The Mystery Box

April 29, 2009

This is about one of my favorite keys for building suspense. It’s simple and applicable to any fiction — not just thrillers or mysteries — so go ahead and spice up your romance novel with it (I use it constantly in the science fiction novel I’m writing now).

I learned it, originally, from reading Dan Brown (don’t pooh-pooh Dan Brown just because he’s popular. His structure is brilliant). Go ahead and read any Dan Brown prologue. They’re all the same.

1. Somebody (usually the point-of-view character) bites the dust.
2. The reader is presented with a dazzling lack of information.

For example, in the opening paragraph of the prologue of Deception Point (my favorite Brown) we read:


“… and yet nothing could prepare him for a fate as barbarous and unnatural as the one about to befall him.”

Okay, that’s like smacking the reader with an axe handle, and it takes a stinking dump on point-of-view, but notice what we know and what we don’t know. We know the character, arctic geologist Charles Brophy, is about to die. But we don’t know how. That word unnatural is troubling and suggestive. So we turn the page.

And that’s all we need to do.

On the next page, soldiers emerge from a landing helicopter and force Brophy at gunpoint to transmit an emergency message on his radio.

The first man handed him a note card with a few lines typed on it. “Transmit this message. Now.”
Brophy looked at the card. “I don’t understand. This information is incorrect. I didn’t–”
The man pressed his rifle hard against the geologist’s temple.
Brophy’s voice was shaking as he transmitted the bizarre message.

A few lines later, the soldiers take Brophy 4000 feet up in the helicopter and toss him out, “tumbling toward the chasms below.”

Prologue over. 500 words, tops. What don’t we know?

We don’t know who the soldiers were.
We don’t know what the message was.
We don’t know who the message was for.
We don’t know why Brophy was killed.

And it’s the lack of knowledge, the questions, that draw us to start Chapter One. Brown keeps it up, answering some questions… and always asking more, until — holy crap — we’ve read 140,000 words.

Let’s shift gears:

Ever watch Lost? If you haven’t, the first season is worth renting on DVD, just to see Brown’s technique done cinematically. The producer, J.J. Abrams, made sure to withhold as much information as possible for as long as possible. It worked. Fans would watch episode after episode just hoping to find out what the monster is, or who the Others are, or what those darn numbers mean.

This works independently of character development. If you can also have characters your reader cares about, you amplify the obsession your readers will feel for your book exponentially.

I was feeding all this into the writing hopper in my skull when I stumbled across a TED talk by J.J. Abrams that laid out his thinking on the tactics of suspense (along with the evolution of special effects and other topics). He uses a metaphor — the Mystery Box — to make his point.

This is that TED talk.

— Steve