Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mystery and the spoiler alert

Of the three elements that make up Lovemarks, the one I find most compelling right now is Mystery. Maybe it’s because of the rich mixture of ideas that go into Mystery - myths, icons, great stories, inspiration, the past, present, future, dreams. Even that simple list opens the door to insight, ideas, and revelation.

No one today does Mystery better than J. J. Abrams, the creator of Lost and director of the new Star Trek movie. The early episodes of Lost captured the strangeness of a dream that you weren’t sure you wanted to wake up from. A polar bear on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere – one of the great imaginative leaps of television storytelling.

In a recent issue of Wired magazine, J. J. Abrams spoke about the magic of Mystery in a kind of manual for the aspiring Mystery maker. Provocatively Abrams starts with a spoiler alert. Is there any better use of the Mystery card than that? The tension between wanting to know and knowing that finding out will spoil things forever is one of the great drivers of Mystery. As I have often said, if you know everything, there is nothing left to know, nothing left to enjoy. Anyone who has badgered a magician into revealing how they do one of their tricks knows the deflating disappointment that comes with the often simple explanation. Magic to the mundane in a microsecond. As Abrams rightly points out, the key to creating a great Mystery is to give just the right amount of information. Too little and there is not enough for the imagination to work on; too much and there is nothing worthwhile left to discover.

Abrams goes on to discuss what he calls the Age of Immediacy. This is an age when information is cheap and finding out how things are done is a breeze. Want to know how David Copperfield floats a woman up and over the audience? The patent drawings are on the Web. Want to look them up? I don’t advise it if you still want your heart to stop as Copperfield holds her aloft in the air you’ve just stopped breathing.

I do diverge from Abrams when he suggests something that could be summed up as ‘nothing without hard work’. It sounds like the motto you’d find on a school’s crest or an army pennant. It is a true enough principle but has serious limitations, especially in a digital world. Abrams gives as an example the difference between selecting music on iTunes versus getting out of the house and fossicking for it in a store. OK, I’m with J. J. that a great store experience is still ahead of the online one, but will it always be that way? I don’t think so – and especially for people under 30 (eliminating both J. J. Abrams and I). As retailers become more aware of the importance of online experience, I think we will get to see online music stores play with Mystery in fantastic ways we can’t yet imagine. The shift from analog to digital is truly only in its infancy and it is certainly not going to be simply a matter of everything becoming easi-er, simpl-er, clear-er. Yes, more of the ‘-er’ words I’ve mentioned before.

Someone like J. J. Abrams lives and breathes the complexities of the worlds he creates and the fans follow every twist and turn with huge intensity. That’s why we have the great protocol on the Web by which reviewers and commentators are expected to signal plot revelations with “spoiler alert”. Personally I find it tough to stop reading, but I do appreciate the courtesy. As Abrams concludes, it isn’t so much that spoilers let the secret out so much as that they evaporate the Mystery before it has been played out. This tension between fans who want to know everything immediately and storytellers who love to stretch out a great narrative for as long as possible has been with us since time began. Will our information-packed, digital world undermine Mystery?