The biggest challenge for any movie is getting the audience to care. You have to draw the audience into the story and the lives of the characters before the film can have any real meaning. This doesn’t mean that the audience has to love or even like the characters, but they have to be invested or inquisitive about the characters and their world. An easy way to draw people in is to raise a question about the world, or, to open a mystery box.
What is a Mystery Box?
A mystery box is a lightsaber. Or a cardboard box. Or a big red button. A mystery box can be virtually anything, even a character or an intangible detail about them. A mystery box, in simplified terms, is a story object or idea that is meant to grab the audience’s attention via the withholding of information. More or less, it’s a promise that you see X but that you don’t know what X exactly or why it’s so important, but the story will fill you in on those details later.
Mystery Box vs MacGuffin
Before jumping further into the often chaotic world of mystery boxes, let’s take a moment to differentiate them from the word “MacGuffin“. I often see this word tossed around like it’s a filthy object that is only indicative of “bad” stories. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact of the matter is that most stories with a plot have a MacGuffin. Simply put, a MacGuffin is an object that jump-starts the plot. To put it in slightly more abstract terms, but terms better put, take Alfred Hitchcock‘s definition of it:
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin’. The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’ So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.
Still not sure what a MacGuffin is? Here’s a list of some popular ones.
- The Literal Box at the end of Se7en
- The Maltese Falcon
- The Lost Ark
- The Tesseract (Or any of the other 5 Infinity Stones)
- The Horcruxes
- Marcellus Wallace’s Briefcase in Pulp Fiction
- The Briefcase in Fargo
- The Briefcase in — you know what? — pretty much any briefcase that appears in a movie…
Further Defining MacGuffins
The key difference between a MacGuffin and a Mystery Box is that the MacGuffin is extremely consequential to the plot but often inconsequential to the story. In other words, the MacGuffin triggers external changes instead of internal changes. While Mystery Boxes can alter the plot at certain points, they aren’t the crux of the whole affair. Different writers and directors will disagree upon how much the audience or the characters should invest in the MacGuffin, but its role remains the same. A MacGuffin drives the plot forward.
When to Use a Mystery Box
Whereas MacGuffins help center and shift the plot, Mystery Boxes can be an effective way to signal changes within the character and force them to make choices. Take the One Ring, for example. At first thought, it’s easy to look at the One Ring as a MacGuffin. It’s the thing that Sauron and the Fellowship are after, right? Wrong.
The true MacGuffin of The Lord of the Rings is the fires in Mt. Doom. Frodo and co are after the destruction of something they already have. The Ring instead acts as a mystery box, constantly letting slip secrets of its own and unraveling the desires of Boromir, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum’s hearts. Whenever the ring is on screen, it causes one of the characters to confront someone or, most often, something within themselves.
Or take the cardboard box at the end of Se7en for example. Right before the climax, we’re introduced to a mysterious package. This package has had no influence on the story so far, yet its appearance changes everything. When the box is opened, Detective Mills is faced with his most difficult choice and he is definitively changed as a character. The plot doesn’t change; Mills is still after John Doe, but his’ motivation is now changed entirely.
Same as MacGuffins, Mystery Boxes are not inherently evil. To understand how they can be used for good and for bad, I’m going to dive into two directors who use Mystery Boxes very prominently, Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams.
Everybody knows Tenet, right? Well, we’re not talking about that.
Instead, I’m going to focus on Inception. The film is practically one massive Mystery Box that Nolan methodically opens up for the audience. I have my qualms with the pacing and exposition of the film, but those aside it’s a pretty damn good movie. It’s a high concept blockbuster that builds an unfamiliar world from scratch using two big mystery boxes to draw the audience in.
The first major Mystery Box of Inception is the act of extraction. Nolan has the difficult task of explaining an original concept without boring the audience or bogging the film down in exposition. So, Nolan establishes a mystery box. The film opens with Cobb waking up on the beach. This immediately raises a few questions. How did this man get here, and who is he?
Before we can ponder either of those, Nolan expands the box and sprinkles in more elements with Saito and Arthur. We’re dropped into their world mid-heist. We get to see the rules of the world play out before us at a time in the film when we’re not quite sure of anything yet. Here’s where Nolan’s high concept experiment really pays off. The nature of the film itself is to be a massive mystery box. You are hooked in by the concept and your inquisitiveness keeps you interested long enough to explain the rules and invest in the characters.
While the safes in Mal’s childhood home and Maurice’s office are the big MacGuffin’s of the movie, Nolan uses Mal as his primary mystery box. She is intrinsically a part of Cobb. Any time she appears on-screen, she makes the audience or the characters question their protagonist. She does so by exposing us to part of who Cobb really is, and more importantly, making Cobb question that notion himself.
But Nolan doesn’t just exposit us with details about Cobb’s dead wife, he dangles her in front of the audience like a carrot on a stick. She’s presented first as the antagonist, then as a projection of Cobb’s, and then as his dead wife. Nolan leaves a tantalizing trail of breadcrumbs for the audience to follow until it is ultimately revealed that she died through Cobb’s own negligence.
Hopping off the Inception train, let’s take a look at how Tenet is already Mystery Box-ing audiences. It’s been one of the most talked-about films of the year, even despite the extra news it’s had from release date switches. Why? Because we want to know what’s going on. Cars are crashing in reverse, guns are catching bullets they’ve already fired, and time is wonky. We as the audience already want to know why. Nolan has introduced the mystery and now we’ll following him into the auditorium because we want to see how it unfolds.
When Not to Use a Mystery Box
Christopher Nolan is exceptional at Mystery Box-ing because he uses them sparingly and as instrumental tools in the shaping of his characters. However, the most vocal prominent of Mystery Boxes is also the figure most-apt to misuse them. Yes, I’m talking about J.J. Abrams.
