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!

  • Poe_Serling

    Great article, Carson… so true about creating and maintaining an air of
    mystery(ies) throughout the course of your story.

    I remember one of the main reasons I was even interested in reading the script
    Fascination 127 was the whole potential Jim Morrison dead or alive angle. That
    unique mystery combined with a nifty/inventive heist caper made it a real winner in
    my book.

    • Altru2U

      Down vote by jealous Tracy Morse/Rob Sydney Mallette…

  • martin_basrawy

    Very nice article! I struggle with this in my own writing. I always establish a big mystery box up front, but then forget to add smaller boxes along the way, thinking that the big one will propel everything else until the end. This article is a nice reminder that that’s something I need to work on.

  • JakeBarnes12

    Great article, going in the folder.

    Problem, however, is that inexperienced writers sometimes produce scripts which lack clarity. It might be character motivation or mise-en-scene or significance of a plot point. Writer may know or see an important detail in his/her mind but doesn’t communicate it on the page, or worse, may not have though the situation through at all.

    Point I’m making is, you need to be able to produce crystal-clear scenes before introducing a mystery. The mystery stands out as a burning question because other aspects of the story are so transparent.

    In some cases, the whole story suffers from confusion and obfuscation, so for such writers to then attempt to slot in mysteries would just be adding to the miasma.

    Another word for “mystery boxes,” if Lost is anything to go on, is “jerking the audience’s chain.” Too many mysteries, no credible solutions, whole house of cards collapses. Takeaway is to set up and ANSWER a few mysteries as you go along, not to pile them up and then say it was all God at the end.

  • ThomasBrownen

    Alias is awesome. Pure, unadulterated awesomeness. At least the first two seasons.

    Anyhow, I think this is a really important article, and it tracks something I’ve been thinking about lately. I think we had been talking about GSU a lot earlier, but lately I’ve noticed that we’ve been talking more about mysteries. Maybe not even mysteries so much, but making the audience anticipate a reward for paying attention. I think there was some of this in the discussion of Tarantino. (As in, he can get away with long scenes of dialogue because he knows that we’ll keep watching to see if the people under the floor boards make it out alive.) I think that’s the same concept as a mystery, and this article does a good job in further exploring that concept.

    Not that it replaces GSU (Goals, Stakes, Urgency), I think. The Goal in GSU mainly refers to the characters’ goals, and we hope that the readers empathize with the characters and share their goals. But creating mysteries gives the readers goals of their own, even if the characters don’t share that goal: Answer the mystery!

    But the risk of relying on this strategy is that it can end up seeing kind of lame in the end. Rimbaldi was never explained very well, and the island in Lost was … well, I dunno… it depends on your interpretation of the show.

  • Logline_Villain

    The dynamics of filmmaking change over time – but a great story chock full of mystery boxes will always endure… solid article, Carson!

  • Will Vega

    I really admire Abrams (don’t have that much bro love for him though) but sometimes his problem IS the mystery box. I’m gonna lead with some SPOILERS ahead.

    With Mission Impossible 3, you build up to the Rabbit’s Foot….and then it’s not explained. With Super 8, you build up to the monster in the train cab…and then you get a really hammy “you should love everyone” speech between the Alien and the Kid. With LOST…well, anything after the third season is garbage IMO.

    It’s great to have an on-going mystery with new revelations coming up along the way, but the revelations better be amazing (as they were in the first two seasons of LOST) or else I’ll tune out. But I do admire the fact he KNOWS how to engage the audience, and it’s a great way to engage them. Yet if you can go the extra mile and SURPRISE the audience after all this build up instead of making them GROAN in disappointment, you’re a master storyteller.

    This can probably be for another article, but I think more important than an Mystery Box is making the characters funny. It’s always been my philosophy that Characters are the most important thing in a story. A great character will keep you wanting more even if the offerings are medicore at best (Wolverine is a great example, I’ll keep watching anything with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine even if it’s subpar cause the character is THAT great).

    And to that extent, a great way to make them engaging is to make them funny or put them in funny situations. They don’t have to be a clown. Wolverine and Indiana Jones had one-liners and slapstick moments that make us LAUGH, therefore we empathize with them. Cause it’s reminded they’re human just like us, and not only human but FUN people. We’re always drawn to the people who are the most interesting, the funniest, the most charming.

