Stomp On The Mystery Box

First, go and watch The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

J. J. Abrams has this storytelling device which he uses, which he calls a "mystery box". Me just telling you those two words, and then pausing for a little while as you think about all of the works of J. J. Abrams you've ever seen, might be enough for you to work out what a "mystery box" is all by yourself.

The basic idea, upon which he elaborates in this TED talk, is that you, the writer of the story, construct an elaborate mystery which causes the audience to ask questions. You construct figurative or, quite commonly, real impenetrable barriers in the story — an opaque "box" — and don't show what's inside the box, and then you make it really important to know what's inside the box. A few great examples are:

  • the locked hatch in the first season of Lost
  • the purpose of the works of Milo Rambaldi in Alias
  • Rey's parentage in The Force Awakens
  • Snoke's identity and origins in The Force Awakens

Having constructed this mystery, you, the writer, then:

  1. do everything possible to avoid constraining solutions to the mystery,
  2. don't tell anybody what the solution is,
  3. do not create a solution at all, and finally
  4. quit the project.


I could just stop writing there, and you would have a fairly decent impression of the Abramsian mystery box experience.

A mystery box is, in short, deliberate vagueness, to the point where even the writer doesn't know what's actually going on and has no intention of working it out, placed at the core of the story.


Not every unanswered question in a story is a mystery, and not every mystery is a mystery box. Specifically, I want to make it very clear that a mystery box is a totally distinct storytelling device from a MacGuffin.

A MacGuffin is a story element, most likely a physical object, whose existence drives the story forward but whose specific nature is not directly relevant to the story. The MacGuffin is the diamonds or the secret blueprints or the microfilm or the antidote. A thing to remember is that the MacGuffin's nature is primarily irrelevant to you as a writer. This is because you are using the MacGuffin to drive your characters into places and situations where you want them to be, because of the story you are trying to tell. You would cheerfully swap one MacGuffin out for a different one if it better suited your purposes. The story is not about diamonds.

The nature of the MacGuffin is, however, of paramount importance to the characters in the story. Obviously: because if the MacGuffin had no particular nature then they would not particularly care about it.

And, separately, the nature of the MacGuffin may or may not be important to us, the audience. In some cases it is very important, because without understanding what the characters want, we can't get a firm grip on why they want it, we don't know what the consequences will be for them if they get it, and so we have a hard time understanding their motivations and behaviour.

But in many other cases it is not important to the audience what the MacGuffin is. All we need to understand is that someone wants the MacGuffin, and this is motivation enough. A fine example from J. J. Abrams' other work: the Rabbit's Foot in Mission: Impossible III. In cases like this, you, the writer, need to make sure that it is clear that we, the audience, do not need to know the MacGuffin's specific nature. Steps need to be taken to specifically dispel this mystery and move our focus away from that mystery and back to where it needs to be — on the complexity of the heist surrounding it and the interplay of the characters attempting to steal it. One way to do this is to simply have one character state outright that the MacGuffin's nature is not important. This is on-the-nose, but not ineffective.

You do this, by the way, because you don't want the viewer to dwell on the wrong thing; because you don't want to distract from the story. You don't do this

  1. because identifying the MacGuffin would break the story, or
  2. because it is logically impossible for the MacGuffin to be anything, or
  3. because you, the writer, have no good ideas for what the MacGuffin is.

I mean, you can not know what the MacGuffin is. This is, at minimum, hazardous, because possibilities 1 and 2 can slip in, but you can get away with it. But I hope the chain of causality is clear here. You don't do this out of laziness or to hide your lack of imagination. You do it because, provided the audience's attention is effectively directed elsewhere, there's no need to do it... and if pushed, you probably have two or three ideas for what it could be, none of them particularly Earth-shattering.


Why bring MacGuffins up if mystery boxes are totally different? They have some passing similarities and one crucial difference. As with a MacGuffin, the nature of the contents of the mystery box is irrelevant to you as a writer. The box remains sealed for the full duration of the story — or at least for the part of the story for which you are responsible.

