Tuesday Toss-Up

How Much Should Be Left to the Imagination in Fiction?

Some time ago, I came across this TED video with J.J. Abrams talking about what drives his creativity.

He talks about the Mystery Box, the idea that what we don’t need to know every detail about a story to enjoy it. In fact it’s what’s left to the imagination that really makes the story. The monster we don’t see. The conversation we see but can’t overhear. The closed door.

I admire J.J. Abrams tremendously. He radiates brilliance and passion when he speaks and his works are inspiring. But…I’m not sure how much of the Mystery Box I really agree with. I love a little room for my imagination to fill in the blanks but I don’t want to be left feeling like I just don’t get it. Lost, probably the best example of Abram’s Mystery Box ideas, left me feeling both ways…And I still can’t decide whether I really liked that or not.

What do you think? How much mystery is enough? Can there be too much mystery or is more mystery merrier?

11 thoughts on “How Much Should Be Left to the Imagination in Fiction?

  1. Sometimes too much mystery is annoying. Lost left me feeling both ways as well. I needed a little more clarity in order to say good bye to the characters. The perfect series finale that did all of that while leaving some to the imagination was for the show Six Feet Under. It was one of the most moving finale episodes I’ve ever seen.

    1. I tend to agree with you. I want some things to remain unseen. I like the thing in the box to stay hidden. Having said that, there is a fine line. Too much mystery and the thread becomes lost, the story unravels. Too much detail and then it is clinical and boring. I guess it’s about finding your audience.

  2. I asked myself this very question last week. I was doing the back and forth thing on some of my writing and really struggling with this. I agree with your perspective re: Lost. I kept ‘wanting’ to love it, but always felt “lost” after watching it. I think Abrams is brilliant but I missed some of his meaning in his scripts or something. I love the idea of a good suspense or mystery involving ones own imagination and even being subjective, but Lost was a little Lost in Translation to me. :o) Too much mystery can be just a little exhausting.

  3. Definitely there is such a thing as TOO much mystery. As a Lost viewer myself, I was happily carried along week after week with the expectation that all those pesky tidbits and peculiar clues dropped like bread crumbs would lead us to something or someone … Not so. Yes, but there’s so much we love about a good mystery, but the point is, there needs to be a point! Inevitably there comes a time when readers/viewers are ready to pull back the curtain and see the real wizard. Otherwise, as happened with Lost, we’re all left feeling cheated, and highly suspicious, that maybe all these loose ends are there because the author couldn’t figure it out either 😦

  4. I had never thought of the “mystery box,” but it makes a lot of sense. We are always more afraid of what we don’t know than what we do. I know in writing film scripts, the idea is to give your audience credit to figure out what’s behind the closed door without opening the door to show them. It works in novels, too.

  5. Great vid, watched the whole thing. Lost, lost me early on so I can’t comment on it but, he is absolutely correct about Jaws. Not seeing the shark was better than seeing it. There is a film, Open Water, two snorkelers stranded in the Atlantic and you never see anything under the water as they try to stay afloat and survive. There is one scene where one of the couple feels a tug, then she is bleeding and we don’t know what caused it. It is creepy as hell to me.

  6. I have to agree. I’ve read books where there’s been too much mystery and it drives me nuts, I can’t keep track with all the details, to connect the dots, etc. I become frustrated and then I want to put the book down. I love mystery, so having enough of it to hint at, hook us, to pull us through the story, reveal it here and there, so we don’t feel so lost all the time, but its a balance we have to figure out. That is where art meets craft, yes? or something like that 🙂

  7. This is interesting to me. I’m mostly on the other side on this one. Loved Lost (including how it concluded), and I more often get annoyed by writing (and TV) that tells me too much than too little. One thing I love about traditional stories (like folk tales) is that they don’t tell me what everybody’s feeling all the time, or what their facial expressions are, etc. I get to fill in some blanks, paint the picture. I don’t like my imagination getting micromanaged. But I do get the point, that no one wants to be left in the dark. I think if the story’s bones connect, the mystery box can stay closed – to good effect.

  8. @AJ: There were so many elements I loved about Lost but I kept feeling, as you say, lost in the end.

    @Barbara: When the buildup is so exciting, the payoff definitely has to be big and not leave us hanging too much.

    @Caleb: Agreed. It’s why a lot of horror type flicks end up failing because we get too good a glimpse of the monster and it looses it’s power to terrify us. It’s so tricky (at least it seems that way to me) to get the balance of not revealing too much but not leaving the reader/viewer feel cheated either.

    @Parlor: Yep, it’s hard to create a monster that doesn’t seem scarier before we saw it. Maybe that’s not really a failure of special effects as the nature of fear. What we see face to face can’t be as scary as what we imagined…though I could probably think of a few things that are scarier face to face. LOL

    @J: Definitely where art meets craft. And I think some people probably are better at keeping track of a bunch of loose threads for longer than I am. Maybe my attention span is just too short. Not that I need it all laid out either. After all, I’m still a die hard X-Files fan (all the stuff before Mulder was abducted anyway). 😀

    @John: Very interesting perspective. I think you’re spot on about “too much info.” I don’t like to be told too much either. A good story can convey a whole lot without spelling it out explicitly.

  9. For me, it depends somewhat on the medium. In a movie or tv show, I think it is important to give the viewer enough details to make sense of things because there is only so much time for them to become truly engrossed. When reading, however, I really love an author who gives me just enough to put things together in my head and add my own little bit of personal imagination. That is the place I’m trying to get my writing closer to.

    Great subject!

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