Lessons from LOST

PhotobucketI 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?’”

Added Cuse:

“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.

Said Lindelof,

“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!

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About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.

Comments

  1. says

    Aaaahhh, I loved this post!

    I read somewhere that every year the producers and writers set aside a month for writing bootcamp where they just brainstormed. They decided nothing was too out there or unworkable – the point of the camp was to mine the creative juices and see what came out. And wow, did they ever do a great a job!
    .-= Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist´s last blog ..Giveaway and interview with novelist Leah Stewart =-.

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  2. says

    Therese,

    Great post, but I offer a different view on the show. I was one of those people who watched Lost from day one. I was HOOKED. Loved the characters, loved the plot, loved the writing. Then, and I’m not sure when, maybe it was around the writers strike, not sure, I started getting angry with the show (just proves how emotionally involved I was). The stories seemed to go off in all directions. Characters I loved like Michael and Walter and Rose seemed to disappear and new character that I couldn’t connect with showed up. Instead of answering a few questions (c’mon people throw me a bone!) I only had more questions, so sadly, I stopped watching two seasons ago. For me the middle didn’t just sag, it collapsed.

    Now… when I heard they were actually going to end the show and answer questions, I had to give the show another try. So I caught up with all the missing episodes and watched the finale. Sadly, while I did enjoy it somewhat, the series in no way for me lived up to the wonderful beginning it promised. I honestly don’t believe, no matter what the writers say, that they had any idea where they were going with the plot until they were given a deadline to end the show by the network. Maybe the lesson here should be stay true to your vision and give your fans an ending worthy of the beginning. I think LOST could have been one of the best TV shows of all time (even up there with shows like Mash), but for me it missed the mark.

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  3. says

    “I’m convinced the best stories are those thrumming with the writer’s own marrow.”

    Love it. Love. It.

    I didn’t watch LOST, but I knew enough about the show to want to know how it ended. I read the blow-by-blow of the finale on the ABC website, and wow. I have to admit, I didn’t realize from the summary what the island WAS (or what that second to last scene in the church was) until someone spelled it out for me. But once I really got it, I was really impressed. And satisfied. I think the writers did a good job. (But as a non-viewer, I will admit that my opinion may be significantly less informed/justified.)

    Congrats on the haiku, but aww I can’t believe you didn’t get to go! How responsible/noble of you to sacrifice it. (Would they have let you transfer your prize to someone else?)
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..Transformation (without the evil sea witch, or the awesome singing voice) =-.

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  4. says

    This is a refreshing take on the series as LOST has sustained some serious criticism and a lot of whiners out there who feel duped into loving a world and story that ultimately did nothing for them in the end. I don’t get that. LOST did its job…I mean, do you remember those initial commercials for the show? That alone was brilliant. Who was going to be the criminal? the murderer? the doctor? etc. Then that first episode was so wickedly different for television and the characters created a loyalty for viewers. I watched because I cared about what happened to the people on the island. And I really wanted to know what the smoke monster was about.
    I must admit that my attention waned at some point and I think I would be more excited or emotional about LOST if I had done what you did and watched all the episodes together. Sometimes it was grueling in between episodes to see what would happen next, but again, I think that’s successful storytelling. I still loved the show.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..Clint, from AAA, you saved my life =-.

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  5. Cassi says

    I told my dad countless times that one of the best things lost ever did was realizing when they had something good and working that into the story.

    Did you know Hurley wasn’t originally planned? But when Jorge auditioned for a different role they knew they needed that actor and wrote a role for him. Can you imagine Lost without Hurley?

    Same thing with Ben. “Oh we’ve hired an absolutely brilliant actor for a guest spot,” and rather than saying too bad they kept him on. Ben was evil, yet sympathetic and that is so rarely appealing (and very rarely so well-acted).

    They also realized that you cannot answer every question. Life doesn’t wrap up in pretty little packages (and even in fiction people are always going to ask questions you don’t anticipate). But they offered emotional satisfaction which is more powerful than answers ever could be.

    Glad you joined the lost bandwagon! Great blog!

