Maintaining mystery

Recently, I was listening to this podcast review of Annihilation as a movie adaptation, reviewed on this site here, and I realized just what bugged me about the movie the most. While I reviewed Annihilation based off of its feminist leanings and how that settled for me, and have recently seen Jessica Jones Season Two and faulted it for similar, that’s not actually why the movie or show, respectively, failed to grip me in either case. Sure, if those inconsistencies could have been resolved I would have been less disappointed. But I was emotionally less than invested from the beginning. The reason, I realized listening to that podcast episode, was because the writing itself lacked something essential.

It lacked a sense of tension, tension resulting from mystery.

I think this is a particular problem in genres which trade on suspense, but it can be a problem for all stories. Annihilation is a story that is at least playing heavily in the horror sandbox. Jessica Jones mixes horror elements into a detective mystery – mystery or thrillers being horror’s close cousins. Another popular sequel series which came out last October, Stranger Things, also fell a little bit flat with viewers for, I believe, similar reasons, and dwells squarely in the horror and supernatural action camp. What made the book Annihilation and the first seasons of these other two stories work so well was the tension that kept you engaged, and that tension was reliant upon mystery.

Mystery in a story comes from a lack of knowledge, or, more specifically, from the slow release of knowledge like breadcrumbs. Too much knowledge out the gate can feel like force feeding. This was the case for me with Annihilation the movie, where many of the major questions in the book are answered in the first five minutes of the movie. We know immediately that Area X is likely caused by aliens – the opening scene with the meteor and the lighthouse leaves little question of that – and the main character will return from her journey to investigate that phenomenon. She is, after all, being interviewed in the first scene where we meet her, beat up but still recognizably her. We see the ending before the story even begins, and both of the largest existential questions we could have been left with (why is this happening, and will she survive) are answered. Rarely do those sorts of story framing devices work for me, though rarely is not never – I have seen it done well, and usually it is because there is another more emotionally important question introduced to replace the one (has the narrator survived) that is being eliminated. There are more ways to lose yourself than to die.

The reverse of this, of course, is when you put too information little in your story. Information can be an anchor, and it’s important to keep your reader or watcher oriented. So maintaining suspension is not about giving no information, but delivering the pieces of the story slowly. It’s like getting a little bit of food when you want a feast, exquisitely spiced but only enough to make you more ravenous. If you can keep up that trail of breadcrumbs at the right intervals, you maintain tension throughout. If the protagonist can only succeed when they have all of the information and failure becomes more assured the longer it takes for them to figure it out, you have the perfect recipe. But it requires enough of a trickle of new knowledge to keep the reader oriented and engaged throughout, so it’s a fine line to walk.

Annihilation gave too much information upfront, but other stories give too little. Often this is a sign of bad writing – inconsistent characters and deus ex machina plot twists can leave a reader or watcher cold. Internal consistency is just as important when slowly revealing information, because something that contradicts too sharply with everything that you’ve learned before is a sure-fire way to throw you out of the story. In short, in order to do quality reveals you already have to have a good idea of the rules and the backstory as a writer. This requires a lot of pre-writing, including research that may never make it into your story at all.

It’s a lot of work, but tension is the heartblood of any story. It pays to get it right.

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