The Appeal of Mystery
The rules of storytelling tell us this: When a sequence of events begins to unfold before us, it naturally piques our curiosity.
For instance, if I told you that two weeks ago I was laying in bed, asleep, when I heard a sound coming from my kitchen that sounded like a small animal shuffling across the floor and that I got out bed to go check it out, almost immediately, your curiosity would begin to go to work. What did I hear? Was there an animal in my house? You’d want to know how the sequence ends because that’s how we human beings are wired.
This is the appeal of mystery. Mystery is what creates tension. And tension, in turn, creates interest. And interest, my friends, is what we’re all after. Think of the last bad sermon you heard. More than likely it was “bad” because it was boring. And boredom, if you think about it, is simply the lack of tension – or said another way – the lack of mystery. When we can clearly see how a sequence is going to play out, we start to lose interest.
Think back to so many of the great movies you’ve seen — Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Hoosiers, The King’s Speech, Sleepless in Seattle, The Dark Knight. In all these films they spend a great deal of time creating that tension. In fact, only a very small percentage of the story is spent on wrapping everything up once the problem gets resolved. That’s because once the tension is released, people start to lose interest. In the case of Jaws, the credits roll literally seconds after the shark is finally dead. Why? Because the tension has been released and the story is over.
This same principle applies to us in the way we shoot, interview, and edit personal testimonies that play in our services. We spend a much larger percentage of time crafting the setup of the problem and the complications that that problem creates in the life of the subject than we do on the actual resolution to the problem. That’s because we’re attempting to leverage the power of mystery.
Mystery is the reason bands like U2 don’t post their setlist outside on the venue doors. It’s the reason you tune in to see what product Apple is releasing next. It’s the reason every television show ends each episode with a cliffhanger. It’s the reason people, after hundreds of years, are still captivated by great magicians. The point is, we are creatures of mystery and if we’re smart, we should leverage it in everything we do.
For us, the principle of mystery massively influences how we approach lighting and stage design. Traditionally, the idea for most of our set designs was to create a beautiful backdrop, then light it up. Obviously, it was a little more complicated than that, but in the end, that’s essentially what it boiled down to. The problem, we found, was that a traditional backdrop approach got old, fast. We found ourselves wanting to change it up regularly because no matter how beautiful it was when we installed it, it just got boring. I think this is primarily because traditional set backdrops leave very little room for mystery, and when the mystery is gone, the tension is released and boredom sets in. Think about it. When you light up a backdrop, no matter what color you make it, you can easily see just how big that backdrop is. You can tell how wide it is, how tall it is, and you even get a sense of what material it’s made out of. The point is, the very first time you light it up, most of the mystery is gone. Sure, it may be beautiful, but as we’ve all found, when tension is gone, beauty quickly fades and boredom takes over.
Here’s what we did — we got rid of the backdrop. When our auditorium was remodeled, we just hung a black curtain at the back of our stage. Now we let our lights act as the backdrop. Because most lighting fixtures completely disappear when they’re off, it keeps the audience guessing as to how big, how deep, or how wide the stage actually is. It grows or shrinks depending on the lights we choose to use, which in turn creates, you guessed it, mystery. What’s incredible, is now that we’ve adopted this approach, our set designs stay in place much longer than they did before.
Now, let me be clear, I’m not saying that using a stage backdrop is bad and that you should adopt our approach. I realize that our method may not work for most people, I’m simply trying to demonstrate just how penetrating this principle can be and that all of us, no matter if you’re just getting started or if you’ve been in this game for years and years, have the chance to leverage mystery in ways that affect every aspect of everything we do.
So back to the sound I heard in the middle of the night. What was it? You figure it out.