    Slap on a mystery boy to that great character, as well as many other things, and you have a winner.

    • jae kim

      I agree about the revelation. with super 8, lost, MI3, the build up of the mystery box is made out to be so significant that it just cannot live up to its own expectations. maybe it’s a testament to his ability to build the mystery to such heights, and granted, no one does it better than Abrams.

    • JakeMLB

      It’s true; in a way, Abrams uses his big mystery boxes as McGuffins.

      But he proves that audiences are still willing to go along for the ride even if the payoff isn’t there. That’s the power of mystery.

      From the writer’s perspective though, unanswered mysteries are often considered a cheap tactic — a copout — since the writer can skirt the responsibility of solving the riddle he’s created.

      It can however be argued that in some scenarios no single answer would suffice in which case it becomes preferable to just leave the answer a mystery.

      I still believe a satisfying answer is better than no answer at all: for in the case of the latter, the audience will always leave feeling a little cheated. The true power of a McGuffin mystery then lies in the writer’s ability to ensure that the other story threads — the relationships, the central dramatic argument and so on — are satisfyingly resolved such that the audience either forget or overlook the unanswered question or are satiated enough to not care.

    • Todd Walker

      Yes, but not all characters are funny. Last time I checked, and I’m not sure, but The Pianist didn’t have humor in it, or did it? Many movies these days have straight up drama or straight up comedy, depending on the genre chosen.

      • Will Vega

        I was thinking more in lines of Blockbuster. For Pianist, its a different thing altogether. It’s a Holocaust film, so just seeing an innocent human character trying to survive is good enough.

        • Todd Walker

          Well, my point was you don’t have to comedy in every nook and cranny, and especially not in a Holocaust film.

      • Will Vega

        Though I am reminded of “Life is Beautiful”, another Holocaust film that had combined tragedy and comedy very well.

  • georgie kuna

    It is a great talk, his enthusiasm for telling stories, for finding stories (and meaning) in the smallest of things is really infectious and inspiring. The magic box thing? It’s all about the reveal – or revelation (and the idea that he never opened that box? nice trick, and if it’s true then it’s testament to his commitment in the belief of mysteries enriching the human experience – any one who has kids will know this baby, it’s the delayed gratification principle – in story telling the teller enforces the delay). The tender scene he shows from Jaws says something really key…despite all the other stuff about the accessibility of technology…it’s about showing the ‘why it matters’ to tell this story, and feeding that ‘why’ in a kind of drip drip process that keeps you hanging on in for that moment of clarity / revelation / understanding / answer to the dramatic question…however you understand that process, it’s the age old magic of good story telling. Get under the skin of your audience and make them want to scratch…

    • Mercutio

      i’m pretty sure he has opened that box. it was just used as an example, in true jj abrams style.

  • Brainiac138

    In my own writing, I definitely try to introduce a big mystery box in the beginning and each sequence leads to another mystery, sometimes that mystery is resolved in a plot turn immediately, or later in the story.

  • grendl

    This along with Andrew Stanton’s TED speech are my favorite.

    That scene in “Jaws” with Brody’s son is something I never see from amateur writers here.

    I see the action, the violence, the monsters, but such little attention paid to the humanizing of the protagonist. That’s the only way we’re going to care about anything that happens in a movie.

    I know it seems that physical description and giving them a name should be all the character building a movie requires in this roller coaster plot heavy world we live in, but it never is. Ever.

    And the Magic box analogy is another way of saying anticipation mixed with uncertainty, from Andrew Stantons speech. And you can have that in a small character building scene with Brody and his son. He asks for a kiss and when asked why he replies ” because I need it”.

    So many writers don’t want to make their protagonists vulnerable. As if people will judge the writer on a flaw or weakness he or she instills in their characters. They’re reluctant to torture their characters. As if these characters represent them and making them look bad will somehow reflect on the writer.

    The opposite is true. Show us you can torture the shit out of your characters. Moreover show us that theres actually some karmic reason for doing so. Don’t just punish innocents in your stories, because the audience takes no lesson from that other than sometimes horrible things happen to innocent people.

    We can’t do anything about that. But we can change the way we approach problems, We can choose to be proactive in facing the demons who would seek our undoing rather than sit back and hide, or find others to do our fighting for us.