As with a MacGuffin, the nature of the contents of the mystery box is hugely important to the characters. They do not know what it is, but their need to know is a critical driving force.

And, as with some (but not all) MacGuffins, you are not under any hard narrative requirement to come up with a concrete answer to the question. Although, in my opinion today (ask me again tomorrow), you probably should.

This is fine. All of this is fine! MacGuffins are fine.

The problem with a mystery box is that instead of dispelling the questions and focusing the story back on what matters, you deliberately run in the opposite direction. You focus the story on the empty box.


There are plenty of excellent reasons why you'd use a mystery box. A mystery box is a great way to drive audience engagement in a story which is likely to run for a long period of time before it reaches its conclusion — perhaps years, or perhaps never. Asking a really good question and providing no answer prompts the audience to invent their own answers and share them. That's a conversation. That's social media and fan theories. That's great!

(And by the way, it does have to be a good question. Making anybody care about any particular thing in your story certainly still requires skill. A mystery box does not bypass this skill requirement, and Abrams certainly has it in spades. For that, credit is definitely due.)

You get to leverage the audience's collective imagination. A mystery box is like a blank piece of paper, a "catalyst for imagination" (Abrams' words) which "needs to be filled with something fantastic" (Abrams' words). We will, and we do, fill that blank paper, and you as the creator of the mystery get to take some of credit for giving us that imaginative spark, and for the profound inventiveness of our solutions, and for our vigorous fandom. Maybe.

A mystery box is an effective way to get the audience into the characters' head space. We want to know what the answer is. They want to know what the answer is. We are instantly on the same team.

The fact that the mystery box is empty is extremely handy because it ensures that nobody can guess the ending ahead of time. Just keep tabs on the fan theories and you can stay way out in front of them. If you do have any particular plans in mind, and somebody gets close, throw out your plan and throw a new element into the story which voids that possibility. If asked directly whether a theory is correct, say no. By definition, it can't be correct — because it was asked. And because there is no solution. Relatedly, a mystery box makes it very difficult for anybody involved in the production to leak the ending.

And finally, obviously, a mystery box saves you some (but not all) of the work of constructing the story in the first place. You have a solid beginning, you have some sketch ideas for the middle, and... you're done. This is an especially efficient use of your time if your project is, for example, a television show with a strong possibility of being cancelled before it goes anywhere, or the first film in an ongoing franchise.


Why not use a mystery box?

A mystery box weaponises your inability to tell a complete story.

A MacGuffin may be a technically missing piece to your story, but when properly used, our attention is diverted to more important things. A mystery box focuses all of our attention on your failure.

This is extremely dangerous if the story ever reaches its end, because it is intensely frustrating for a story to be missing its ending or to have a dissatisfying ending. Some will argue that in many stories, the journey is more important than the destination. Well, sometimes. Personally, I like a story to have a well-defined ending point, and closure, and finality, but not every story is written for me, and that's fine. Sometimes the journey really is the point.

But this is never true of a mystery box. A mystery box sets itself up as important. It transfers our focus onto it. It promises a payoff, and the payoff is the reason we invest our attention and speculation. For there to be none is inexcusable.

The end of the first season of Lost: after lengthy tribulations and conflict, after much struggle and mystery, the hatch is finally opened.

The end!

See you next year!

Do you think we'll have an answer by then? Do you feel like spending another whole year speculating what's inside the hatch? Do you think we'll have come up with a better idea than "another mystery box"? What happens when the countdown runs out? Mysterious sigils now?

But it's a problem even before the end. Withholding information is not the same thing as not having information. Audiences can tell when something is structureless, baseless. Stories with well-defined endpoints in mind are angled towards that endpoint in all sorts of tiny ways, ways which we pick up on. When there's a consistent direction to a story, small details hang together behind the scenes. And when they don't add up, we can tell the difference between an honest continuity error and someone making things up as they go and, if they're even taking notes — which we sure are — deliberately losing them.

We get a sensation of whether a story is going somewhere or going nowhere. A mystery box story states clearly, up front: you don't know where you're going with this. You may be going nowhere. You don't care.

