Engage the Audience: Mystery

Although I don't have a good citation for it, Carl Dreyer is supposed to have said that the primary role of a director it to engage the audience. What does it mean to engage the audience? It means to give them something that makes them want sit on the edge of their seat and keep watching. Over the next several posts, I'd like to explore some of the ways a storyteller can do this. Personally, I believe the most fundamental way to engage the audience is to create mystery. So I thought it'd be the best place to start.

What is Mystery?

First of all, mysteries are not secrets. If you have some sort of information about your world or characters, and you give your audience no hint of those secrets, then they might as well not exist. To steal a title of a great C.S. Lewis short story, mystery is The Form of Things Unknown. What does this mean? It means you know a little bit. You have a clue, but the details are unclear. There is a form and a shape, but it's hazy, dark and obscured by clouds. So to set up any mystery, you must show something. You must show enough to know that there's more there.  What you choose to show must also be compelling. It can't make sense on its own, and it should challenge the audience and make them uncomfortable.

This creates two great responses. First, if you see part of an image that doesn't quite make sense, you want to see the rest.  Second, mystery inspires fear.  The hulking form in the dark corridor could be anything, and in your mind it becomes everything. It's transcendent, terrifying and sublime.

J.J. Abrams has some interesting things to say about this:

Mystery as drama

Every good story poses a question. The answer to that question is the mystery that will keep your audience engaged. The more compelling the question, the more they'll be glued to their seats.  The Usual Suspects is a naked example of this. The whole movie is built upon the question: Who is Keyser Soze? But you don't have to pose such an enormous question - the question can be as simple as: Will Conan avenge his parents' death? Will Frodo reach Mount Doom? It's basically the question you pose in the inciting incident. The mystery can even be in the how, not necessarily in the end result. In the Godfather, it's pretty clear that Michael Corleone is going to end up changing from a nice-guy to a mob boss, but the compelling question posed is: How?

Mystery in characters

I touched on this briefly last week in my post about epic characters. Mystery is great way to make a character compelling. What you don't know about a character you fill in with infinite possibilities, or simply accept that it's beyond human comprehension. The G-man in the Half Life series is a great example of a character who is compelling because of the mystery that shrouds him. Again, what you do know about him makes the mystery interesting. He's a man in  a suit, who wanders effortlessly through a maze of dangers that you've been fighting tooth-and-nail to survive.

Mystery in the world

Using mystery is great way to make a world seem far more vast than you've actually thought out. By making references to small details in far flung corners of your world, you create a framework that your audience will assume is filled in as richly as the world you present in detail before them.

Keep it Mysterious

Lastly, you don't have to give an answer to every mystery. One of the problems of creating a really compelling mystery, is that it's often hard to deliver an answer that's as powerful as the original mystery. J.J. Abrams is a master at using mystery to draw you in, but tends to get stuck trying to figure out where to go from there. Usual Suspects is one of the few stories that successfully figured out how to do this, but to make it work, Bryan Singer had to go BIG on the conclusion. As an alternative, Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock is built around a compelling mystery that is never answered. And the power of the movie is wholly dependent on maintaining that mystery. You can do this with characters, worlds and plot points. Just be careful. Mystery creates tension, and if you choose not to answer the mystery, you must find another way to release the dramatic tension or plan on having your audience carry that tension with them after the story ends (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

There's truth to old show biz adage: "Give 'em what they want." Just remember, once you give it away, there's not much left to stick around for.  So, if you really want to hold on to your audience, give 'em mystery first, then give 'em what they want.