The Space in the Box
So, years ago, there was a study to see which kinds of toys held kids' attention the longest. It was not a complex experiment. They gave kids a bunch of different toys and timed how long they played with each of them. They were hoping to learn whether children preferred planes to cars or stuffed bunnies to stuffed bears. But the only correlation they found was that the more moving parts and noises and automation a toy had, the quicker it got boring. This was vindication for grandparents everywhere who enjoyed bragging about childhoods spent playing with corn cobs. But it was lousy news for toy companies, who were busy at the time stuffing circuit boards into everything.
To designers and artists, there's no surprise or mystery to kids preferring the cardboard box to the dancing robot dog that came in it. The robot dog is boring because it doesn't need you. It operates on its own, relegating you to observer instead of participant. And in seconds, you've seen everything it does, your questions have all been answered, and the whole experience is over.
That empty box, though, can't do a thing without you. So it demands engagement. And it does this by sitting very still and asking you questions. What do you see? What can you do? What can you make out of this? What does this remind you of? And the answers can only come from you. If the box is to move, you have to move it. If the flaps are to raise and become wings, you have to think that up and you have to act it out. The box requires your imagination. The robot dog has seven tricks and it'll do them, in order, whether you're there or not.. But the tricks of the box are yours. They're new and unpredictable and endless. And that condition of anticipation, of not knowing what's next -- in a toy or a book or a movie or a building - is the thing we show up for. A sense of wonder. It feels like magic. But there's no magic to it. 'To wonder' is simply to be in a state of not knowing.
When you're creating something, it's tough to be patient and keep your secrets when you're so excited to reveal them. But to make a great experience, you have to withhold answers and create questions. You have to place your audience or your reader or your visitor in the excitement of the unknown. Imagine how dull The Godfather would be if Michael decided in Act I that, hell yeah, he was going to take over the family business. Or if you knew, at the beginning of Citizen Kane, who Rosebud was. And wouldn't the Pantheon lose a lot of its drama if you weren't forced past the dull exterior of the drum and through the dark portico before stepping into the shaft of light streaming through that impossibly high oculus? The excitement isn't in the knowing, it's in the breathless sense of discovery. This isn't created by what's there, but what's missing. For a work to engage you, there has to be room in it for you participate, to speculate. You need to be able to step into the hole in the plot, the unexplained occurrence, the unlit entryway, the thing left unsaid, the space in the box.
A few days ago, I was a guest on The Peeky Podcast, hosted by the lovely and fascinating Ann Mahoney. Like me, she has multiple careers, including actor, writer, producer, and kids' clothing designer. Ann could extract an interesting conversation from a turtle, so we quickly fell into a great discussion about how architecture and screenwriting are the exact same job, how constraints feed creativity, and how a curious and rigorous creative process allows you to make almost anything. It was a genuine joy to do and I'm still thinking about some of what we hit upon. You can check it out, plus her other episodes at:
Or listen below, assuming I've uploaded this correctly. I'd give it a fifty/fifty chance.