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  6. Sharon Bially says

    My sad but true confession: I have never watched Lost. In fact, I have not watched TV in almost 15 years. Blame it on the work-motherhood-writing juggle, and the fact that in those rare moments of spare down-time, I’d rather read. That said — another sad confession — I’m starting to wonder if watching TV might actually help shape and inform writing in this modern world (as Therese’s post suggests) more than reading!

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  7. Cathy J says

    UGH! I never watched LOST but now that I have read your post, I am going to have to watch it. Thank you very much (oozing with sarcasm)! LOL

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  8. says

    Because of LOST, I avoid trying out new shows with a serial format, or I wait until the show ends and get ’em all on DVD :) I can’t take the torture anymore. I think that’s why Flash Forward failed. I watched the first few episodes and liked them, but decided to wait for the DVD. Wondered if millions had the same idea?

    In fact, I had 10 episodes of LOST on DVR before I started watching them… it was less torture and less confusing that way.

    I think writers and producers should take notice and try to create a show with an end date in mind. It helps create a tight story — yet have flexibility to adjust (as in Michael Emerson’s “Ben”).

    That’s amazing, Theresa, that you won and got the Aloha invitation. It stinks that you couldn’t go — but I hope you take comfort in knowing you did it!
    .-= Meryl K Evans´s last blog ..7 Easy to Miss and Fix Writing Mistakes =-.

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  9. says

    I have never seen one episode of LOST, but I plan on getting the DVDs and catching up. The discussions I’ve seen remind me of the ending of the Dark Tower series by Stephen King — a story that sucked me in from the beginning and kept me enthralled for over twenty years. The ending really upset a lot of people, but for me, it was PERFECT. Once I read it, I couldn’t imagine it ending any other way. Genius.

    Great post, and thanks for the food for thought. And the new (I’m sure) addiction I’m about to embrace. :/
    .-= netta´s last blog ..Bits and Pieces and This and That – Jobs, Jobs, Jobs =-.

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  10. says

    I was late to the LOST party, too–I watched the first four seasons on DVD–but I was totally hooked after watching season 1.

    What I loved about the finale: the writers left room for interpretation. I feel fairly confident that we finally got answers on some of the major questions we’ve had, especially in this last season, but there is still lots of room for debate. That’s why we’re all still thinking and talking about it. And isn’t that what we really want to happen when people finish reading our books–for them to keep thinking and talking about them even after they’ve read the last page?

    What I didn’t like about the finale: they failed to provide answers to details the writers made us pay a lot of attention to earlier in the show; for example, the significance of the numbers or why the statue had four toes. Who was it that said that if you show a gun on the page in the first chapter of your book (sorry, horrible paraphrasing), it had better go off before the book ends?

    @Cassi No, I can’t imagine LOST without Hurley!!

    And Therese, congrats on the haiku contest! What fun! Too bad you couldn’t go, but it’s still very cool and I hope the panel went well.
    .-= Tracy Hahn-Burkett´s last blog ..The Oversensitive Adoptive Mom =-.

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  11. says

    I was hoping someone would do a Lost post! I just watched the finale last night (from the ABC website), and I was quite moved by it. While it didn’t answer a lot of questions — Lost never has, all long! — it was emotionally satisfying. And that was because I felt like, somehow, everything worked out for these characters I had embraced. I have always been more interested in the characters, and their interactions and connections, than with the puzzles.

    One thing I find intriguing, though, is how INVESTED the viewers are in the show and its outcome. That’s something incredible, and worthy to strive towards.
    .-= Donna Cummings´s last blog ..To Blog or Not To Blog =-.

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  12. says

    Confession. Though I was aware of it, and read all the news about it over the years, I never saw LOST!

    Really.

    This is an awesome post and I am tempted to watch the DVDs. It doesn’t matter if I know (though don’t understand yet) some of the things that have happened.

    After all, I know all about the Civil War, but do enjoy reading new stories about it. :)
    .-= Marisa Birns´s last blog ..Tomorrow =-.

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  13. says

    What a cool prize, Terri!! Too bad you couldn’t claim it!

    I’ve been a LOST fan from the beginning and, other than exemplifying the primal needs of a character, it drew us in as we cared for each and every character on the show, their lives, dreams and how they related to each other.