A mystery box represents infinite possibilities, but it commits to none of these possibilities. It isn't the sum of those possibilities. It's still empty.

Many people won't share my opinion on this next point, but: Yes, a mystery unlocks all the power of my imagination. I can write a story for you, if you like. Maybe even a better one! But I'm not here to explore my imagination. Your imagination has given me a blank sheet of paper? I already have blank paper. I have plenty to say. I probably committed to your story because I was interested in what you had to say. I'm here to explore your imagination.

Actually, scrap that. Imagination is overrated. Anybody can have an idea. I'm here to explore your ability to execute. A mystery box is a confession that you can't.

(I'm sorry that I wrote all this addressing the bad writer as the second person. This would have been better a few hundred years ago using "one" instead of "you" throughout. This isn't personal. Your writing is great.)

Finally, a mystery box offloads your responsibility for figuring out the ending to other writers. You deliberately opted out of a necessary piece of work because you couldn't or wouldn't do it. By doing this you made the job harder for the person or people who did. Although you may have worked hard to leave the door open for many possible solutions, it's likely that there is no solution at all which retroactively makes literal or thematic sense out of everything which went before. I would characterise this as, well, unprofessional. Rude, even.

This is your last chance to stop reading before I go into specifics about The Last Jedi.


We don't know who Rey's parents were. They abandoned her on Jakku and she's been waiting her whole life for them to come back. Who could they possibly be? What could possibly happen when she meets them again? Textbook mystery box.

I've been watching J. J. Abrams do this stuff for a while now and although I didn't encounter the term "mystery box" until relatively recently it was abundantly clear: at the time that The Force Awakens was made, this box was one hundred percent empty. It was hard vacuum. A core directive in the production of that film was undoubtedly "Do not, do not, do not tie our hands for Episode VIII." There was no particular grand revelation in mind. Or rather, every possible grand revelation was under simultaneous consideration.

There were two major possibilities. They were going to be people we already knew, or people we didn't. Star Wars has had a mystery of this kind once before, at the end of The Empire Strikes Back when Yoda reveals that Luke Skywalker is not the Jedi's last hope, "There is another". Now, for me to say that any particular thing was "originally intended" in Star Wars is generally misleading; Star Wars as a plan evolved hugely over time, as is very well-documented. But it is known that at at least one point after Empire it was intended that Yoda would be referring to a new character, who would be introduced in Episode VI.

In the final analysis it worked out to be Leia, who also worked out to be Luke's sister. This was simultaneously one of the more boneheaded possible solutions to that problem and one of the more boneheaded possible resolutions to the Luke/Leia/Han love triangle. It was the wrong answer in Return Of The Jedi, and it would have been the wrong answer for The Last Jedi. The Star Wars universe would have imploded due to a shortage of characters and scope.

That still left infinite possibilities. Rey's parents could have been new characters. All of Episode VIII could have revolved around them, ramping up to a climactic, dramatic reunion. Anything could have happened. That's the intended power of the mystery box.

But in the final analysis, in The Last Jedi, Rey's parents are nobodies. They are dead. We never see them. She is no one. She comes from nowhere.

It's actually an extremely good moment. It doesn't happen in a vacuum; far from being a let-down, it explains the known facts, it ties off a thread and it expertly sets up what happens next in the story. I think it was probably the best possible resolution to that mystery, and I was impressed. I call that skill by Rian Johnson, and a lucky break for J. J. Abrams.

As a slightly less ambiguous example: Snoke. Who is he? Where's he from? We've never even seen him in person. Does he really look like that? Is he really that tall? Is he someone else, someone we already know, using a holographic disguise? Classic mystery box.

In The Last Jedi, it turns out that he is normal-sized, he really looks like that, and nobody cares. The information proves not to be germane to the story at hand, and the character himself is removed from the saga. It is, frankly, a tremendous relief.

(The Last Jedi is a lop-sided, confused, frustratingly-paced film with one or two moments of pure open-mouthed awe and more than two dozen moments of Prequel Trilogy-level inexplicability. Axeing the mystery box stuff was one of the better decisions made in it.)


