Here is a fantastic TED talk by JJ Abrams, the guy behind many of the most interesting genre movies and TV shows in recent years (Alias, Lost, Star Trek, Cloverfield, Fringe). It’s about the fundamental role played by mystery and the unknown in storytelling.
I’m posting it here because, as wonderful as the talk is, I disagree with it at a deep level. Yes, indeed, the concept of “mystery” is absolutely crucial to what makes a story compelling. But I think Abrams takes the idea too far, valorizing mystery for its own sake, rather than as motivation for the characters and the audience to try to solve the mystery. The reason why mysteries are interesting is because we want to figure them out! If they are simply irreducibly mysterious — if there is no sensible explanation that ultimately makes sense of all the clues — then it’s simply frustrating, not magical.
This isn’t just jousting with words — it has consequences for how stories are told. That’s why I chose Star Trek as my one movie to complain about in our Comic-Con panel last summer (as much as I enjoyed the movie overall). The dangerous planet-killing substance in that case was “red matter.” Shiny, red, and ominous-looking, red matter is not anything known to modern science. Which is fine; modern science doesn’t know about warp drive or Vulcans, either, but they work well in this particular fictional context. The problem is that red matter wasn’t associated with any sensible properties even within this fictional world. We never knew where it came from, why it did what it did, how it would react to different circumstances, etc. (Why did it have to be deposited in the exact middle of a planet, rather than just splashed on the surface?) It was simply “mysterious.” But this particular bit of mystery didn’t make it more compelling — it prevented the audience from engaging with the menace that the red matter presented. If we knew something about it, we wouldn’t just be going “okay, that’s the bad stuff, gotcha”; we’d be following along as Kirk and Spock tried to defuse the danger, understanding what might and might not do the trick. Not all mystery is good storytelling — sometimes a bit of understanding helps grab the attention.
Just to draw the distinctions even more carefully, let me come out in favor of ambiguity as opposed to mystery. The end of Inception is quite famously amenable to more than one interpretation. (To go back further, ask whether Deckard was a replicant.) This drives people crazy, trying to figure out which one is “right,” an impulse I think is misguided. It’s okay to accept that we don’t know all the answers! But in theses cases we understand quite well the space of all possible answers. There is no black box whose operation is simply mysterious. We don’t need to know all the final answers once and for all; but it’s better storytelling if we understand what the answers could be, and that they make sense to us.
Hopefully it’s not too hard to read between the lines here, and see the consequences for science as well as for movies. There are those who argue that science destroys the magic of the world by figuring things out. That’s exactly backwards — the scientific quest to solve the world’s puzzles is one of the things that makes the story of our lives so interesting.