    I DVR’d the finale and watched it on Monday morning and soaked FIVE tissues, bawling like a baby. It was beautiful and beautifully written.
    .-= Margaret A. Golla´s last blog ..Blog Interruption =-.

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  14. says

    Fabulous analysis. I’m jealous that you watched the seasons so close together like that. I need to do that. I did that with Battlestar Galactica and I really think it helped me love that series. (That’s another one you should watch, if you haven’t. Trust me. There are a few episodes that go off the rails, but overall — awesome storytelling and character development.)

    A few of my friends lost faith in the writers of Lost some time during Season 3 and never fully got back into it… but I never lost faith. (Like John Locke? LOL)

    I thought LOST was an amazing lesson in, like you say, having a plan, but then being willing to let it slip and slide if needed or if you see a better more interesting path that will nevertheless lead you in the right direction. Writing for a TV show must be challenging in that you never know how long you’re going to get to tell your story. But really… is that any different from a series of novels set in another world where you might be planning a 3 book arc, but the want more, or you might be planning a 6 book arc but your contract doesn’t come through for the last 2?

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  15. thea says

    i lost interest after the first season because it was a bit confusing, then began watching again for the last three seasons. so i actually have gaps in the storyline in my head. but, and i think this is an amazing part of this writing, i could pick it up after missing two seasons and still love it. i’m sure one day i will go back and rewatch it. (the joys of dvds) i also really enjoy 24 – but only watched the last two seasons. and that was okay too. great post, ter

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  16. says

    This is a fantastic post. I am a Lostie from Day 1 and am now in mourning (but, wait…the box set is coming in August!). There have been some frustrating moments during this six year odyssey (hello, could Kate have been any more annoying for the last 2 seasons?), but I have to say that I appreciate the beauty of the journey that Lindelhof and Cruse invited us to join.

    I’ve always loved stories that leave room for interpretation. I’m sure there are fans who wanted every last detail answered and they’re probably frustrated with the finale, but if the producers had nailed every tiny detail down for us, viewers wouldn’t have owned this story — and the characters — the way they did. Look at all the discussion, debate, and theorizing that has taken place over the run of the show. How much fun was that? And guess what…we get to continue our theorizing. Yay!!!!

    Life is rarely spelled out for anyone…some of life’s greatest questions may remain unanswerable and I love a TV show that respects its audience by not telling them what to think at every turn and lets them find their own interpretation within the structure of the story.

    I am working hard to learn from exemplars of fantastic storytelling to make my own writing stronger. You can bet I will always have LOST at the top of that list.

    Thanks for the post…it’s great!

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  17. says

    Great post! I was always impressed by the efficiency of the writing. They managed to convey an impossible amount of plot detail while not losing sight of the characters. And despite the complicated story, I think this was a character-driven drama at heart, which is why it connected with so many people.

    The show was also rich with metaphor and philosophy, and humor too. Copycats who focus on the intricate plot are missing the elements that made the show truly special.

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  18. says

    Oh, and just to respond to Maureen’s unanswered questions:

    1. The Numbers – these are the numbers assigned to Jacob’s candidates for his replacement that were on Oceanic 815. 4=John Locke, 8=Hugo Reyes, 15=James Ford, 16=Sayid Jarrah, 23=Jack Shepherd, 42=Sun or Jin Kwon

    2. The 4 Toed Statue – this is the statue of the Egyptian Goddess Tawaret, the goddess of birth, rebirth, and the Northern sky. I think the significance of the statue was really to identify who the statue was of — a representation of birth and re-birth that the survivors found on the island, not that the fact it only had 4 toes was significant itself.

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  19. says

    Love this post! I’ve done a similar one in my blog as well, because I think it’s really fun to dissect such a big piece of pop culture like this and learn from it. My latest post (linked below) focuses on learning from areas where Lost could have done better, but I plan to do one on things Lost did well too, because it was obviously doing something right to hook so many people like it did. I’ll have to rethink some of my examples, because they were similar to yours, especially in terms of Ben! He was a fantastic character. Love love love this show.
    .-= Kristin Laughtin´s last blog ..What Lost Can Teach Us About Story-Building (Part I) =-.

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  20. says

    Great comments everyone, thanks!

