Driveshaft, major-minor, and welcome to the jungle – what Lost’s pilot teaches us about storytelling, part 4

We continue now our series on Lost’s pilot. The previous parts are here, here, and here. The timestamps for scenes are again [XX:XX].

[26:09] We pick up from where we left off, with Jack putting together a crew to go investigate into the jungle, and he delegates to Pen Guy, Boone, to keep an eye on the wounded. Now in most storytelling structures, the first character the main character would defer to is immediately considered the chief secondary character, the Robin to a Batman, the Tonto to a Lone Ranger, that sort of thing. Lost subverts this by using a different character system: major and minor.

The “major” and “minor” refer to story-attention. The major characters receive more screen time more often than the minor ones do, but the minor ones do sometimes receive more attention either for reasons of character development or plot necessity. Lost accomplishes this through character-specific flashbacks.

If there’s an advantage to major-minor ensemble storytelling, it’s letting a number of characters share a large-scale story without ever giving the reader that some characters are more important (not in terms of plot, but overall) than others, just that at one particular moment (or episode), the story isn’t about them. They’re still there, they’re still around, but they’re not being focused on. The largest issue with this storytelling system is that you need to be very organized and there’s a temptation to let this be a permission slip for making more characters into a bigger ensemble and letting the story run away with itself. It’s a balancing act.

[29:06] It’s raining. And the monster show us, so I guess that means characters are going to be looking off-screen dramatically.

[29:38] Our trio of jungle searchers (Jack, Kate, and the guy from Lord of the Rings who was in a band called Driveshaft, which is the most Long Island hair metal band name I’ve heard all week) has found the front of the plane. In terms of character accomplishments, this is a big one for our story, it’s the first significant character-decided goal was planned and then accomplished. Throughout a story’s progression, it’s critical that more and more of the story’s larger beats (larger because they’re a bigger deal, or they’ve got more action or they’ve got higher stakes, there’s just more to them) become character-led rather than plot-led.

Yes, in a detective story, the client walks into the detective’s office, and the story starts from a reactive position, but after that meeting, the trouble the detective invariably gets into has to be generated by the detective’s decisions. Those decisions always bear consequences and help pull our characters deeper into the dangers of the story (often referred to as “the jungle” of story).

This is what Lost does really well. The characters decide to do something, and the efforts to do it feel human (because they’re acting in ways humans would, they don’t go off and do superhuman things with little to no grounding information), so whatever happens to them – ranging from injury to death to weird flashback – pulls them and us closer together, and gives their stories more opportunities for consequences.

[33:12] Yes, the pilot from Lost is Snap Wexley. Apparently he took a day off from the Resistance to crash this plane.

[33:22] With the discovery of the pilot alive and apparently uninjured, Jack gets to be a doctor (again), and all seems well in this action beat … until the pilot points out some plot-stuff, helping to establish the missing chronology and some missing geography. The reveal that the search party is looking in the wrong place is a big story deal, and because Lost wants to make sure the characters don’t get too comfortable in their discouragement, the monster comes back, although no one really looks dramatically off-screen.

[35:37] Thanks to a shadow against a cloudy window, the monster gets a nice tease, ramping up the tension in the moment, and then say goodbye to the pilot because he’s a monster snack. Guess he had to report back to General Leia. The pilot was a utility character – helping our main character fill in some story gaps and then once that was over, they were freed up to get out of the scene, never to return again. Usually this means the character walks away or the main characters don’t revisit them. It doesn’t always mean someone gets their face eaten off.

[38:39] The monster tension continues, as the trio of junglers is split up thanks to rain and monster sounds though Kate and Charlie from Lord of the Rings get back together sans Jack. Now since we can’t kill off our main character early in the story’s offerings (No Sean Bean was harmed in the making of this story), we know he’ll come back, and he does, once the danger of the scene reduces.

Hey look, we made it to Part 2 of the pilot! Let’s see if I can cover the back half without needing 3 more blog posts!