These are the best case scenario endings for a mystery box story. Somebody who knows what they're doing comes along; with minimal ceremony, they open it; we see what's inside; then they stomp the box flat, put it in the recycling and move forward with the story.

And I put it to you that if the best possible thing that could be in your mystery box is nothing at all, there is definitely, definitely a better way to tell your story.

I see that Abrams is back for Episode IX. It might be good.

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Discussion (30)

2017-12-19 21:02:29 by qntm:

Nobody mention SCP-055.

2017-12-19 21:37:20 by Jeremy Bowers:

I have become unable to watch these stories sure to developing an instinctive revulsion for them. I used the term "instinctive" carefully. It is not the result of conscious analysis, where I coldly analyse the story and realize what is going on. It is instinctive.

They produce in me the exact same feeling as that dream we've all had where you're running after something but never catch up, or are running away and never make progress.

This is not a feeling I'm particularly inclined to pay a lot of money or time for. Fooled me once, or twice, or however many times you want to count Alias, not gonna fool me again.

I think that's one problem with this approach... ultimately, it's a gimmick. It's a very good gimmick as gimmicks go. It has served JJ very well, as I can't deny. But it still has that prime characteristic of gimmicks that you are basically burning your audience, rather than making them hungry for your next installment.

2017-12-19 21:52:47 by Alexander Wales:

I liked this essay, and thought that it hit correctly on the inherent emptiness of TFA in retrospect. TLJ would have been better if it had the same answers to mysteries that were better set up with those answers in mind, giving the answers some level of foreshadowing, or at the very least, not foreshadowing something that was irrelevant. I think that's my main gripe with the mystery box; it's foreshadowing for things that don't actually happen, and not in a clever way.

2017-12-19 21:53:27 by Guest:

They've elevated the MacGuffin from a plot device to the plot itself, making resolution paradoxically impossible since the plot by design has no resolution.

2017-12-19 22:19:34 by qntm:

Interestingly, all of this criticism only applies if what you're trying to create is, in fact, a story.

2017-12-19 22:42:08 by Jun Togawa:

Given that the last scene in the film is LITERALLY ( ok not literally) a toy commercial, I think it's perfectly reasonable to cast aspersions on the story-ness of The Last Jedi.

2017-12-20 11:44:42 by frymaster:

(I have literally (actually literally) no idea what's meant by "the last scene is a toy commercial")

It's worth pointing out that there still hasn't been any kind of reveal about Rey's parentage. It's just that instead of her assuming they are bigshots who abandoned her for noble reasons she's now assuming they are nobodies who abandoned her for selfish reasons. A lot more likely, perhaps, but still just an assumption. It's saying more about her emotional state than any facts, as no more facts have been presented.

2017-12-21 00:29:31 by qntm:

There has been a reveal. As far as this film is concerned, the matter is resolved. To keep speculating *after* the mystery box has been opened, when the clear aim of the film was to lay all of that nonsense to rest and just get the heck on with something credible and tangible — "I, Rey, come from nowhere... so it's up to me to figure out who I'm going to be" — is ludicrous.

If J. J. Abrams picks these threads up again in Episode IX, that, also, will be ludicrous.

2017-12-21 06:50:20 by rbuckton:

Rey's parents being "nobody" makes sense in light of the overall Star Wars universe:

- Shmi Skywalker (Anakin's mother) was "nobody".
- Luke describes his own arrogance regarding "that strong Skywalker blood", the legacy and fallacy of the Jedi, and that the Force doesn't *belong* to anyone.
- The child slave at Canto Bight that is a "nobody" and is Force sensitive.

The reveal around Rey's parentage made complete sense to me.

2017-12-21 11:53:42 by -dsr-:

We see one Force-sensitive kid on one planet. The odds of that kid being the only one on the planet are ridiculously low, but even if that's the case, Star Wars seems to have 10^5, maybe 10^7 inhabited planets.

Yet the Jedi Academy of the prequel trilogy had facilities for 100-1000 students, and it was a multi-year program. 10 years?

