Premise: All fiction really comes from somewhere called “The Mystery Box”

It’s a TED talk.

In order to explain I need to back up.  This discovery started with the idea that one has to read literary magazines in order to get ideas of who or what might publish one’s writing.  I was reading the submissions page of a journal called Bourbon Penn, trying to find out if a surreal story I’d written concerning some women who were attending a 12-step group for SUV addicts might be a fit. As I read the description of what they were looking for, I was intrigued.

“We are looking for highly imaginative stories with a healthy dose of the odd.,” the page stated.  Yeah, me too, but what would that look like? I mused.

That’s where I found they had helpfully included a link to The Mystery Box TED talk.  In it, J.J. Abrams tells us simply:  “It’s as if the blank page is a magic box.”  And it’s a writer’s job to put a mystery inside for the reader to find.

I wrote the following notes on how to put a worthwhile mystery box on the blank page:

1. The big question that animates the story is the mystery box.  Why would the reader keep reading?  To find out the answer to the mystery.

2. Abrams notes the practice of withholding information intentionally; referring to Jaws and Alien.  This corresponds, of course, to Hemingway’s iceberg theory.  The goal is to increase the sense of mystery.

3. Abrams then points out that often, in a story, what you think you’re getting is not exactly what you’re really getting.  E.T. is not really about aliens, he claims, it’s about a family going through a divorce.  More mystery:  what you see is not what you get.

4. And finally, he tells us:  we may still be thinking of plot, but really, character is what’s inside the box.  The mystery is answered when we find out about the hero’s character.

Here’s the TED talk itself:

Of the Long Distance Drive and Easy Rider

We just drove back to Texas from Florida over the last two days, a drive of 17 hours made worse by the fact that the battery needed to be replaced in Port St. Lucy.

Yesterday, as we powered through Alabama, Leo made a comment about traveling on I-10, and Easy Rider.  Adult daughter Tiara asked “What is that?”

“It’s this movie with Henry Fonda,” I say.

“Peter Fonda,” Leo corrects.   Easy Rider is an interesting case for writing reflections because Peter Fonda cooked up the concept and then they shot, basically without a script, using people they met on the way.  It’s an interesting idea for how to spark creativity:  Get yourself on location, and record.

“What happens?” Tiara wants to know.

“Well there’s these guys, hippie guys, they go on a road trip.  There’s Peter Fonda and this other guy … ”

“Jack Nicholson,” I say.

“No, the other one.”

“Dennis Hopper.”

“Yeah.  They made a cocaine deal.  They stuff all the money in the American Flag gas tank of a chopper … ”

“A helicopter?” asks Tiara.

“No, like a motorcycle with ape hanger bars … ”  Leo demonstrates.  “They go east until they get shot in Alabama.”

“For what?”

“Flipping some guy off, one of those red neck guys.”

“That’s all?”

“Well, yeah, that’s the movie.”

“You really only have to see it once,” I chime in.  “They do meet some people on a commune, and a guy who married a lady who won’t use birth control … and then they pick up Jack Nicholson but he gets killed pretty quick.”


“It’s not clear.  He’s a lawyer in the movie so maybe that’s why.  Or maybe it’s just the lifestyle … waking up and someone’s dead.”

Leo tells Tiara about when we were in New Orleans, when we went on the cemetery tour.  The guide said when he started doing the tours, he had never seen Easy Rider.  People kept mentioning it, asking about it.  So he watched it, and told the story, “So they’re right here, in the cemetery, and they’ve picked up these prostitutes and Dennis Hopper is shagging this chick right here in this alcove.  And then I’m like whoa,  what is this, and I ask ‘how’d they get permission to shoot this in the Catholic cemetery? And then I find out the Archdiocese of New Orleans says ‘we never knew they were in here.”  And that’s why to go in the cemetery now, you have to have a licensed guide, and pay an entry fee.”

Well, the movie was shot in 1969.  What do you expect?

Leo loads up Easy Rider on the cell phone, the opening credits.  “Get your motor running … head out on the highway … “sing Steppenwolf.

“Why are they dressed like that?” asks Tiara.  “Look at that fringe on his jacket!”

“Yeah, they’re hippies,” says Leo.  “Peter Fonda admitted that he couldn’t remember most of the shooting of the film.”

“Why, because he was taking so many drugs?” Tiara asks.

“Yeah,” Leo concluded.

“It was the time.  That was the way it was,” I finish.  “it’s lucky your parents survived it all.”

And we get the motor running.  And we head out on the highway.