The ‘Mystery Box’ of Storytelling

Roughly a year ago, I stumbled across this TED Talks video from J.J. Abrams, creator of television’s ALIAS and LOST. He has, and continues to be a positive inspiration to my own writing. I return to the video now and again whenever I need to refresh my muse.

Subtleties of Film

Abrams’ talk epitomizes the impact his creations have had for me. Many of the world’s greatest films are deeper than the larger aspects we assume them to be about. The secret, Abrams argues, lies within the subtleties that, more often than not, go unnoticed.

The best example given in the video is from E.T. When people think of E.T., they remember the boy who befriends the alien. Abrams points out, however, that their friendship isn’t the film’s theme at all. “It’s about divorce,” he states simply. “It’s about a crippled family and a kid who can’t find his way.”

That statement is powerful.

After hearing this perspective, I approached familiar films in a new light. I admire those films more now than ever and analyse them again each time I revisit them. I also hope to achieve such levels of profundity in my own writing.

The Stuff That Matters

Abrams also reveals an opinion toward his own works, which is the meat that makes them addictive. He says the stuff that matters in a story is about the character, and his relationship with the world and others in it.

What makes Alias special in my mind are main character Sydney’s interactions with friends, co-workers, her family—her ability to balance work with school and fun. Lost isn’t about knowing what the island is or why anything on it happens (lying through my teeth here—of course it is!). What’s crucial to the series is understanding who the characters are, where they came from before they crashed, and how being stranded on the island has changed them as much as bring them together

“What are stories but mystery boxes?” Abrams asks the audience, after describing the one his grandfather gifted him as a child. Stories should draw question after question, he explains, driving us to keep watching or reading to find out the answers, all-the-while spawning more questions along the way.

Later in the video, Abrams emphasizes that one trick to good storytelling is to focus on the information not shared within a particular moment. He uses the example of a date scene: two characters alone in a car. The top is closed, their conversation unheard. Because the conversation is irrelevant to our relating to the moment—not knowing what they’re saying creates the romantic atmosphere we cling to. Their mystery box—the mystery of the unknown.

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