a look at the impact of the Mystery Box on pop culture, and then consider one tweak to the formula that could fix nearly everything that’s wrong with it.