20 Jul

JJ Abrams: the mystery box

We all have underutilized skill sets, and I think I have a general idea of some of mine own.  It’s isn’t that interesting to be honest, it isn’t the ability to eat fire or shoot 3 pointers or anything even classifiable as a money maker.  However, it is a talent that I can utilize during ‘game nights’.

Just to add a little background flavor to this, and this TED Talk, I’ve been asked to host a game of Dread (a role playing game) for tomorrow night for 9 people I do not know.

So that got me thinking about tonight’s EDTalksTED, and that is what elements of story telling can I reach out to for tomorrow?  Is there a technique or idea that might better the overall night?

It isn’t something that I particularly need, for my hidden talent is to walk into a room of strangers, talk to them for a few minutes and create a complete story composed of elements that was just discussed, biased for the personality types present. 

And I’m considered quite good at this, being able to weave a bunch of random elements into something that is fun too.

Now before I go TOO deep into this, here is JJ Abrams: the mystery box!


Date Filmed: March 2007

Length: 18 minutes, 6 seconds

Total Views so far: 1,202,295  (wow, that’s alot)

One Sentence Summary: “Inside the mystery box, is another ???.” 

(??? means mystery, I’m not questioning)

Abrams is beyond famous.  He is one of those ‘behind the scenes’ guys that is arguably more famous than the actors that he ends up hiring.  Lost is/was/will remain to be an incredible phenomenon that brought scripted stories back into the spotlight of television.

And obviously, there’s a few elements here that I can learn from.  The most notable of which, is the plot device of the ‘mystery box’. 

Now the mystery box is an element of story telling that is already well established, if I were to draw a Venn diagram about it, it would include 1) a broad generalization plot device that becomes more specific and 2) knowledge that is known to that world/characters/person but remains unknown to the audience 3) an actual freakin mystery.

Let’s go way back, and pull a couple random examples (not necessary real quotes) of what I mean.

God created the world in 7 days.  On Day 1…

The sun did not shine.  It was too wet to play.  So we sat in the house All that cold, cold, wet day.  (Then a cat in a hat appeared)

It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times.  (Simpsons parody quote which is just awesome)

These quick starts, much like the various Star Wars ‘mystery boxes’ that Abrams refers to, makes the audience curious about knowing more.  This happens significantly more when there is a preconceived notion that there is a payoff provided you’re willing to sit for the ride.

It’s the ‘how did they do that’ or ‘what happens next’ and ‘my curiosity is rivaled only by felines’ mentality that provides a sensation that I’d describe as neurologically pleasing.  We want to learn, want to know if our hunches are right and want to be surprised.

But Abrams makes careful note that the mystery box, upon its opening reveals additional mystery boxes.  It’s an endless cycle of mystery boxes that are within each box and every single time the audience is intrigued to follow it along.  The Tannen’s Mystery Box, remaining sealed, is a physical representation that Abrams can literally hit people on the head with. 

And that’s brilliant.  Abrams is not just a story teller in this regard, but he knows how to sell. 

What caught me off guard

Now being able to sell doesn’t necessarily mean ‘being able to talk to an audience’.  Abrams pulls it off, but he waivers.  He has quite a few jokes and remains entertaining despite the fact there is a vibrato in his voice that makes him sound really nervous. 

He even includes a sight gag?  I was expecting a laugh from the audience when he pulled out the kleenex box.  That is FUNNY.  (The audience, surprisingly, did not react.  I guess they couldn’t handle the idea that he stole a box of tissue from a hotel.  Damn it Abrams, you’re rich!  You should have just bought a box and donated millions to a charity.) 

I wonder if Abrams could have been a box maker.  Well, it’s certainly possible and he alludes to that possibility but that is also a bit of the ‘balancing’ that someone of his renown needs to address to find common ground with common folk.  Let’s face it, there are many famous people out there who are much too caught up with ‘themselves’.  That’s a shame.

Abrams also manages to pull off a good sleight with a playing card which was something I didn’t expect.  I think the card was gimmicked so he could do it more easily but still, it was done right. 

(There are two Magic stores in Toronto that I used to frequent quite regularly.  Sure wasted a lot of money there.  In any case, taking the time to perform a magic trick at a TED Talk shows a legitimate interest in the art to me)


I gotta know what’s in that box. 

After a little searching, I can see that I can still BUY the box.

Hey, Abrams even did a little spot for Tannen’s.

There doesn’t appear to be any links showing the contents of the box and I guess that only proves people respect the mystery. 

And in case you haven’t seen one of the funniest ‘mystery box’ stories to hit the internet..  You gotta check this out:

So what now?

I could tell you, but the suspense is much better.

– Updated every Friday

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Posted by on July 20, 2012 in Uncategorized


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