It’s no secret that I have a Hollywood crush on JJ Abrams. I think he’s the smartest guy out there right now, building up his brand, taking on some of the biggest franchises in town, including my favorite franchise of all, Star Wars. He’s also exploring his original creative side via numerous TV shows and producing attachments. He created the kick-ass Alias, the best TV show of all time, Lost, and his company keeps snatching up all the cool sci-fi specs in town. Bad Robot even optioned Stephen King’s 11/22/63 recently. Abrams is starting to make guys like Spielberg (ironically, his idol) look like out of touch dinosaurs.
If a day ever comes where I spin Scriptshadow into a production company, I will meticulously study and copy every single move JJ Abrams has ever made, as a writer, as a creator, as a director, and as the head of a production company. The time may have passed me by for selling a script at age 25 that the biggest actor in the world signed up for (Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry). But as far as everything else, as far as how he runs his business, what projects he and his company attach himself to – yes, I’ll be trying to emulate that.
How does that tie into today? Well, I feel Abrams gave a great TED talk a few years ago, and the more I’ve learned about screenwriting since that time, the more I realize how powerful and important his talk, centering on one particular element of storytelling, was. In screenwriting, our job is basically to make sure that the reader wants to turn the page. It’s a simple yet, at the same time, impossibly difficult task. It takes practice and skill and talent to make someone want to read your script all the way through. If I’m being honest, 60% of the time I read a script, I don’t even want to turn the first page. I’m already sensing that the writer doesn’t know how to intrigue me, tempt me or bait me. The writing and story and situation are dry by the time I hit the middle of page 1.
Luckily for screenwriters, the reasons for this aren’t that the writer is “bad.” It’s almost always because they don’t know how to tell a story yet. They haven’t studied (or learned through trial and error) the basic tenements of dramaturgy, the ways in which you weave a tale so that the reader keeps needing more. For example, if I were to tell you a story about my day and started with the bumper-to-bumper traffic I endured on my way to work, then segued into not being able to find a parking spot because they were re-paving the lot, then hit you with the astounding tale of getting a “mean” look from my boss as I stumbled into the office five minutes late, there’s a good chance you’ve already nodded off. But if I started this same story with the proclamation, “Holy shit! The most insane thing happened to me at work today. You’ll never believe it!” then went through that exact same story, you’re not bored anymore. That’s because you’re now anticipating this “insane thing,” and you’re along for the ride until you hear it. It’s a very basic storytelling trick. And since most writers out there don’t study screenwriting or storytelling or creative writing or drama, they simply don’t know this, as well as all the other tricks we storytellers use to keep our audiences entertained. Which is why so many screenplays out there are so boring.
In JJ Abrams TED speech, he addresses one of the most powerful tools one can use to keep the audience interested – that of mystery. Now while mystery is a tool I’ve brought up before, it wasn’t until re-watching JJ’s speech that I realized how important it was. Without mysteries (small, medium, or large) there’s no real incentive for the reader to keep reading. If there’s not something they’re trying to figure out or find an answer to, then the story loses its mystique, its power.
The thing is, I’ve always had a hard time making this term categorizable, forcing me to say things like, “Just make sure you have a lot of mysteries in your script.” What I love that JJ’s done here is that he’s “tangiblized” the term of mystery by identifying it as the “mystery box.” This way it’s a “thing,” rather than a method. And once I saw it as that, I realized that you can more readily and methodically implement it into your story. Every story needs mystery boxes!
Typically, you start with one giant mystery box. This is the box that drives the overall story. Take The Hangover for example. “Where’s Doug” is the mystery box. There are certainly other reasons why The Hangover is so fun (it’s funny, the stakes are high, the characters are great), but the mystery box that’s always at the back of our mind – the one we won’t be satisfied until we get an answer to – is “Where the hell is Doug?”
Looking back at JJ’s body of work, you’ll find mystery boxes dominating all his movies and TV shows. With Lost, it’s “What is this island?” With Alias it was the mystery of the Rambaldi. In Mission Impossible 3, it was the “Rabbit’s Foot.” It’s no coincidence that JJ incorporates these mystery boxes into his plots. They hook you right away, and keep you around until they’re opened.
Once you have the big mystery box, it’s your job to set up a number of medium to smaller mystery boxes. You intersperse these throughout your script, so not only is the reader wondering what the hell’s in the big box, he wants to know what’s in these small boxes as well. While I see a lot of writers (either purposefully or on accident) incorporating giant mystery boxes to drive their story, I see far less small mystery boxes that get us through a scene or a sequence. For example, if a guy and a girl sit down at a diner and just start talking, it’s not nearly as interesting as if one of them starts the conversation with, “I have something important I want to tell you,” and then you withhold that important information until the middle or end of the scene. Mystery box!
Abrams uses Star Wars as an example of how to use mystery boxes, and it’s a good example. But you can pull out any popular story and find a fair share of mystery boxes packed inside. Gone Girl (which I reviewed yesterday) is jam packed with mystery boxes. Who kidnapped Amy? Why doesn’t Nick have an alibi for the time of the murder? What was he doing at the time? What’s this mysterious phone in his pocket he never answers? In fact, the book only begins falling apart when it runs out of mystery boxes at the end. There’s no more mystery and therefore no “presents” left to open. Amy shows up and starts living with Nick. They bicker a lot. We’ve lost interest.
So how do you incorporate mystery boxes into your own stories? Well, imagine an audience sitting down to watch your movie in a theater. Then imagine a giant shelf next to the screen. Think of this shelf as the “Shelf Of Teasing.” It’s where you’ll place those big fat mystery boxes. As the audience is watching their movie, they can’t help but keep looking over and seeing these irresistible mystery boxes taunting them. They need to keep watching until all of them are open.
Now there are few rules to these mystery boxes that you’ll want to follow. First, if you take away the giant mystery box, the one with the biggest question, make sure to replace it with another mystery box equally as interesting. In Lost, one of the big mystery boxes is this hatch that they find on the island. As soon as they show you what’s inside that mystery box, however, they replace it with another. There’s a computer in the bottom of the hatch where a series of mysterious numbers need to be entered every 8 minutes. Why? We don’t know. NEW MYSTERY BOX!
In addition to this, make sure each mystery box is as mysterious and interesting as possible. A boring mystery box is no different than no mystery box. For example, in Lost, if you would’ve replaced the hatch Mystery Box with, say, a mystery box asking why the room was yellow, the reader/audience won’t give a shit.
Finally, try to make sure there are ALWAYS BOXES on the “Shelf of Teasing.” They don’t need to all be amazing or huge. They just need to be enough to keep the audience curious. I’d venture you should have anywhere between 2-6 mystery boxes on that ledge at a time, depending on the kind of genre and story you’re telling (certain stories, like “The Sixth Sense” will depend more on Mystery Boxes than, say, “Silver Linings Playbook”).
Now before you go back and start incorporating mystery boxes into your script, watch a few of your favorite films and take note of how they use mystery boxes. Familiarize yourself with the process. And remember, always try to have one final lingering mystery box until the very end. As long as your audience is wondering how that final mystery is going to be answered, they will keep reading/watching. Good luck!