Lately I’ve been trying to puzzle out why I feel a disproportionate irritation at the phrase “fan theory.” I think there are a few interrelated reasons for my dislike. First of all, from a pedantic standpoint, theory seems the wrong word to me for this particular usage. Theories are created through scientific analysis in order to provide a working explanation for something not yet fully understood. But you can’t approach a story the same way you approach natural phenomena. Stories aren’t created through some confluence of natural laws. They’re created by people. So any questions or mysteries that exist were either deliberately manufactured by the storyteller, or cropped up in the form of plot holes or inconsistencies. Deliberate mysteries have deliberate answers. Unintentional mysteries have none. Either way, the source is right there in the writer’s brain.
Now, I don’t mean to say that I disapprove of any exploration of a story beyond the author’s conscious intent. Far from it! You can interpret a story any way you please, whether the author agrees with you or not. But that’s creating interpretations, not theories. Every time someone uses the word theory, it seems to imply that they’re analyzing real events that arose from underlying causes other than “someone chose to write it that way” and it makes me twitch.
But my annoyance goes deeper than that, I believe. There are really two different kinds of analysis at play here, and the distinction between them is quite significant. The first type is most common with ongoing stories, particularly the sort wherein the storyteller likes to leave out all sorts of dangling questions to keep the audience guessing. It ensures that they’ll tune in next time, desperate for the answers that the following installment will provide. This sort of questioning takes the form of speculation, often accompanied by a fervid accumulation of spoilers. Who is So-and-So’s long lost family? What is the cryptic hero’s mysterious tragic backstory? How did this random character acquire the coveted object? And almost always, the set-up of the question is paired with the winking promise that the answers are coming, as long as you keep watching the next episode.
You might have gathered that I’m not particularly impressed with this sort of storytelling. Don’t get me wrong; I have jumped on the spoiler train many a time, caught up in the need to uncover mysteries just the same as everyone else. But I’ve learned from those experiences that the reveal of surprises, while exciting at the time, is not enough to make a story truly engaging. It’s a once-and-done thing, and the excitement fades with every subsequent re-watch. Because the answers are very simple once you learn them. There’s no more room for speculation or nuance. After a while it begins to feel like nothing more than a collection of a cheap gimmicks.
So what kind of analysis do I prefer? The questions that have no definitive answers, the mysteries that go beyond the limited scope of a story’s specific details to encompass the eternal questions of human existence. What is the nature of good and evil? What does it mean to be truly selfless? Is perfect happiness possible in an imperfect world? And so on and so on. What makes these questions so compelling is the myriad of potential interpretations, allowing you to go on thinking about them long after the initial idea was sparked. It’s not clear-cut. And it’s the sort of thinking that rewards multiple re-reads or re-views of a story rather than diminishing once the answer is revealed. The best stories, I’ve always felt, are the ones I want to keep coming back to. And if all the answers have already been given, what’s the point of coming back? As I’ve said before, I like stories that encourage me to think, not stories that tell me how to think.
I understand that my preferred method of engaging with stories is not universal…probably not even close. There’s a reason that cliff-hangers are so effective. And I’m not opposed to the occasional tantalizing question leading to a shocking twist. But a story that’s built upon nothing more than a series of ever-more complex mysteries is probably going to collapse in on itself by the end. For true substance, you need to have deeper questions that are worth considering long after the more straight-forward mysteries have all been revealed.