    Stories teach lessons to the audience. Morality lessons. Ethical lessons. What’s inside that mystery box which is the most important surprise of all, is that we actually have a modicum of control over our lives, despite what the cosmos hurls at us.

  • Citizen M

    “mystery is the catalyst for imagination” — JJ Abrams

    Get the audience using its own imagination and they’re doing your work for you.

  • andyjaxfl

    I want to like JJ’s movies but they never deliver for me. I loved Lost, and the mysteries of that show kept me watching, but most were never answered. I know he had little to do with the show after Season 1, but his M.O. is still apparent until the show’s conclusion, and Lost is the biggest case of TV blue balls that I can remember.

    I’ve always been underwhelmed by his movies and never able to watch any of them more than once or twice, including Star Trek. I love the first hour of Star Trek, but the movie falls apart in the last half. Sure, some of that can be attributed to the writers strike, but someone still wrote those final 60-pages at some point… and to think that a professional writer created that mess boggles the mind.

    But having said that, I still get excited for his movies because when he finally delivers from start to finish, it’ll be something special…

  • Tor Dollhouse

    Recently, I had the amazing pleasure of meeting J.J. at the Star Trek Into Darkness Australian premier along with the cast. Before the curtain went up J.J, said “If 3D always fails, you still have another two”. I just wanted to share a beautiful insight into his genius.

  • gazrow

    One of the best examples of use of a mystery box literally – as well as being one of the most gruesome is the killer ending (pun intended) of Se7en. “What’s in the box?” Ewwww!

    • Midnight Luck

      The perfect box example.

    • sheebshag

      But here, once again, there’s an explanation to the mystery. It’s not enough to pose the question. You must also provide an answer.

  • Shaun Snyder

    I personally think some of the best mysteries in films and television are the ones that go unanswered. I am a huge Lost fanatic, and I was ultimately glad that they didn’t take the time to answer every question. It left opportunities to ponder the show and have discussions about it long after it ends, which I always enjoy doing. SPOILER — I always liked that we never knew exactly what the “light” was on the island. It reminded me of the light in the briefcase from Pulp Fiction — never explained, but something to think about and discuss.
    I watched an interview on Youtube with Damon Lindelof. He talked a lot about Lost and the overload of mysteries, many of which went unanswered. He and Carlton Cuse (the head writers) had originally wanted to end the show after only a couple seasons, but the producers would’ve lost their cash cow, so they were forced to drag it on for six seasons (the producers wanted it to go on WAY longer). So, in order to keep the audience invested and enticed for six seasons, they needed to keep introducing mysteries, ultimately hurting the show in most peoples’ eyes. Personally, though, I felt that they answered all the important questions, anyway.

  • witwoud

    Here’s a little-known fact about J.J. Abrams:

    Um, okay, I haven’t actually got one. Just ‘teasing’ you with a mystery box, like he does. Boy, that’s annoying.

  • ximan

    This is a really great article, Carson. A complete home run. It’s becoming more and more obvious that your main interest is in the development of good writers. Or maybe it’s just to improve the piles and piles of dreck scripts out there, many of which end up in your inbox for Amateur Friday lol. Whatever your motivation is, keep it comin’!

    Also, while we’re on the subject of Mr. Abrams — regarding the Star Wars contest: can we send a spec in for early review on Amateur Friday? I can’t wait till December dude!

  • deanb

    Great article, Carson.

    Keeping with the book theme started yesterday, you can find all sorts of “mystery boxes” inside lots of great literary works:

    The Odyssey: Will Odysseus be able to find a route back home to his wife and kids? What’s with that island and all those singing sirens? What’s a cyclops and how do you negotiate with one to NOT be eaten?

    The Inferno: What the hell is hell? How far down does this staircase go?

    Watchmen: Who killed The Comedian? Who watches the Watchmen? Who’s your daddy?

    Hamlet: Is the ghost really Hamlet’s dad? Is Hamlet losing his mind or right in his suspicions? Does the king have an attack of conscience while watching Hamlet’s play within a play or is he just manipulating Hamlet to make him go further insane? Did the king really kill Hamlet’s dad?

    The Room: Why is Lisa tearing Johnny apart? Where do all these footballs keep coming from? Even the opening line is a mystery box where Johnny says “Hi babe, I have something for you.” You’re hooked right from the beginning there.

  • carsonreeves1

    I liked the ending of Lost.

