The Mysterious Importance of Mystery

Not so many years ago, my younger son became a fascinated by videogames. Like his older brother before him, this fascination grew into a full-blown addiction for a time. But unlike his brother – who suffered through the challenges of finishing a level using the age-old technique known as “if at first you don’t succeed, stomp your feet, pout, growl, try out a new word to see if your parents notice, then try again” – my younger son was known to ask, “is there a cheat code for this?” Younger son has always been rather pragmatic; he likes order and when he comes across an obstacle, he prefers a simple, ordered solution to a complex puzzle.

On some occasions, (like when I was too busy doing Really Important Stuff to be a good parent and drop to the floor, pick up a controller and help solve the problem right then and there) I went in search of his requested code, handed it over, and returned to doing Really Important Stuff. Looking back, I now see this was a mistake (one more to add to the growing list that surely will be enumerated someday in the privacy of a therapist’s office).

Cheat codes provide a shortcut around the very purpose of a good videogame: discovery. And by handing these to my son, I cheated him out of the joy of that discovery. The other day I came across a link to an article in Wired Magazine written by J. J. Abrams. Here’s a brief excerpt:

True understanding (or skill or effort) has become bothersome—an unnecessary headache that impedes our ability to get on with our lives (and most likely skip to something else). Earning the endgame seems so yesterday, especially when we can know whatever we need to know whenever we need to know it.

- excerpt from “J. J. Abrams on the Magic of Mystery” (Wired Magazine, 17.05. Click here to read the complete article.)

The article makes some rather salient points about the damaging role the “spoiler” plays in our Internet-soaked, “I want it now” culture. Spoilers (like cheat codes) have the potential to steal the mystery from a story. People still might have flocked to see The Sixth Sense had they known the ending, but the experience would have been less.

Much less.

I was thinking about this in relation to novels. What is it that keeps a reader reading? A compelling story is important, of course. Twists and turns, tension and release, uncertainty and anticipation all urge readers to turn the page in search of “what’s next.” Generous readers will often forgive cardboard cutout characters if the the pace and action are interesting enough to warrant continued attention. But well-written characters compel the reader forward for anther reason – because we care about them. Whether good or evil, kind-hearted or hard-hearted, want to know them. We want to follow their stories to a satisfying pause. There is a tremendous opportunity for mystery-that-leads-to-discovery in well-written characters because they’re as much in the dark as we, the readers are – sometimes even moreso. It is the question of who they will become, and how they will act and react along the way, that compels us to keep reading.

A few months back I was editing a novel that had a well-structured plot and interesting enough characters, but it just didn’t grab me as a reader. As I turned the last page (okay, as I scrolled to the bottom of the screen – you caught me), all I could muster was a response that teetered on the edge of damning with faint praise, “Um…that was nice.” Something was missing.

Here’s a beautiful paradox: what was missing was “less.”

After some spirited discussion about the manuscript, the author agreed with my plan to trim back the internal dialogue and cut a few scenes that explained away too much of the story. If I might return to the videogame metaphor, I edited out the cheat codes. The result? Well, we’ll see when the book hits the shelves, but I am convinced it’s a better story simply because of those (relatively minor) edits. Readers will have to do a little more work, a little more intuitive sleuthing, perhaps, as they read – but because of this, the turning of the last page will be accompanied by a satisfied sigh instead of a shrug.

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