Want to make your art really compelling? Just add mystery.

I’m something of a TV junkie. Which is funny, because I don’t watch a lot of actual, live television. But I love watching TV shows on Netflix. A few years ago it was TV-on-DVD. Now I stream everything through the Wii, my iPhone, or on my laptop. I’ll go three hours at a stretch after everyone in the house has gone to bed, watching shows like LostAliasBattlestar GalacticaFringeStargate SG-1Covert Affairs, or Warehouse13.

While these shows tend to be science fiction and spy shows (or both), the thing that ties them all together for me is the sense of mystery about them. Everything is strange but somehow connected. How? Why?

Quite a few of these shows are J. J. Abrams projects. That’s not a coincidence.

What’s in the box?

A few years ago, J. J. Abrams gave a TED talk about how “Mystery” played a huge part in his work. He tells the story of when he was a kid, his grandfather got him this magic box from Lou Tannen’s magic shop.

For whatever reason, he never opened it. To this day, it remains unopened. It sits on a shelf in his office, still sealed.

And I think that — the endless wonder at the possibility in the mind of a child — is what has driven Abrams from day one. There’s some surprise there that he doesn’t want to ruin, and he knows that sometimes the suspense is more fun than the actual revelation.

This is probably why his shows leave so many questions unanswered at the end. And it’s exactly what makes them so compelling and addictive. What happens next? What’s reallygoing on? The world will never know. And it keeps us guessing for years to come. (What was that island, really?)

A mysterious smile

A list of facts don’t usually draw people in unless there is something compelling about them, some kind of thing that is unexpected. Or, you know there is a connection, but what is it? This is mystery. It’s emotionally engaging.

The opposite of a story with mystery is a factual report. It’s boring. It becomes white noise. White noise puts people to sleep. Literally.

The most compelling stories are those that give you a sense that everything is connected, but you can’t quite figure out how. You know something is going on, but you’re not sure what. And often, it’s not what you think.

This works in movies, novels, plays, even Powerpoint presentations.

And of course, it works well in paintings.

The most famous example I can think of is Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Apart from the fact that it was stolen in 1911, Mona Lisa is famous for it’s mystery.

Who is the subject? Was she a patron? A lover? She looks like she knows a secret. What is it? Some theories say that she is the artist as a woman. Leo was a cross-dresser, or something like that. Or he had a dead twin sister. Who knows? Who is she? Does this painting hold some secret code? Dan Brown has made a fortune writing fiction based on the theories.

The painting uses lots of layers in a hazy technique known as sfumato. It’s rooted in the Italian word for “smoke.” If you’ve been to the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee, you’ve seen this same atmospheric haze. It has to do with the quality of the air, the humidity or something. The air in northern Italy is like that, too. It probably has a lot to do with the Mediterranean Sea on three sides of the Italian peninsula. I think that’s part of what gives Italy it’s dreamy, romantic atmosphere. The light really is different. Things up close sparkle, and things far away are hazy.

Strive for mystery in your art. Not for the sake of obfuscation in itself (though keeping people guessing is a good way to create engagement) but be sure to reward people at some point. Use mystery to draw people in.

Humans are compelled to sort things out. It’s what we do. It thrills us to try to make sense of what’s in front of us (but not to the point of frustration). We love mystery because it excites us and stimulates us when we make new connections.