    • Mercutio

      as someone who is obsessed with telling how outlining is important, i find that strange. they never had a plan for lost after the crash. they just made up stuff along the way.

      mi3 did not work because no one knew what the rabbit’s foot was, and no one cared. it had no impact because of this.

      • Shaun Snyder

        I imagine that it is much more difficult to outline for a television series than it is to outline for a film. Television is a producer’s medium, not a writer’s. Too many possible problems and circumstances can have an effect on a TV show’s outline: cast members leaving the show; notes from producers; writers strikes; etc. Maybe I’m biased because I’m a Lost fanboy, but I think people need to give that show a break. It was a hell of a lot better than some of the other crap they put on TV.

  • James Parr

    Abrams did a good job labeling this idea, but it’s essentially about having a question that you want answered in the script. In Jaws, it’s “Will they kill the shark?” In Saving Private Ryan, it’s “Will they find him?” Your story just needs to have a good question that demands answering. It doesn’t have to be “What in the box?” That’s just one version, but it’s been somewhat disappointing to fans of things like LOST when the answer is weak. Have compelling questions to guide your story. Mission Impossible 3 is a great example of how Abrams uses and abuses the mystery box idea. He has taken the question idea and the macguffin idea and put them together. “What is the rabbit’s foot?” But in that movie, it doesn’t matter. It’s nothing. So the real question is “Will Ethan Hunt get it?” The trick with the mystery box idea is that when your question really is about WHAT, you need to have a good answer. It’s as much about a compelling goal/question as it is about a satisfying answer. The thing in the mystery box better be worth it.

  • Kay Bryen

    “He realizes how white and straight his teeth are in the mirror, and
    this clearly demonstrates he’s arrived in Purgatory.”

    Uh oh. I think I’m in serious trouble…

  • Acarl

    Couldn’t find your script. What is the title?

    • Gregory Mandarano

      Apparently it’s called “The Transylvania Flying Squad of Detectives” but I can’t find a link to the script anywhere, only the book.

      • M L

        I took down the link to script. Of course its over at The Black List. I tried to turn my book into a movie script, but apparently I did a poor job of it. I thought it would make for a good movie, but now I suppose not. Good luck to all you in your endeavors. The world certainly can use more good movies. I’m sorry to have boasted about it – I was way off. It was just something I wanted to succeed at very badly, been trying for a long time and had many setbacks, and now the final death knell has rung. So to qoute a movie. “I’m guess I’m saying I am an insect who dreamed he was a man, but now the dream is ending and I realize I am just an insect.”
        That’s not an exact quote, but close enough. Its from The Fly with Jeff Goldblum.
        Sorry to have wasted people’s time with my post yesterday

        • Gregory Mandarano

          You’re being a little hard on yourself. You’ve written some novels and a feature length screenplay. That in and of itself is no small feat. Writing scripts is radically different from writing prose, and the fact that you’re participating in the scriptshadow community at least goes to show that you’re interested in bettering your craft. People have lashed out about bad reviews way worse than you on scriptshadow so you’re certainly not alone. Even if you have something that you are absolutely positive is your best effort, there are always going to be people criticizing your work and telling you that it’s not good enough. You need to develop a thick skin, but you should also work on accepting other people’s criticisms and making decisions as to whether or not you want to apply yourself to addressing their concerns or focusing your editing on other stuff. I know I poked fun at your mention of Casablanca, but for all I know, your dialogue really is that good. I have no way of knowing without having read the screenplay. Feel free to send me a copy of it or link it to this site. You’ll find this community is more about constructive criticism with helping people improve their skills rather than knocking them down a peg.

          It seems like you’re passionate about the topic, so I wouldn’t give up on it so easily. Perhaps you should work on doing a rewrite, and instead of directly following the course of events of the book, see how you can alter the course of events in the novel to better suit film, which is a completely different medium. It sounds to me like it’s one of your early drafts that was reviewed. It’s probably quite rare that anyone’s first draft can stand up to criticism, even if it is adapted from a book.

          Take care, and good writing!

        • Will Vega

          If you’re willing to give up so easily because of one review, then I question if you were even serious about it to begin with.

          If you love what you do and strongly believe in your writing, you’ll become you own harsh constructive critic. You’ll find out what works and what doesn’t. And the people who give you a fair evaluation will take notice as soon as you give it to them. And if they see what you’re trying to do, they’ll give you useful suggestions to make it better.

