To a child, everything is a mystery. That is why children lead interesting lives. With every passing day a child discovers and understands new things about the world, and life is one big adventure. As the child grows up, he, or she, begins to know more and more about the world – the mystery is lost and life becomes boring.
One thing that continues to make life interesting is the uncertainty of it – the mystery of not knowing what is going to happen next. However routine your life may have become, you can never be certain of what tomorrow will bring.
Let us say you take a bus to work. If it is always on time, you don’t think twice about the journey. The day the bus is late, or it does not come at all, that is the day your life becomes an adventure. At the time, it may feel like a problem, but when you try to get to work by some means other than the bus, your life will be interesting. At least for that day.
Just like life, all great stories have to have an element of mystery. If your audience can anticipate every move of your hero or villain, the audience will find your story uninteresting and predictable. Sooner or later your audience is bound to give up on your story.
Mystery is something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain.
We like to read stories or watch movies because they expose us to things that we do not come across in our daily lives. In life, we are more comfortable with things that we can understand. In life, we may exchange interesting for safe, but in stories that is a trade we are not willing to make.
As a writer, it is your job to keep things interesting for your audience. As Stephen King puts it,
“As I’ve already pointed out, ESTRANGED HUBBY BEATS UP (or MURDERS) EX-WIFE makes the paper every other week, sad but true. What I want you to do in this exercise is change the sexes of the antagonist and protagonist before beginning to work out the situation in your narrative…”
Let’s look at a few TV shows in recent times that have captivated the audience hook, line and sinker.
The first show that comes to mind is LOST. What is that show about, if not mystery. From the very beginning the audience is lost in the mysteries of the island and remains lost even after the show has ended. In this case, even after the show is over, one keeps wondering what was it all about?
Breaking Bad is another show that has made huge waves in recent times. Here too, the creators have used mystery as a tool to keep the audience come back for more. Episode by episode, Walter White transforms from a high school chemistry teacher to a man who is as bad as bad can be. All this while he is suffering from cancer. The audience is captivated because such a transformation never happens in real life. We want to know how Walter White does it, and what happens in the end.
If you look at your favourite book, you will realise that,among other things, there are elements of mystery that make the book what it is, and if I have not been able to convince you of the power of mystery to make your story interesting, then perhaps you will allow J. J. Abrams to do that through this TED talk:
(Image Courtesy: sachyn from sxc.hu)