And Jinn and Kenobi picked up a Force-sensitive slave kid on a backwater world.

The available evidence says that there is an awful lot of untrained potential out there.

2017-12-21 13:53:59 by TheTruemikebrown:

Thanks Sam, that was interesting

I don't watch too many movies, but even I have noticed that Abrams guy making a name for himself. It is funny if that how he has been doing it.

2017-12-21 16:13:00 by MichaelGrosberg:

Interestingly, Snoke's origin, and that of the First Order, while a complete mystery to the viewer, are probably common knowledge to all the characters (and to the inhabitants of the galaxy at large) to such a degree that it is not even worth discussing. We can assume it is being kept deliberately vague by Disney in order to, at some point, sell prequel books / comics / ice skating musicals describing his origin story. But to the characters, the story is probably something as dull as "The Empire collapsed, and some local planetary governor / general in the Imperial Navy is trying to re-create it". He's Basically Space Putin. Now, I know there is some speculation about him being a student or teacher of one of the known Sith lords, because supposedly there are only two at any given time, but one does not have to be a Sith to be a force user.

2017-12-22 22:26:47 by Ryan:

I like stories where there is a "mystery box" but the writer does have an idea or the answer to the mystery. Where you can expect a solution at some point. As well I do like when if they have no idea what it is, instead of dispelling fan theories, maybe make one of them reality, like R+L=J. Though can say it was true all the time, and in some cases it likely was, it's nice to work with the fans, crowd source some ideas off of forums.

2017-12-26 13:07:33 by NanashiSaito:

Does Ra qualify as a Mystery Box?

It seems to check all the boxes described by this post, but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the story. I think a big factor here is that Lost, for example, had boxes upon boxes upon boxes upon boxes, whereas Ra really only had one. And with Star Wars, the two aforementioned boxes were only tangentially related to the primary story whereas the mystery of Ra was the primary driver of the story.

2017-12-26 13:17:09 by qntm:

No, for two reasons:

1. With Ra I had a pretty good idea of where I was going. The fact that I threw some of my plans out and it didn't quite work out the way I originally intended (if there ever was such a thing as an "original intention"; plans evolve) doesn't alter that.
2. I didn't quit Ra. I certainly always intended to see it through to its conclusion, and I did so.

These, I would say, are the primary differentiators between a mystery box and a straight-up *mystery*. This is something I didn't really touch on in the essay as it currently is. Maybe I'll do something about that.

2017-12-26 21:58:58 by adam:

dril's identity is a real-world Mystery Box, which is why people were so angry about him getting "doxxed". What answer to "what is @dril's real name" could ever be both plausible and satisfying?

2017-12-30 02:18:34 by Michael Szegedy:

TVTropes calls this (or maybe a slightly broader version of this) a "Riddle For The Ages", and lists many examples.

2018-01-02 19:00:58 by Christopher Jones:

The mystery box pulls on people's curiosity and willingness to take the promise of a payoff at face value, and it is in my view a storytelling counterfeit.

It's similar to making a cat or a dog chase a laser pointer's dot. To treat human beings that way is to lower them and to make them into less than they should be.

2018-01-06 23:54:46 by qntm:

Good analogy!

2018-02-13 17:40:49 by MadcapPomposity:

Re: the "toy commercial" comment, I think Jun Tokugawa was saying that the Resistance landspeeders (complete with huge red dust trails against the otherwise-white desert) making a Charge Of The Light Brigade against the First Order AT-ATs and that field-artillery superlaser is precisely the technicolor tableau you'd see on the front of a big ol' "Resistance Base Holdout Playset" box. (Limited Edition First Order AT-AT with Luke Skywalker figure sold separately, Limited Edition First Order AT-AT with Kylo Ren figure also sold separately.)

2018-02-13 21:23:36 by fat:

Based on your own definition, Snoke isn't a mystery box at all, he's a character. You said a mystery box doesn't exist at all and there's no plan for them, how is that possible for Snoke?Rey's parents obviously fit this trend, but Snoke exists. It's a bit of a stretch to say otherwise.