          And you should also be building up a body of work you strongly believe in. Cause I can tell you I received bad reviews on my own material. All I did was find out what was wrong with it, set it aside when I found the errors needing to be corrected, and gave them my next script. And you know what happened? I got better reviews from that second script, which was heavily revised many times on my own watch. Things I didn’t find wrong were suddenly out of place, scenes were merged and but here’s. The thing I was desperately trying to transcribe from my head was now taking form. And I’ve gotten better since.

          So in other words, to make it short, if you really believe in yourself then dust off and try again with a more watchful eye. I’d not, then try something else until you find the thing that’s worth dusting up and trying.

          • M L

            Yes. I think I’ll try again, probably hire someone from this site to help me with it when I think I reached that point again. I do enjoy making up scenes and dialogue, so that why it hurts when one gets rejected, but I need to, instead of crying about, use the criticsm to my advantage. Practice, just like in any other endeavor, makes perfect.


            Glad to see others have been where I am now and pushed on. There’s is nothing so admirable as seeing someone keep trying at something they really love to do. And the world is short of good screenplays. You can just never have enough..

          • Will Vega

            And with that, good luck to you sir!

  • Shaun Snyder

    LOL :) While that was funny, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. I loved the finale and it made sense to me. Of course, I’ve watched the whole series through about three times. That’s how big of a geek I am.

  • Citizen M

    An active character is someone who does the things that drive the plot forward.

    If they are part of his job they are not action, from a plot point of view. For instance, a parachutist jumping out of a plane is like an office worker typing. Just doing their job. Ho-hum. But if he’s a handsome klutz who can’t control his chute and lands in an exclusive girls’ boarding school, he’s an active character (and stealing my fantasy).

  • Citizen M

    Maybe, but if he can supply $50 of movie magic for $15 of ticket, who cares?

  • Gregory Mandarano

    Best dialogue since casablanca? Thats about as bold as bold can get. That movie has arguably the best dialogue of all time.

  • Mercutio

    i don’t know if this is serious or not but that was hillarious. kenny powers reacting on a review of a script he wrote.

  • Todd Walker

    You know those boxes within boxes? I’d like to see that in a script as the “mystery box”, so by the end of the movie the character discovers there is no box,lol, even though to us readers there is an actual metaphorical box,lol.

  • Jean Robie

    This talk was, for me, just like everything else J.J. Abrams does: entertaining but utterly pointless–although it fools you, for as long as it lasts, into thinking there’s something deeper there.

    And by the way, what’s in the mystery box of his TV show “Revolution?” Is the mystery “how much worse can a TV show be?”

  • Vitamin Bee-otch

    So this is what I learned:

    If you’re already a millionaire who is assumed to be brilliant every single time you sneeze, you don’t have to complete the story, just amp up the mystery and sell it. If you’re an amateur writer and you do the same thing, you get a stern talking to about “clarity.”

    • carlos ybarra

      Amen, brother. Here’s a typical Abrams pitch:

      JJ: You can buy my mistery box for six figures.
      Producer: But there is a script inside the box, yeah?
      JJ: I don’t want to ruin your experience.
      Producer: OK. But there is SOMETHING inside the frigging box…
      JJ: Maybe. Maybe not. That’s the mistery.
      Producer: (sigh) Right, here is your check. Wait a minute! This box is empty. Jay Jay? Hello? COME BACK HERE, FUCKING LIAR!!!!

  • yovita

    JJ is my fave guy out there. I hate star wars, but watched the one he created and it was fantastic. I’ve watch every single TV show he have touch. LOVE THIS GUY!

  • DD

    classic ted talk

    • Frodo

      It’s me or TED talkers are becoming more and more like some cult of TV preachers with each passing day?

      • Writer451

        It seems like a lot of them enjoy prefacing their talk these days with a really long boring story that’s loosely connected to the topic they’re going to discuss and elicits forced laughter from a handful of people in the crowd.

  • jae kim

    just curious, was there no newsletter this week also?

    • Poe_Serling

      Hey, I was just thinking the same thing. Per Carson’s twitter feed, he was hoping to send it out late last night… perhaps it got delayed for some reason.

      • Michael

        It’s in your mystery box.

        • Poe_Serling

          I just checked my Big Mystery Box … it’s still not in there.

