I was late to the LOST party. I recognized sometime after the series premiered six years ago that it was a show I should’ve been watching, because I love twisty, unorthodox stories (Twin Peaks, anyone?), but I felt it was too late to catch up. At some point a few years back, I purchased the first three seasons of LOST on DVD, but I didn’t start watching them until last October. My family and I tore through them, ordered seasons four and five, consumed those as well, then counted down the days until the final season would begin. I know you’re not rock-dwellers, so I’ll assume you know the series finale played out this past Sunday.
And now it’s over. I’m already going into withdrawal. Twitching. Shivering. But there are no more fixes to be had. This post is my attempt to use my LOSTaholism for the good, by examining what I think made this show phenomenal.
Right move #1: developing a primal story
From the first episode, I was hooked, literally on the edge of my seat. Plane crash. Life and death. Extreme chaos. Authentic depictions. Vivid, memorable moments. I watched the two-hour premier and then another episode back-to-back, and easily could’ve kept going that night.
Remember Blake Snyder? I sure hope so. To pull from Snyder’s Save the Cat,
…primal urges get our attention. Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, fear of death grab us.
LOST nailed it, then maintained that primal urgency and increased the stakes throughout the series.
Right move #2: forging a unique path
LOST kept me hooked in part because the writers always left me guessing. They didn’t choose the predictable route or follow a paint-by-numbers story template. In fact, LOST generally felt Twilight-Zone bizarre. Risky? Yep. That’s what made it so enslaving.
Said Carlton Cuse, one of LOST’s two executive producers, in a recent interview:
“What I think was really rewarding about the making of LOST was that it wasn’t the tenth iteration of a LOST show or a medical show or a cop show; it was something different.”
I love that he notes how rewarding it was for them as writers to take risks. How could you feel anything but excited and energized by all of the possibilities open to you when you remove rules from the equation. LOST was maximally unboxed.
Right move #3: creating characters with intricate gray-puzzle pieces
I could write a month of posts about the characters that populated LOST, but I’ll content myself with mentioning just one: Benjamin Linus, played by the extraordinary Michael Emerson.
Ben was the leader of a group bent on antagonizing our favorite island characters. He kidnapped people. Killed them. He lied and manipulated without conscience. This guy was so horrid that he watched his daughter gunned down before him, refusing to help her, seconds after saying he didn’t care about her.
Yet there was something about Ben—something compelling, something that made it difficult to hate him completely. And as the view of Ben’s rotted and wounded soul sharpened, the LOST audience collectively embraced the outwardly irredeemable character. Maybe it’s because we as humans need to understand one another to survive. Maybe it’s because the writing and acting was just that good. Said Emerson:
“What’s fun to play with Benjamin Linus is the uncertain middle. If he were anything simple the audience would have tired of him.”
Thankfully, the writers weren’t interested in stereotypes; they meant to exhume the roots of their characters’ souls.
Right move #4: knowing when to be a pantser…
The character of Benjamin Linus was only supposed to be around for three episodes, but Michael Emerson’s portrayal of him made the writers consider other possibilities.
Said Damon Lindelof, LOST’s other executive producer,
“What’s so exciting about working on this show is, as a writer you have this idea in your head about what something is going to be and then you go out there and you do it, and you write it… and when it comes back (from tapings in Hawaii) it’s this entirely different thing. And then you look at that different thing and you can say, ‘No, I wanted you to be this,’ or you can say, ‘Hey, that’s kind of cool, too. Let’s roll with that.’
It sounds so corny and disingenuous to say but it’s really true: The show has really been telling us what it wants to be for quite some time now, and we feel like we’ve been listening to it.”
I don’t think it sounds corny or disingenuous at all. This pantser gets it, and I’ll bet you do too.
Right move #5: …while staying true to the vision
They had a plan, a destination. They may not always have stuck to the plan, but the destination remained the same. Said Lindelof:
“If time travel existed and you took the finale that we wrote and you traveled back in time three years and you handed it to us and said, ‘Read this. This is the way the show’s going to end,’ the Carlton and Damon from three years ago would’ve said, ‘Oh, this is pretty close to what we’re talking about right now, but when did you guys come up with this idea?’”
“We were enriched along the way by what we learned as we delved into these characters. As we got deeper into the characters and as we got deeper into the story, it told us a lot about what made the show more complex, and that’s kind of what’s revealed in the finale. So I think we would look at it and go, ‘The superstructure is the same, but oh my gosh, I’m getting such a rich character experience,’ and that was only possible by doing the hard work of making the hundred and twenty episodes that led up to it.”
Right move #6: writing smart
The plot of LOST was anything but simplistic. It was often a bewildering, cross-genre spectacle. But there was something about the way the writers attended to the small details, the brilliant character arcs, the twists that often settled into luxurious sense, that made me trust the writers. I might not have understood the world of LOST until the endgame, but I didn’t think it would turn into a disappointing muddle of unanswerables (Twin Peaks, anyone?).
And it didn’t.
Right move #7: dipping the nib in marrow
As a viewer, LOST always made me think. As a writer, LOST made me consider how I might push my storytelling envelopes. It also made me remember that the best efforts are those that take from its writers on a personal level.
“We sunk our blood, sweat and tears into it. There’s going to be a mourning period. LOST is over. I feel like we’ll have to sit shiva for it.”
Some stories are just like that. They drain you, gratify you, and necessitate a recovery period. Because you have to let a story in in order for that story to reveal its secrets, and sometimes the story steals parts of you in the process. Believe it. Wish for it. I’m convinced the best stories are those thrumming with the writer’s own marrow.
I’ll stop now, but not before sharing a Random Cool Thing. While doing the literary-blog rounds a few days ago, I stumbled upon a Twitter LOST haiku contest via GalleyCat. Of course I had to enter, as it involved two of my favorite things. And guess what? This past Friday, Carlton Cuse chose my haiku as his favorite. I asked for a smoke monster. I did not receive a smoke monster. Instead, as a prize, I was awarded two tickets to the Jimmy Kimmel ALOHA to LOST party in Hollywood, set for Sunday. I learned this while headed out the door for a writers’ panel in New Jersey, where I was presenting. Needless to say, I never made it to L.A. A LOST opportunity, perhaps, though I had a great time on the panel with delightful authors Randy Susan Meyers and Shelley Stout.
Whether or not you watched and loved LOST as I did, some stories have undoubtedly resonated with you. Why? What do you think makes them so gripping and affecting? And if you loved LOST and just want to sob along with me over its final act, feel free; I have a box of tissues around here somewhere.
Write on, all!