A couple months ago, I wrote a blog post making fun of Lost. I had watched the first season, but gave up fairly early into the second when it appeared the writers weren’t really going to answer anything. I know that Lost fans will disagree, so I offer the disclaimer: yes, I know that they kinda, sorta explained things throughout the show and kinda, sorta explained everything at the end. But that doesn’t mean much to me, because I had given up on it by then. My complaint was not that the writers couldn’t surprise us with an explanation, but that it didn’t seem like they were planning on it. It felt weird for the sake of weird. It didn’t feel like an intricate mystery; it felt random.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’m revising Variant and one of my editor’s comments is that we need just a smidgen more explanation/foreshadowing/clues. Not too much–we don’t want to give all the mysteries away–but we need more than what’s there. It’s like my complaint with Lost: I don’t mind a difficult mystery, but I want to feel like it’s going somewhere. I want to be assured that there actually is an answer, and I just need another clue or two before I can figure it out.
I’ve always been fascinated by the questions that never get answered, and I think there’s a fine balance between not enough explanation and too much.
Back in high school I read The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux, but when I think back on it I rarely think about Raoul or Christine or even the Phantom. Instead, my favorite part is a tiny section of Chapter 20, where Raoul and The Persian are venturing down into the depths of the opera house:
Then the Persian took Raoul up the stairs again; but suddenly he stopped him with a gesture. Something moved in the darkness before them.
“Flat on your stomach!” whispered the Persian.
The two men lay flat on the floor.
They were only just in time. A shade, this time carrying no light, just a shade in the shade, passed. It passed close to them, near enough to touch them.
They felt the warmth of its cloak upon them. For they could distinguish the shade sufficiently to see that it wore a cloak which shrouded it from head to foot. On its head it had a soft felt hat….
It moved away, drawing its feet against the walls and sometimes giving a kick into a corner.
“Whew!” said the Persian. “We’ve had a narrow escape; that shade knows me and has twice taken me to the managers’ office.”
“Is it some one belonging to the theater police?” asked Raoul.
“It’s some one much worse than that!” replied the Persian, without giving any further explanation.
And that’s it. That’s all we see of this “shade in the shade”. We’re left with the mystery: who could be “much worse” than the police, but somehow helpful to the opera? How is there a second mysterious figure lurking under the opera house, yet who is completely uninvolved in the current kidnapping and rescue?
I love this character–it works so well. First, it gives us an illusion of depth: there is much more going on below the opera than we previously thought–the phantom isn’t the only scary thing down there; he’s just part of a larger scary setting. And the unexplained mystery can be left unexplained: we’ll find out the phantom’s secrets in great detail, and our main plot will be resolved, but we’re not going to find out everything. Just like we talked about with Jaws, we’re not afraid of a big shark, we’re afraid of the unknown. So, even though the phantom eventually becomes known, there is still plenty of unknown to keep things creepy–and to keep us thinking and wondering.
On the other end of the Spectrum Of Unexplained Mysteries: Eric D. Snider wrote a great article about the film “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Anyone who’s seen the movie knows it’s cryptic and strange. The last time I saw it, I was about 14 and I don’t remember it making any sense at all. I’d be interested to watch it now and see how my perception of it has changed. In an interview, Stanley Kubrick, the director, stated that the mysteries should NEVER be explained:
How much would we appreciate La Gioconda [The Mona Lisa] today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: “This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth” — or “because she’s hiding a secret from her lover.” It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a “reality” other than his own. I don’t want that to happen to 2001.
So, we have all these differing degrees of mystery: Lost, where it doesn’t look like we’re ever going to get answers, but we (kinda, sorta) do; Phantom of the Opera, where the main mystery is completely and thoroughly explained, but other secrets lurk in the background; and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, where no answers are given and interpretation is left up to the viewer. (And, on the other end of the spectrum, we have stories like “The Sixth Sense”, where you learn The Big Secret, and say “OH! Well, that explains EVERYTHING!”)
And I bring all of this up to say: I’m still struggling with this stupid balance between Too Much Explanation and Not Enough Explanation. This revision is going very well except for this last issue. I think my editor and I are going to be discussing this in depth.
What are your thoughts? Do you like mysteries left hanging? Or do you like everything explained? What are your favorite examples?