          Now off to check my medium to smaller mystery boxes. Keeping my fingers crossed. ;-)

          • Michael

            It’s not there? You got it. :-)

          • Poe_Serling

            lol. Wonder if JJ’s wife and kids are ever disappointed with their birthday gifts from him.

  • Somersby

    The Black List review seems pretty reasonable and constructive to me.

  • blue439

    Abrams comes from series TV, where the object is to keep stringing the audience along for as long as possible so the series lasts as long as possible. The mystery box works as films as well, but the difference is that movies are a standalone medium. As people have said, you have to ANSWER the questions to have a satisfactory ending. While not perfect, the Rosebud answer in Citizen Kane is a good example. This is where Abrams’ approach falls down for me because his answers are nowhere near satisfying his questions, so the movies while entertaining, aren’t satisfying. I actually find that the movies that aren’t driven by mystery boxes like the first Star Trek end up being more satisfying than the ones that are like Super 8 — it’s matter of meeting expectations.

  • Writer451

    Something tells me that history will not remember Abrams for his mystery box as much as it will for his ‘shinning a flashlight into the camera.’

    I’m not a fan of the monsters/aliens he’s settled on for his films (CLOVERFIELD, SUPER 8). They look like versions of the mutant salamander from GODZILLA, which doesn’t scare or thrill me like the chilling xenomorphs and facehuggers from the ALIEN franchise do.

  • Ambrose*

    Another Thursday article that’s food for thought.
    You mentioned “the basic tenements of dramaturgy”.

    I think (at least, I hope) you meant the basic “tenets” of dramaturgy.
    A tenement being a rundown apartment building and all.
    You don’t want your script to be a house of cards so I’d stay away from the low-rent ramshackle construction.

  • Somersby

    You’ve earned points with your apologies. Nicely done. Just be careful not to burn any more bridges… We’ve all been there, believe me.

    • M L

      Good advice. Thanks

  • AJMockler


    the basic ‘tenets’ of dramaturgy, dear chap. Although perhaps it was a building analogy?

  • Guest

    That’s a bit short-sighted. People seem to be somewhat missing the mark here.

    Take for example the rabbit’s foot. The exact nature of the rabbit’s foot is irrelevant. It’s a McGuffin. That’s it. People are reading too much into it. Besides, we are told that it’s the worst destructive force anyone could imagine. It even had a nuclear hazard symbol. What more do we need to know?

    As for Super 8, I’m not sure I understand everyone’s issue. It’s an alien. We know what it is. No unanswered questions. And Spielberg produced Super 8…

    Lost and Alias seem to be valid examples, the difference being TV versus film. Much easier to write yourself into a corner when you don’t know how many seasons you have to work with. Abrams seems to do fine on the film side.

  • JakeMLB

    That’s a bit short-sighted. People seem to be missing the mark here.

    Take for example the rabbit’s foot. The exact nature of the rabbit’s foot is irrelevant. It’s a McGuffin. That’s it. People are reading too much into it. Besides, we are told that it’s the worst destructive force anyone could imagine. It even had a nuclear hazard symbol. What more do we need to know? It’s Mission Impossible: here’s a mission; complete it.

    As for Super 8, I’m not sure I understand everyone’s issue. It’s an alien. We know what it is. No unanswered questions. And Spielberg produced Super 8…

    Lost and Alias seem to be valid examples, the difference being TV versus film. Much easier to write yourself into a corner when you don’t know how many seasons you have to work with. Abrams seems to do fine on the film side.

  • maxi1981

    I just watched Apocalypse Now redux and found that the mystery box idea works to perfection in it , with one after another mystery box. From the moment the movie starts until it ends its building up to the question who is Kurtz, why did Kurtz go MIA and why does the CIA want him dead? Will Willard go insane in the process of finding Kurtz?

    I loved your article Carson and like many on this particular thread disagree that he is a hack. Since becoming both director,screenwriter all his efforts have been rated fresh on Rotten tomatoes 70% and over (MI3, Super 8, Start Trek 1 and ST: into Darkness, Joy Ride) and the producer credits (Cloverfield, MI: GP) also got all certified fresh.

    The man has talent and can TELL and also SHOW a story while keeping us intrigued and entertained, unlike other director/producers/writers such as the Rattners and McG’s of this world.