J.J. Abrams doesn’t seem to understand the difference between a MacGuffin and a Mystery Box. More jarringly, he doesn’t seem to understand the importance of why a character does something over what it is they are doing. Remember, both MacGuffins and Mystery Boxes are fine on their own. You need a plot just as much as you need a story, but a bad plot can be saved by a good story. A bad story has never been saved by a good plot. More often than not, J.J. Abrams’ films are held together by vapid plots that bank on nostalgia and the promise of resolving a mystery box rather than on definitive character choices and growth.
Let’s take a look at The Force Awakens to understand this fault in action.
A Tedious List
Let’s examine each of the Mystery Boxes crammed into TFA:
- The Map
- Starkiller Base
- Rey’s Parentage
- Luke’s Lightsaber
- The Knights of Ren
So. Many. Boxes.
Part of what made The Force Awakens such a success is the fact that it promises revelations to revel those revealed (try saying that five times fast) in The Empire Strikes Back. Think of TFA as the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand. As someone in the stands, you don’t care about what happens to the ball as it leaves the mound, you care about what happens when it reaches the plate and where it goes after the swing of the bat. The weight of the pitch isn’t felt until the resolution. So yes, it is exciting and tense when the ball starts to fly, but that’s not the point of the game.
The questions posed by mystery boxes in TFA were exciting in 2015 because we couldn’t wait to see what was done to answer them in 2017 and 2019. The problem is, they don’t actually serve the movie they are present in. They open questions that J.J. Abrams never intended to answer. Now, we also have to understand that this was one movie that began a trilogy, so naturally, we shouldn’t expect answers to all of them. However, we didn’t really get answers to any of them in the end, and certainly none from Abrams himself.
The biggest issue that I find with “bad” Mystery Boxes is that they are often just hollow symbols. Think about the scene where Rey discovers Luke’s Lightsaber in The Force Awakens. This saber means something to the audience because we know where it comes from. But Rey is not the audience, she doesn’t know about Luke’s saber or why that one, in particular, means something different than his green one. We never even get an answer as to why that particular weapon would mean anything to her character subtextually. This Mystery Box is meant to evoke something in the audience and not in the character or story. It has a shiny exterior, but an empty interior, and therein lies its flawed design.
Snoke is equally flawed. Think about his role in TFA, what does he do?
Snoke talks to Kylo Ren and General Hux and tells them to… continue doing exactly what they were already doing? Yeah, that’s pretty much all he does.
He shows up in two scenes. First, he reminds Kylo who his father is in a big “shock” moment for the audience, therefore robbing Han Solo of the chance to introduce this layer of his character to Leia a few scenes later or even to Kylo in the climax. Second, he has a big “I’m the spooky bad guy” scene where he tells Kylo and Hux to keep on their plot beats of extracting information from Rey and firing up Starkiller.
While the first scene at least provides some emotional context for the conflict of the story, the second just serves to tease the audience with questions to be answered at a later date. The problem is, as we learn in The Last Jedi and as is reaffirmed by the god-awful The Rise of Skywalker, is that that answer is completely inconsequential to the story. It doesn’t matter who Snoke is or where he came from because the movie isn’t about him. Snoke is a question whose answer doesn’t change the story in any way.
Back to J.J.
Before I go any further, I’d like to clarify the fact that J.J. Abrams is not the only director to misuse Mystery Boxes. Nor does his misuse of this storytelling tool make him a bad director. In fact, I think he is generally a terrific director. However, his constant misuse of this tool and lack of critical understanding of the stories he’s telling does make him a bad writer.
All of his written works constantly suffer from this. He’s notoriously known as being bad at endings. And as screenwriters, John August and Craig Mazin regularly surmise on their screenwriting podcast, [If your ending is bad, so is your beginning].
Mystery Boxes 2.0
But the point of this post is neither to dog on J.J. Abrams nor to praise Christopher Nolan, it is to examine an often ambiguous tool in the story teller’s belt. Mystery Boxes are a great way to draw the audience into a character. If the question is exciting enough, then viewers will want to stay for the answer. However, no mystery box should be opened unless a resolution is planned later on in the story. In other words, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”
Men in Black
Mystery Boxes don’t always have to be so serious as to contain Gwenyth Paltrow’s head in them either. One of my favorite mystery boxes, the Big Red Button from Men in Black is just a blip in the story, but it’s a blip that raises a question and provides a satisfying answer.
Early in the film, Agent K tells Agent J never to press the red button in an early test of the dynamic between the two. Later in the film when that dynamic is once again tested, the button is finally pressed and we see a comedic, light-hearted side of K that J has been looking to connect with the whole time. It’s not a grand character moment, but it’s fun to watch the car turn into a rocket and to learn something new about one of our main characters.
Therefore, it is a serviceable Mystery Box. It is a gun that is shown in act one and that is fired in act two. Any Mystery Box, regardless of its overall weight within the story, needs to follow that simple rule. And if both the question and the answer carry weight within the story, then it is a “good” Mystery Box. If either question or answer fails to carry story weight, then neither has a place within the story.
Wrap It Up
So, whether you’re a writer, a casual audience go-er, or a serious critic, be on the lookout for Mystery Boxes. How do they fit within the story, and more importantly, how do they act as a foil to the characters? What does the mystery box prioritize, the anticipation of the question, or the resolution of the answer? That will tell you all you need to know about its relevance and necessity within a story.
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[…] theories have become increasingly popular and prevalent as shows and films have taken the “mystery box” method of storytelling to heart and fans have found ample places for discussion and debate online. It’s fun to come […]
This was actually a concept I hadn’t heard of before so thank you!
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