[01:02] There’s a character development moment (since they often follow action beats), with a lingering shot of Charlie from Lord of the Driveshaft as Kate declares him not a coward for puking up his guts in the bathroom of the front half of the plane. His reaction from that discussion reveals his response to it – had he smiled, he’d have progressed on the “not a coward” arc, and likely done something heroic during the course of this episode. Now maybe he still will, but because the shot lingers, and because his face doesn’t register “Aww thanks Kate, that’s really great to hear” or something similar, we know that his internal state (cowardice) hasn’t really been changed, or that he’s hiding something related to that cowardice.

[01:13] Hey look it’s a character flashback, all about Charlie. This one comes a little close to home to me, as I’ve been stuck in similar circumstances before (the comedown, not the plane crash on a strange Hawaii with monsters and Maggie Grace scream-crying), but it really highlights and fills in some story gaps, as Charlies flashback intersects the prior Jack flashback and we get a greater sense of continuity as the turbulence starts to hit, just as Charlie gets re-loaded in the bathroom (we’ve all been there, right?). The resulting chaos parts Charlie from his drugs, and that makes for an interesting character arc.

[04:10]  Oh good, Maggie Grace is back and she’s still holding up her character ideal of waiting for rescue while providing the audience some visual appeal (such as it is). While she hasn’t really had an arc over the last episode and 4 minutes, she’s been a stable character – always the spoiled one, always the one not really involved or invested in others. I suppose this is why she needed Liam Neeson to rescue her once she’s taken.  She actually gets a smidge of humanity here having a chat with pregnant lady. Just for a second.

[05:56] We check in with the Koreans and see them still isolating, then the guy from Oz shows up looking for his son. Again we get a use of major-minor here, because these normally secondary characters who in any other story would all serve our main characters (Jack, Kate, and it looks like even Charlie) get some screen time and have the character building moments that our main characters don’t seem to be having.

[06:36] Jump to his son, looking for his dog. See how this shot is framed – we’re regularly brought in close to the kid, and we’re regularly keeping him to the center of the picture, building tension. What that looks like on the page is likely shorter sentences, keeping the scene moving and the unknown of where the dog is central to them in paragraph form. This is all about the kid looking around, finding handcuffs instead of the dog, and then having his father from Oz find him and develop their relationship some more.

[08:08] I seem to recall the early rules of Fight Club including one where you try not to do it in public with a whole group of your fellow survivors cheering you on, but maybe I’m wrong. What we’ve got here is our fire-building friend and our stubbly smoker friend squaring off in part because our fire-building friend is a little more brown than the stubbly guy cares for, and because this show isn’t too far removed from 9/11, a bit of that “brown people are terrorists” has come into contact with our story, so this gives us a great moment to end the post for the day. Let’s talk about bringing in a real-life mood or cultural event into your story.

No, I’m not going to make a broad brushstroke to say it’s always bad to do, or you shouldn’t do it, because it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. You can do it, and as it’s done here, it should be done for character-centric reasons. It’s always worth asking “What does ____ reveal about this character?” because it’s out of those revelations that you give yourself the opportunities to craft how the character(s) are going to interact with plot.

Here we have an Iraqi and an American squaring off, fists flying, and we get a sense of who they are not because of how they’re fighting (this isn’t Shaolin vs Wu-Tang), but why the fight is happening – this guy’s different, so that must be the cause of our trouble. This also serves another function: our story doesn’t have an antagonistic force outside of the monster.

An antagonist isn’t always the scheming megalomaniacal arch-villain, it’s just another character with a different perspective on what’s happening and what could happen who the other characters can interact with and bounce off of, giving all involved momentum or action or consequences as necessary. Stubbly guy, who we saw earlier during the night montage, squares off with Jack to help affirm to the audience that these two characters will be on different ideological sides.

Yes, the majority of stories benefit from having an external antagonist. That’s some force or thing or person outside the protagonist, where an internal antagonist would be the protagonist’s fears or beliefs that they struggle with in a different way than if the antagonist is a stubbly guy with a southern accent and smoky eyes you can lose yourself in.

We’ll pick up (and oh heavens, maybe finish) the Lost breakdown next week.

Posted by johnadamus

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