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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

5 Things LOST can teach us about storytelling

Because I am not going to post about "Super Tuesday" I've decided to celebrate the return of my favorite TV series. Lost has, IMO, managed to do just about everything right so far, and the premiere last Thursday seems to indicate that this won't change. As a fan since the pilot episode, I thought I'd delve into the series so far and highlight some of the storytelling elements within that are worth emulating:

  1. Sell the little things and your audience will buy the big things: One of the things Lost does well is pay attention to detail. Even things that, at first, would seem like continuity errors are explained later on: The food supply in the hatch is a good example, it was clearly not enough food to last for years, but then later on, there was a food drop. The anachronistic washer/dryer set was actually a clue that there had been contact with the hatch later than the 1980s. The plane found in the first season with the faux priests actually formed part of the backstory of one of the major tail-section passengers. This attention to detail actually adds verisimilitude to the batshit crazy stuff that's yet to be explained. (Smoke Monster anyone?)

  2. Suspense comes from foreknowledge: One of the major arcs of the last half of last season was about Desmond seeing visions of Charlie's death, something that was arguably foreshadowed in the first season. When Charlie goes down into the Looking Glass station, not only are we expecting him to die, he's expecting to die. Even though both us and the characters saw this coming miles away, it still makes for a powerful scene: even in retrospect, seeing the character's this season react to his sacrifice.

  3. Complicated stories require predictable structures: Lost is a rat's nest of conspiracy, conflicting motivations, shifting relationships, and backstory, backstory, backstory. . . One of the only ways it keeps the whole from becoming completely unintelligible is by adhering to a very rigid structure. Not just the alternation of flashbacks and island time, but in the narrative uses of each. Up to now, with only two exceptions I can think of, the flashbacks were character studies, more or less narratively self-contained, and could cover an arbitrary amount of time. The island segments are explicitly linear, and are home to the major multi-episode narrative arcs of the Lost storyline. That's oversimplified (especially now we've seemed to have crossed a temporal Rubicon and are into flashforwards now) but the point is, after two or three episodes, the structure is apparent and provides a framework to keep the audience form becoming disoriented in the complex multi-character multi-era story.

  4. The argument's more interesting when both sides are equally "right." John and Jack have been at odds throughout the whole series, and it stands only to get worse as things progress. What makes the conflict interesting is that neither man is completely in the right. While it's clear John Locke has some connection to the Island and may, in fact, be closer to the "truth" than Jack Shepherd, he is clearly not infallible and, in his way, is as arrogant as Jack is. Jack is clearly trying to do right, and is doing the logical and sensible thing, but some things he just don't get.

  5. Plant your seeds early: One of the things that gives a narrative a sense of unity is how strongly later elements tie to earlier ones. in other words, what's happening now in a story isn't just a result of the last scene, but also develops out of events in the first few chapters/episodes, or helps to explain them. The last season actually involved fewer new mysteries, and spent much of its time explaining the older ones: Why Claire was kidnapped? WTF Polar Bears? What happened to the Dharma Initiative? Why's Ben such an asshole? I suspect, as we progress, the ratio of questions raised to questions answered should continue to reverse itself, and I suspect the nature of the Smoke Monster (the first big question) will be the last one answered.


Sprocketeer said...

"The anachronistic washer/dryer set was actually a clue that there had been contact contact later than the 1980s."

I marveled at that one, too. I didn't know what it meant at the time, but I knew the modern washer/dryer set couldn't be a mistake.

BTW, one of my favorite anachronisms is when a telephone with modular connectors on the cords appears in a story set prior to (approximately) the late 1970's, when modular connectors first became widespread on telephones.

"I suspect the nature of the Smoke Monster (the first big question) will be the last one answered."

Mr. Ecko, and one or two others, saw a 'smoke monster,' but I think the 'Security System' (as Danielle, the 'Crazy French Chick' referred to it) has more than one form. You may recall, for example, an occasion when Locke was almost pulled down into a pit by the monster, and the sound effects of the monster where decidedly clanky and mechanical. Maybe it is second cousin to the Id monster from Forbidden Planet?

Fathernye said...

Good God,

There isn't an answer to the smoke monster mystery yet? This is going to drive me nuts. I got the first season disk from Hollywood video yesterday out of curiosity and was hooked but given the number of seasons, I thought that the monster might have been revealed by now. In a way, this is a good thing because it means I haven't missed all of the good storytelling yet.

Thanks for the kind words Steve and I hope I've gotten all the bad stuff for this year out of the way too.

Kyle Jelle said...

Hmm, I wonder... could the smoke monster actually be a manifestation of Jacob?