Fill Your Work With Questions (But Know the Answers)

I love mysteries. The idea of solving a problem while I read or even look at artwork. It’s a mental challenge that intrigues my brain. Yet what infuriates me the most is when the artist doesn’t know the answers.

A perfect example of how to do this wrong was the television series LOST. I was engrossed by the first season. I scoured the internet trying to solve the mystery of the Dharma initiative. And the mystery of the numbers on the hatch and what was up with the button had me completely hooked.

As the series went on, less and less mysteries developed. Some of the questions were answered and others had no clear answer. The writers had developed a killer concept but had written themselves into a corner and now didn’t know what to do. 

A series that got this right was Attack on Titan. The manga (and later anime) is filled with questions. What are the titans? Why do they eat people? Who made the walls? And when the series answered a question, it only spurned more questions (I’m talking here about the end of season 1, people — no spoilers from me). 

It’s the constant twists and turns that can hook your audience and transform your art from mediocre to brilliant. Chuck Wendig has a great example of this when he relates writing a story to a magic trick in his book Damn Fine Story. Every trick conjured up by the magician has a pledge (the promise that hooks you), the Turn (where things are twisted away from the commonplace) and the Prestige (where the world is returned to a new normal). 

Imagine, for a moment, the cup and balls trick where you show the audience the red ball, make it disappear, and then move onto the next performance. Your audience is left waiting for the conclusion, the conclusion to the mystery. 

We don’t expect a full explanation (as that would kill the literal and figurative magic). We just want a closure that makes sense within the world view of your art. We want the magician to produce the red ball again, except now it’s multiplied into three balls, or even transformed into a plum.

Consider the kinds of questions you can have your audience ask. How can you create that sense of mystery? But… be sure to have the answers before you start. Otherwise you’re liable to thoroughly disappoint all those who’ve put their faith in you. 

Tim Kane

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