The Mystery Box

I’ve talked about this in the past, what with JJ Abrams fascination with the concept.  There are a lot of parallels with the real world.  We are often more fascinated by the unknown than the mundane facts.

I mean everyone likes rainbows, but once you figure the science behind them… it ruins the mystery.  No pot of gold! Northern Lights, bird flight, magnetism, electric static, the sun…all of them have captivated imagination for years and cause amazement with children.  Adults who understand the mechanics move on.

That said, it’s important for there to be a explanation for that box.  Sure, there are a dozen reasons why the box exists, and in literature it’s often just a plot device (see MacGuffin). But it’s a delicate balance between being a plot device, or being the actual plot. When it’s the latter, then the actual box needs to have an explanation to justify the rest of the story.

Recent example is Avengers Infinity War.  The gems/gauntlet are a plot device, and they come with a very high level background.  Across all the films, only the Soul Stone gets something of merit here and in the final movie no less.  The Maltese Falcon, Raiders of he Lost Ark, Fifth Element – all examples of plot devices.

Lost originally had these as plot devices, little side conversations to the actual character growth.  Then after season 4 it went full-on mystery island mode and tried to explain the inner workings.  It did a really poor job of it, and the character development suffered for the new plot.

The flipside to this is someone who is more fascinated with the inner workings of the box that the people interacting with said box.  Zach Snyder is all about detailing that box in minute detail, ignoring the actual characters.  300, Man of Steel, Watchmen, BvS… they are all decompositions of story.  BvS could have been about random people, with the exact same plot, and it would have had the same impact; a dud.

Westworld is in the 2nd season now. I’ve watched 3 episodes.  I really enjoyed the first season as it followed a good balance between hide and reveal.  Season two is a bit too much in the hiding part right now.  Dolores “sees all paths” but the actions taken seem extreme and without reason.  It’s also very liberal with the action pieces and across 3 episodes there hasn’t been any character development to speak of.  Teddy might be a small exception here but what he does with the new information is meaningless.

It’s a hard balance to achieve in storytelling.  Very few ever reach it, or reach it on a consistent basis.  Even Steven King has a pile of weak stories, among his amazing ones.  Just enough mystery to keep people involved, not so much to make them question every motive, and some background thought as to how that mystery actually works.

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