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I Hate Mystery Boxes Because... | Writer, Author, Penner
Spoiler alert for Rise of Skywalker. But if you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor. Don't.

I stopped watching Lost in the second season. Not only were there far too many scenes of people running through the forest yelling, “Jack, Jack!”, but I felt jerked around by the writing. The first season set up some great characters and plenty of mystery. However, by the second season, I wanted an answer or two. That’s all. Instead, each episode added more mystery upon more mystery. Dangling threads are fine and all, but they need to be paired with a promise a few of them will get tied up. Lost lost me, and I don’t regret quitting. The whole show wrapped up in a nonsensical thud, and I suspect it was all because of the mystery boxes.

If you haven’t seen J.J. Abrams’s TED talk on the subject of his theory on mystery boxes, I suggest you do. Since it hit the intertubes twelve years ago, it has been very influential on modern writing, and not in a good way. In it, he brings out a box of magic tricks he bought two decades prior and still hasn’t opened. Using this prop as a metaphor, he describes how he restricts information provided to the audience. Basically, this works well to generate interest in the audience, but only to a point.

I feel what’s in play in Mr. Abrams’s mind is a form of Vacation Anticipation. People about to go on vacation tend to be happier than those on vacation. Before vacations happen, people imagine them to be these pure things of beauty, but once those trips are in progress, they are fraught with problems. Perhaps, Mr. Abrams loves the initial stages of the mystery, but open mystery boxes create problems of their own.

I liked Force Awakens at first. It didn’t slap the fandom around like the prequels. Sure, it was a pale retread of A New Hope, but it was a welcome one. Film theories abounded as to the real nature of Rey’s background. I liked exactly none of them. They all relied on the incestuous plot tendencies that Return of the Jedi and the prequels suffered from. For all its problems—for there were many—Last Jedi got one thing right: Rey came from nothing. It opened The Force, and the Star Wars universe, to a vast array of possibilities. The Rise of Skywalker negated all those possibilities.

The mystery box of Rey’s family was problematic. In the flashback, Rey looks to be seven or eight years old. Who doesn’t remember their parents before they were seven? The Rise of Skywalker was lousy with those types of plot holes, partially because of its rushed production. However, the plot home about Rey’s age could have been solved before it became a problem by opening that mystery box and detailing the exact nature of her family in the first movie in the trilogy. By the end of the trilogy, it was clear there was no plan. Far from being a unified whole, the sequel trilogy turned out to be little more than a hodgepodge of empty action scenes, conflicting filmmakers’ visions, and poor writing.

It’s easy for me to criticize. I haven’t written an entire series yet, but I have incorporated mystery boxes into my plotting process. After I settle on the scene structure and before I write the first draft, I write all the unanswered questions that pop into my mind and I answer them before I move on. I also write down all the questions that appear during the first draft here and set my subconscious to answer them eventually. Should I happen to think of a better answer further on in the process, I use it. Opening the mystery boxes allows me to create some foreshadowing and perhaps some precedent so that when the big mystery is revealed, it’s not the “LOL wut?” that Rey being a Palpatine got.

Some would say that Rey going straight for the dark side during her training with Luke in Last Jedi was precedent, and they would be right. However, for a reveal to work, it needs two things:

  1. For the reveal to be difficult to figure out for most of the audience before the reveal itself.
  2. For the reveal to make logical sense in hindsight.

The second requirement is where The Rise of Skywalker failed, and thus the sequel trilogy failed. Making Palpatine the Big Bad didn’t make a lick of sense from the very first frame of the movie. Opening that mystery box and figuring out the answer could have saved Star Wars. Instead, we got a bunch of tricks.

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