J. J. Abrams is a powerhouse of creativity. A renaissance man, he is and has been a screenwriter, producer, actor and even a composer, and even if you don’t know his name, you do know his work (unless you’ve been living under a rock). Current fans of the tv shows Fringe and Person of Interest know that Abrams has the ability to grip viewers and keep them waiting with bated breath for the next episode.
It’s a talent he’s always had. Fans might have been alternately elated and frustrated with the turn of the plot but they were never, ever bored. In Lost and, my personal favorite, Alias, Abrams employed not only his incredible sense of suspense-building but constantly brought the viewer along by employing a technique he calls “the mystery box”.
I first heard about the mystery box when I stumbled across Abrams’ TED Talk (embedded below). In it, he presents a sealed box of magic tricks, purchased for him by his grandfather when Abrams was a child.
Never having opened it, Abrams uses the mystery of what is in the box as inspiration in his work. “So there’s this thing with mystery boxes that I started feeling compelled. Then there’s the thing of mystery in terms of imagination — the withholding of information. You know, doing that intentionally is much more engaging.” Witholding information, answering the question, and then posing the next question, is something every good writer does. Remember the first time you read The Hunger Games? That book should have come with a warning “Don’t plan on doing anything else while reading this” because you couldn’t put it down. Suzanne Collins was trained as a screenwriter and it shows in her ability to keep us turning the page, even if it is 3 am, and the alarm is going to go off in three hours.
As writers, we must all think of employing a similar device to keep our work moving. Not just from a mechanical perspective, but for something bigger. To Abrams, the mystery box:
“represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential. And what I love about this box, and what I realize I sort of do in whatever it is that I do, is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility, that sense of potential.And I realize that mystery is the catalyst for imagination. Now, it’s not the most ground-breaking idea, but when I started to think that maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge, I started getting interested in this.”
The presentation is about 20 minutes and it’s FABULOUS – Abrams is funny and uses examples from famous movies and television shows to help illustrate his ideas about how writers can use good writing and principles like the mystery box to keep people interested. You won’t be sorry you watched it!