That said, I think the movie was trash and I'm not defending JJ Abrams at all. He's a complete hack and I wish he would stop making films.

2018-02-13 21:42:22 by qntm:

Following the events of The Force Awakens, we don't actually know that Snoke exists. All we see of him in that film is a hologram. But anyway, the mystery box there is Snoke's *identity* (and origins, and real appearance, if any). Is he Sith? Is he connected to the Emperor somehow, is he Darth Plagueis? Is he Rey's father, is he Maz Kanata in disguise, is he really tall, is he tiny? These are the empty questions to which there were no intended answers.

2018-02-14 00:18:52 by qntm:

Someone pointed out that C-3PO's red arm in The Force Awakens is arguably yet another mystery box. And yeah, in The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson once again completely stomps on the box: C-3PO has his golden arm back and there is no explanation, because frankly nobody cares.

2018-02-14 07:18:08 by David Fekd:

I'm not convinced that "OMG who are Rey's parents??" is a question that was posed by the writers of TFA at all.

Rather, it was posed by the fans, and especially those fans who think it's good Star Wars when things and stories repeat themselves. The big twist of the original trilogy was that Luke's father was the bad guy.

So the fans expect the big twist of the sequel trilogy to also be about family relations. Because for them, that's the core of Star Wars. But it doesn't mean that it's the core of Star Wars for everybody else.

It was the fans looking for hints of a "mystery blood line" when TFA was released, and they found that with Rey. So they jumped to the conclusion that Rey's parents must be a big mystery and the reveal of that mystery will be the big twist of this trilogy.

Now that this will not happen, these fans seem disappointed and are looking for a scapegoat (for their own misguided ideas about what SW has to be...)

So they pick JJ Abrams and attribute the lack of the repetition that they craved to his "mystery box" concept.

There is no mystery box. That the fans got so infatuated with their own made-up SW theories and tropes is in no way JJ's fault.

It's like I make up a new McDonald's burger and then go to the nearest McD's and get angry at them that I can't find "my" burger on their menu.

2018-02-14 09:00:26 by qntm:

> I'm not convinced that "OMG who are Rey's parents??" is a question that was posed by the writers of TFA at all.

Then who are they?

2018-02-14 09:33:24 by David Fekd:

> Then who are they?

That's my point. It's not important to the story. It's only important to misguided SW fans.

2018-02-14 10:17:53 by qntm:

Then why is it so important to Rey? Why aren't we told who they are?

2018-02-14 10:43:12 by David Fekd:

> Then why is it so important to Rey? Why aren't we told who they are?

Where did you get the impression that it is "sooo important"? Rey repeatedly says she wants to know what her role "in all this" is. She never says "OMG I NEED TO KNOW WHO MY PARENTS ARE?!".

Like I said above of a subset of SW fans, you too seem to be an example of projecting your own questions about the story on the characters, and then you get disappointed that these questions (that don't have the importance to the characters as they seem to have to you) are left unanswered.

Show me a convincing line by Rey in TFA where she wonders who her parents are. There is none. She may wonder where they are or why they are not coming back to get her, but she never wonders who they are.

Rian Johnson got this wrong also, and included that scene with her and the mirrors, which was totally misguided.

The point is, there was never a huge demand to know about who Rey's parents are outside of the SW superfan space, and Rian Johnson picked up on that without need.

JJ has done nothing wrong. He didn't create a mystery box about Rey's bloodline at all.

2018-02-14 13:34:49 by fat:

I don't think audience speculation about Snoke really makes him a mystery box. His identity doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things, regardless of what the audience wanted or thought. He was a plot device that was only there to enhance Kilo Ren's arc. Sure, this may not have been Abrams' intention, but it is what happened.

Ian McShane's character in John Wick is mysterious. We don't know if he was an assassin before the film, or how he got into the underworld. That doesn't make him a mystery box.

I just think you're hurting your own term by including Snoke, when Rey's parents are a much stronger example.

2018-02-14 17:40:13 by qntm:

> I don't think audience speculation about Snoke really makes him a mystery box.

Of course not, it was the other way around.