The Framework for Mystery

How to captivate your audience, independent of medium.

What makes Tolkien more popular than Baudrillard, or Picasso more famous than Pollack? Tolkien and Picasso were masters of The Framework for Mystery.

What is The Framework for Mystery?

Remember that time you heard that song and something clicked? “I love this song.” Think of your favorite book. Why do you love it? Chances are you’re having a hard time articulating the meaning to your satisfaction. You’re not alone, and you’re not crazy. You’ve stumbled across the threshold between detail and mystery, and it knocked you upside the head. Here’s what happened:

The Higher Quality Judgement

Creative works—design, writing, music etc.—all have one thing in common: they’re all created to be shared; to be experienced by others. This important factor of the exchange is crucial for all creative works. The experience of this exchange often reveals the quality of the work.

For example, that song you love—well, you love that song. You listened to it over and over, and when you hear it again you just keep on loving it some more. Your response of elation is revealing the quality of the song. Without thinking it, you’ve just become a music critic. The exchange reveals the quality of a work.

The Lower Quality Judgement

You don’t have that same response when just any song plays — it’s just that song. The fact that you don’t have that same response says that these other songs just aren’t as good. You have little or no response to them — they just are.

The Difference is in the Detail

Think of your favorite novel. Mine is Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, but I also really like Douglas Coupland’s Miss Wyoming. I like Zen better because, when I put it down, I feel like I’ve stepped into an amazing experience of collaboration with Pirsig — as if I were able to affect the storyline. I was consumed by the notion. I had traveled deep into the exchange.

But why didn’t I have this amazing experience with Miss Wyoming? Because there’s was no room for me to collaborate. There was plenty of detail—too much, in fact. Miss Wyoming had so much detail that everything was defined, leaving no room for interpretation, and therefore no room for collaboration. The Framework was too rigid. I couldn’t get in.

The Difference is also in the Detail

Conversely, I’ve also read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. After I put it down I thought “I enjoyed that, but that’s it. I don’t know how else to engage.” I felt out-of-control and incommunicative from being left without enough information for my imagination to grab ahold of. For me, Mitchell’s framework was too undefined.

The Sliding Scale of Framework

So, then, why isn’t Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance everyone’s favorite novel, and why did Cloud Atlas reach the bestseller list? Because the scale slides, to a degree. The beauty of creative works is that it’s quality is in the eye of the beholder.

Each of us requires a different balance of framework.So, then, as an artist, how do you find the right balance?

The Threshold

A successful creative work has just enough framework to engage the imagination of the beholder. The level of definition in a work directly corresponds to how ‘built’ the framework is. The creator should intuit the elusive balance between the two for the most effective exchange.

Pirsig and Tolkien knew when to leave something open to interpretation. They were able to let go of control. But they also knew they had to build out a loose enough framework in the reader’s mind to lure them into collaboration, and not lose them in detail or rigidity.

To find your balanced framework in order to effect the most communicative exchange, consider the aspects of your work which should engage the beholder. Fearlessly undefine as necessary, courageously let go of control. Just make sure there’s enough rungs for them to climb the ladder.