    Kristan, yeah, missing the Jimmy Kimmel show was a bummer. It wasn’t just the back-to-back trips that would’ve been a problem; I also had extreme Mommy Guilt, since I’ve watched the show with both of my kids and would’ve received only two tickets. No transfers, unfortunately.

    Cassi, I’ve heard that about Hurley. Didn’t he try out for Jack or Sawyer?

    Sharon, I feel novelists can learn from any type of good storytelling, from any medium. LOST was, for me, a prime example of this. But I applaud your no-TV attitude! I am a weaker variety of human.

    Cathy and Netta and Marisa, you’ll love it! Thea, you’ll love it the second-time around!

    Donna, you’re right about audience investment. Maybe because so many conducted their own research and created their own theories. It’s interesting to see so much passion for one story that isn’t Harry Potter.

    Here, Margaret (passing you the tissues).

    Maureen, Meryl said the same thing to me when I started to watch the series on DVD — wish I’d done that. I wonder if my family’s investment had something to do with the quick and passionate consumption of the show. I suspect so.

    Lyn, I’m fine with not having every detail slip into place, too. Leaves us with something to ponder and debate.

    I think this was a character-driven drama at heart, which is why it connected with so many people.

    The show was also rich with metaphor and philosophy, and humor too.

    Ding, ding, ding. John, I should have said something in my post about the show being character-driven. I think it had everything to do with its success. In the book world, I don’t want to read anything that isn’t character-driven. Also loved all the metaphors, the mythologies — great grease for the mind.

    Kristin, very cool on the post. I look forward to reading yours!

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  21. says

    Well, I have to say I watched the first season of Lost. Then consulted a lawyer after finding 16 exact similarities between it and the first book of my Atlantis series published in 1999. That’s when I learned you’re pretty limited on protecting intellectual property. I have no idea if the creators read my book or simply there’s only so much you can do with similar material. Not a big deal, but I did watch the conclusion the other night and walking into the light seemed a cop-out. I had parallel worlds, time travel and a real reason why my plane crashed and why the people went through what they did in the jungle. As a writer I had a protagonist and a true antagonist through my six book series along with a real climactic scene. The sense I got was Lost had a great hook (plane crash in jungle that people shouldn’t have survived and did, aka my Atlantis book) then four season of stuff, then a last season trying to answer questions.
    Feel free to check out the similarities on my web site page and the books at Who Dares Wins Publishing.

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  22. says

    You might enjoy Overthinking It for their analysis of Lost right up until the last episode. To paraphrase, they concluded that those who think at the level of symbolism and allegory could be very satisfied with the series, whereas those with a more left-brain orientation would be frustrated.
    .-= Jan O’Hara´s last blog ..Seeking Internet Sobriety =-.

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  23. Lyn says

    I don’t have a television, but just dropped by because this whole End-of-Lost business seems like a very big deal. It’s everywhere. Guess I’ll have to NetFlix it, to see what all the fuss is about. If this is the end of Lost, are they found? Sorry, I cracked myself up. If you like books, which is how I spend my time, you might want to check out this place. I’m not sure how to make a link work, how to make it turn blue. Try this:
    http://www.bobmayer.org/index.php?id=30

    Drat. It’s just black. Phooey. Good books, though. Well, I gave it a shot. Will they be making a feature movie?

    Anyway, really like your site. Nice colors. Nothing lime green or orange. Bye

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  24. says

    I loved Lost from the get go. I like to think that I understood early on where all of this might lead to because my mind thinks a lot like the writers. Many times I would be pleasantly surprised when my hunches were right and would be terribly disappointed when I wasn’t on the right track.

    As a writer, I can relate to the idea of going into the story with something and then the story evolving into something better than you thought of, but within the context that you were thinking.

    I will miss Lost. I hope a new show comes along that is as gripping. Hint-Hint Lost writers.

    Maribeth :)
    .-= Maribetth´s last blog ..Random Thoughts that Stopped by Mind Today =-.

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  25. says

    This is an excellent post. I didn’t watch Lost, but I think the value is in your observation about what makes for good storytelling. I would, however, argue that Lost flirted with bait and hook story telling for the sake of making the story longer (Dickens style). I can’t agree with that tactic at all.
    .-= S0BeUrself´s last blog ..In the Mood for Guacamole =-.

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