We are all, to varying extents, seekers after truth. I’m certain we are hard wired for it. Humans are all philosophers, who vary only in the questions they ask.
Over the years, I’ve become fascinated with stories that operate in worlds whose mythology, or at least backstory, is not immediately rendered apparent to the reader/viewer. I like the way these stories progressively reveal these things as they go and give us a series of Uh-Huh moments.
Mystery in Stories Engages Us
Going back, I can recall shows from my childhood all the way up to the present that have done this. Dune made me wonder what was so special about the spice mélange and how it was made. How did guild navigators learn to use the spice to assist them with bending space without colliding with stars and planets? How did the Bene Gesserit come about and know how to create the Kwisatz Haderach through generations of selective breeding.
More recently Lost made me wonder what odd traits a mysterious island had and why, as well as why all of the passengers of Flight 815 seemed to have connections with each other that even they didn’t know about. It made me wonder why there was some smoke monster running around with polar bears and hippies.
George R.R. Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire series makes me constantly wonder about the web of plots within plots being woven in order to win the Iron thrown. It made me wonder why the seasons are so irregular, what was behind the Wall, and what role the gods play in the game of thrones.
Each of these stories, shows and movies answers my questions to differing degrees. Some barely answered them at all. Others answers them years later through prequels and prequels of prequels (yes, I’m talking about Dune).
The Beginning of a Journey
Two recent things happened to me that made me introspect more into my desire to have mysteries in my stories. The first was Lost, which I talked about above. Lost created a massive number or loose ends throughout the six years that it was on. Some of these loose ends got tired together. Others did not. George R.R. Martin (referred to above) actually voiced his disappointment and promised his readers that the same would not happen with his series. Seeing how upset people got about this surprised me, because I didn’t experience it myself. As life doesn’t wrap up all loose ends, I’m okay with it not always happening in stories. However, I felt there might be more to it than that. My brain actually delighted in these loose ends. It liked to play with them.
That’s when the second thing happened. A friend of mine, and the co-author of this article, Kevin Spencer, started posting non-sensical things on Facebook. Things like “The owls are not what they seem.” So, I asked him about it and he introduced me to a show that was on when I was a kid that I was probably too young to watch (or at least appreciate). It was called Twin Peaks, directed by David Lynch (who I later found out was popular for his absurdist cinema, something I’ll refer to later). So, I watched this crazy series. It started out with me wondering who killed Laura Palmer, but ended with me wondering what my own name was. And, oddly, I loved every moment of it. It was crack for that part of my brain that actually enjoyed being confused. Saying that the show had loose ends just doesn’t quite do it justice. Its ends are completely unwound. Here’s a look at what I mean.
If you haven’t watched the show, this scene will be just as confusing as if you had.
I found it odd that my brain enjoyed this. Ambiguity and uncertainty in our lives scares us (me more than others).
A Little Word Association
Some interesting associated terms:
Some antonyms of these words:
Looking at these lists of words, the first list conjures up feelings of security and well-being, while the second list conjures up feelings of doubt and discomfort. In fact, the medical associations of these lists of words often apply to wellness and sickness. No wonder we all naturally crave certainty, security, clarity, and clear definition.
We are also endowed with a natural curiosity about life, the universe, and everything. But if there is far more uncertain in the universe then what is certain, then our appetites for security and truth find themselves at odds with one another. While it is in our better nature to strive for truth, it is in our baser nature to settle for less than truth. After all, truth, in some cases, seems to be (or is, in fact) utterly elusive, and that is not a comfortable position to be left in when seeking knowledge and understanding.
Ambiguity creates an itch that no amount of scratching can relieve. Paradox creates a similar kind of itch. The contemplation of things that are infinite also creates a similar kind of itch. In all cases, the mind is presented with problems that cannot be solved. The information cannot be simply assimilated. Instead, the process of association begins to expand from very few to very many associations. In the struggle to assimilate the information, we employ the imagination to identify new patterns, in an attempt to fit the information into one or more of them.
In other words, the by-product of this effort is new associations, and the recognition of patterns that were not seen previously. The effort itself is fruitless in terms of resolving the problem that provoked the effort. However, it is very fruitful in terms of the development of imagination, recognition of patterns, and the ability to make associations that we were previously unaware of. Our ability to think, to reason, and to imagine is enhanced considerably by the experience.
Absurdist Fiction: Loose Ends on Steroids!
Wikipedia has this to say about absurdist fiction:
Absurdist fiction is a genre of literature, most often employed in novels, plays or poems, that focuses on the experiences of characters in a situation where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events.
To me, this is an extreme version of loose ends. We know that fiction, and fantasy in particular, stretches and expands our minds. However, it can do more than that. The simple act of dealing with loose ends can exercise our minds in ways that will actually assist our cognitive processes and subsequently our creativity.
A Little Science
Take a look at this study, for instance. One group of participants were given an absurdist (non-sensical) work by Kafka, and another group was given a version of the same work that was manipulated to make sense. Each group was then given an exercise where they had to determine hidden patterns in artificial grammars.
Here’s the study’s findings:
“People who read the nonsensical story checked off more letter strings –– clearly they were motivated to find structure,” said Proulx. “But what’s more important is that they were actually more accurate than those who read the more normal version of the story. They really did learn the pattern better than the other participants did.”
What the Science Means
Stories can change and mold us in ways we aren’t always consciously aware of. This study points to the possibility that a story with loose ends can strengthen our motivation to find structure and patterns in things around us. It can even make us better at it. This, in turn, may lead to new insights that we would never have developed otherwise.
Let’s Hear From You
Both my co-author, Kevin Spencer, and myself are software developers. Patterns and pattern recognition are major aspects of our jobs. Kevin also does a great deal of work on his own with Fractals.
So, the idea that our brains delight in patterns makes sense for us. How about you?
Do you mind loose ends in your stories? If so, to what degree?
Do you think reading such stories could make you more creative?
About Co-Author Kevin Spencer (in his own words):
I was born, like everybody else. I am currently living in the present, like everybody else. The details are really unimportant to anyone except myself, and my immediate family. Anyone else is just curious (about the wrong sort of things), and I don’t want to encourage others to be curious about the wrong sort of things. Life is too short.