Friday, December 20, 2019

On the Mystery Box

Back in the 80s, George Lucas used to say in interviews that he originally conceived of the Star Wars saga as one complete story, but then he realized he had too much for just one movie so he split the story into multiple parts. Kids of my generation believed him.

Of course, as we got older and started delving into the various behind-the-scenes books and early script drafts we realized that Lucas and his collaborators were just making everything up as they went along, and the whole nine-episode master plan was just a myth. But we kept getting fooled by other storytellers who sold us the same bottle of snake oil.

In 2004 we believed J.J. Abrams and his cohorts had all of Lost's mysteries plotted out in advance. Later that same year, when Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica reboot told us that the Cylons had a plan, we thought that Moore and his writing staff knew what it was. So of course we were disappointed when it became clear that the writers of both shows had no idea how to resolve the mysteries they spent several TV seasons setting up, and had to scramble to tie everything together unconvincingly in their final episodes.

The truth is that it's a lot easier to set mysteries up than it is to pay them off. I'll show you what I mean:

"Oh Thad, where have you been?" Doreen said. "And where did you get that scar on your forehead?"

Thad remained outwardly impassive, even as the intensity of what had happened to him seethed just beneath the surface. "November 4th, 2006," he replied.

Doreen's eyes widened with shock, and she knew.

I have no idea what happened to Thad, or what the significance of November 4th, 2006 is, or what it is that Doreen suddenly realized. But to the reader, it looks like I've got it all figured out and I'm just stringing them along to build tension. But I've got to keep it going somehow, and the best way is to pile more mysteries on top of the already-existing ones like this:

At last, answers! Doreen thought as she opened the folder labeled MISSION REPORT: 11/04/2006. But her frustration only built as she leafed through pages of blacked-out text and the Agency's heavy red REDACTED stamp.

"You won't find the truth that way," Agent Ramsey said as he stepped out of the shadows behind her.

Doreen whirled to face him. "Then how do I find the truth, Phillip? Do you know?"

Ramsey shook his head. "Only one man alive knows what happened on that mission: Frank Cullen."

"The former Director?" Doreen gasped.

"His memory's not what it was," Ramsey warned. "But seeing you? It may bring back some things."

And then I just keep it going with a plot twist that adds yet another mystery:

"Director Cullen doesn't usually accept visitors," the nurse said as she led Doreen to the former spymaster's room at the retirement home. "But anybody connected to Thad Bronson--well, they're practically family."

The nurse opened the door, and Doreen realized to her horror that Frank Cullen wouldn't be giving her any answers that night--or ever again. The former Director's was slumped over in his chair, dead.

The nurse gasped. "Poor thing! Must've had a heart attack!"

But Doreen doubted that Director Cullen's had died of natural causes, inasmuch as his severed head lay halfway across the room.

She raced to the open window, and saw a black-clad figure run across the darkened lawn and get into a waiting car. She could only watch helplessly as the getaway car--and her answers--sped off into the night.

I can't stress strongly enough that I have no idea who any of these people are or what's going on. But a halfway-decent screenwriter could wring an entire movie or a season or two of television out of this basic outline. All you have to do is keep building the mystery. With each new twist in the narrative, the writer makes himself look more like a master storyteller who has the whole thing planned out in advance. Your viewers/readers will breathlessly speculate about how it'll all turn out, all the while believing that your final resolution will be even better than what they've imagined.

Of course the whole thing has to come to an end eventually. You'll tie everything together in a hurried climax, and then your viewers or readers will hate you because your ending could never measure up to the imaginary one that exists in their heads.

I mention all of this because in less than an hour I'll be settling into my seat for The Rise of Skywalker. I haven't read any spoilers, but I know that already a portion of the Internet is enraged because the ending isn't "perfect", whatever that means.

The thing about mystery box storytelling is that it's great until you inevitably have to open the box. All you can do is enjoy the ride.