J.J. Abrams’ Mystery Box

In a riveting Ted-Talk, J.J. Abrams discusses the usage of mystery to maintain interest throughout a story. Regardless of genre, he suggests that you can string together a whole line of mystery, leaving the audience in constant confusion. As soon as you open one mystery box, you find another box. Inside that one…another box.

John Doe collapses suddenly and dies. Why did he die? Autopsy shows it was poison. He was murdered. Why would someone want to murder? Oh, he was a kingpin in the drug industry and his competitor wanted him dead? Who was his competitor? Mr. Meth. Where is Mr. Meth? His real name is Mr. Moth. Okay, so, where is my Mr. Moth? He lives on Mothball Drive. Let’s get him. GASP! He’s dead.

See? You just keep going and going. So how do you do this in your own story?

I’ll be honest. I’m leaving most of the work to you. Write a rough outline. Know your beginning and your ending. They are the most important parts. Try to fill in the middle, but think of that section of the outline as a set of guidelines. Why? Because you need a little breathing room for all those boxes.

You know where you start. You know where you end. It doesn’t matter what happens in between as long as you arrive at your ending eventually. Here’s what I ask myself: does this section bore me? Yes? Well, then I’ll have to spice it up with a little mystery.

Want to know what else I think about mystery? You do? Splendid. Here you go: Why Writers Torture Characters


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