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: