The Force Awakens and J.J. Abrams’ Mystery Box

by Tom Farr

Warning: Contains several spoilers of The Force Awakens

Almost everyone is talking about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and J.J. Abrams, writer and director of the latest film, is living the dream of many Star Wars fans, shaping the future of a story that so many people have grown up with. There are, of course, opinions on both sides. Many people have been critical of the movie, but the majority of fans seem to love what Abrams and the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm have done with the continuing story of Luke Skywalker and the never-ending battle between the light and dark sides of the force.

Personally, I loved The Force Awakens. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was a little boy. Return of the Jedi came out when I was one, and I’m pretty sure I saw A New Hope by the time I was four, sparking my love for Star Wars and for stories in general. I’ve also been a fan of J.J. Abrams ever since LOST began, so when I heard Abrams was writing and directing Episode VII of Star Wars, I saw it as the perfect combination.

J.J. Abrams and the Mystery Box

J.J. Abrams has been one of the most innovative storytellers in movies and television in the last decade, successfully relaunching the Star Trek franchise, making movies such as Mission Impossible 3, Super 8, and Cloverfield, creating or co-creating several television shows such as LOST, Alias, Fringe, and Person of Interest. He even co-created an innovative approach to the novel with author Doug Dorst with their book S.

Mystery…the Catalyst of Imagination

One of the primary approaches to creating stories that appeals to audiences is Abrams commitment to utilizing mystery. J.J. Abrams appeals to mystery in every television show or movie he works on in order to get audience-members to want to know the answers. In Abrams’ 2007 TED Talk, he told the audience that mystery “represents infinite possibility…it represents hopes [and] potential. Mystery is the catalyst for imagination.” Abrams used the mystery of the island to get audiences tuning into LOST each week (although that mystery box was, unfortunately, never opened since no one ever learns what the island is). It was also a key component of Alias and Fringe, as well as the films Abrams has directed.

The Mystery Boxes Driving The Force Awakens

With The Force Awakens, Abrams introduces several mystery boxes. These are elements of the film’s storyline that keep you watching the current film and desperate to watch the next Episode in the series. In fact, the film begins with a huge mystery box: Where is Luke Skywalker? We learn early on that Luke Skywalker went into hiding at some point in the past and many people are desperate to find him. Automatically, viewers are pulled into the story by the lingering question of where Luke Skywalker is located. And unlike some of Abrams’ mystery boxes in the past, this one gets opened at the end when we find out where Luke Skywalker has been hiding.

The mystery boxes don’t stop with the missing Skywalker, however. The world of Star Wars itself is almost one gaping mystery box, so there’s a lot to work with. Here are some of the questions that the film introduces that beg for an answer by the end of this film or by the end of the current trilogy story.

  • Who is Kylo Ren? Who is his family?
  • Who is the stormtrooper that doesn’t seem able to kill?
  • How did Lor San Tekka come into possession of the map to Skywalker?
  • Who is Rey? Who is the family she’s waiting on to return for her on Jakku?
  • How did Rey learn how to fight?
  • How did the Millennium Falcon end up on Jakku?
  • Why did Han Solo go back to swindling people?
  • What happened between Han and Leia to drive them apart?
  • Who is Supreme Leader Snoke?
  • What drove Kylo Ren to the dark side?
  • Who are the Knights of Ren?
  • How did Maz Kanata come to have Luke’s original light saber?
  • Why does Rey see visions and hear the voices of Obiwan and Yoda when she touches Luke’s light saber?
  • How did Kylo Ren get the melted helmet of Darth Vader?
  • Why does it seem Maz Kanata seem to know exactly who Rey is after talking to Han?
  • Why does Rey see a vision of an island when Kylo Ren looks into her mind?
  • Why does Leia seem to know Rey when they first meet?

Those are just a few of the questions that drive The Force Awakens. Some of them are answered in the film and some of them are still up in the air. But, of course, this is the first act in a trilogy, so answers are sure to come.

The Other Driving Element of The Force Awakens

Crafting a good story is all about presenting interesting questions to the reader or viewer. You want the person engaging with your story to want to know the answers to the questions you present. J.J. Abrams does a great job of planting mystery boxes throughout his stories, but one of the complaints people have about him is that he often plants mystery boxes without ever letting the audience see what’s inside. We never know what the Rabbit’s Foot is in Mission Impossible 3 and LOST ends just as mysteriously as it began.

People often attribute the majority of J.J. Abrams’ storytelling ability to his “mystery box” philosophy, but there’s another element to his storytelling that I think is just as important as the mystery boxes. Although mystery represents a large part of what makes Abrams’ work appealing, the majority of his storytelling chops seem to be more focused on displaying human relationships in all their complexities. Many fans of LOST will tell you that the show wasn’t really about the island; it was about the characters that all met on the island. We saw six seasons of characters developing relationships that were both good and bad, and while the mysteries were interesting, I grew to love the characters more than anything.

Characterization Picking Up Where Mystery Comes Up Short

Mystery isn’t the only driving force (pun intended) of The Force Awakens. From beginning to end, TFA is all about the characters and the relationships, both the ones we’ve grown to love from the past and the ones introduced in this film. We’re interested in the Han and Leia relationship from the original trilogy, and we’re interested to know how life turned out for Luke Skywalker after he became the last Jedi and watched his father Anakin forsake his identity as Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. We’re even interested in the R2-D2 and C-3PO buddy relationship.

But of course, The Force Awakens also introduces us to a bunch of new characters. Rey is a scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku. Why should we care about her? Because she was abandoned by her family when she was a little girl and she’s been waiting for them to return ever since. There’s an emotional connection there because we hate that she’s been waiting for a family that doesn’t seem to be coming all this time. We also learn that she’s a strong character who has learned to survive on her own. We know she has some sort of interest in the rebellion of the past because she has an X-Wing fighter doll and an X-Wing fighter helmet that she puts on when she’s bored.

The same with Finn. Finn was ripped from his family when he was a little boy to be trained up as a stormtrooper. But when he’s put into battle for the first time, he just can’t do it. We empathize with a character that struggles to take the life of another human being.

Then there’s Kylo Ren, probably the most conflicted character in the film. He’s ruthlessly evil and yet feels the pull toward the light side of the force. It’s a complete reversal of the Darth Vader character archetype we were introduced to in the original trilogy. Vader was ruthlessly evil and didn’t seem to ever struggle with a pull to the light. In some ways, this makes Kylo Ren more interesting because we’re not sure where his journey is going to take him. He’s a wild card, and we’re drawn to him for the same reasons that Han and Leia fight to bring him home.

The Biggest Mystery Box in The Force Awakens

Abrams does such a great job of introducing mystery and character connections that the biggest mystery box is left for the end and is, without question, the one everyone’s talking about most. It’s also the one that probably has us most anticipating Episode 8.

Is Rey the daughter of Luke Skywalker?

The end of the movie leaves the answer wide open. There are several hints throughout that would lead us to believe she’s a Skywalker (at least enough to convince me), but it’s really a huge mystery. We’ll have to wait for Episode 8 to find out.

Creating Stories Like J.J. Abrams

I’ve admired the work of J.J. Abrams for some time, and like a lot of people, I’d love to write just one story that generates the amount of people wanting to read/see it that Abrams has managed to do with several stories. Abrams does what many great storytellers do:

  • Drive the story forward with narrative questions.
  • Engage people emotionally with compelling characters.

The great news is that this isn’t unique to Abrams. We all do this as storytellers, and we can all craft better stories by learning how to balance the two.

Originally published at The Whisper Project.

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Tom Farr is a writer, teacher, and storyteller. He loves creating and spending time with his wife and three children. He blogs regularly about writing and storytelling at The Whisper Project. Check out his writing portfolio on Contently.

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