Backgammon, clean dirt, and polar bears – What Lost’s pilot teaches us about storytelling, part 5

We conclude our look at Lost today. To catch up, here are parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. And as has been the case so far the timestamps are [XX:XX].

[09:26] When we last left our intrepid group of survivors the show’s antagonistic force was trying to beat the hell out of the survivor-who-looked-different-from-him, because differences must make for problems, and our primary trio of Jack, Kate, and the guy from Lord of the Rings have returned to beach Fight Club to break it up.

This seems like a fine time for me to point out something else about ensemble casts – just because we’ve got these three people as primary trio now doesn’t mean they’ll always be the primary trio. The “primary” refers to the group’s interaction with the main (or “primary plot”, hence the name), and that group can change members or size as needed. It’s helpful to keep one character constant so the reader or audience will always have at least 1 personal connection to the character(s), but there are of course narrative reasons why you’ve got to totally change the group around (like when Thanos puts on the Infinity Gauntlet and kills everyone – oh god I think that will break me into a million pieces).

[10:04] With Sayid now working on the radio, we can start to pair and partner off the large ensemble to make more reasonable character introduction and development happen. Here the guy who was previously on pregnant lady detail sits with Sayid as he Macgyver’s the dead radio with a good battery back to life. The two talk at first about Stubble the Antagonist (I don’t think he’s been named yet) and then about each other. Hurley gets named, and given the nature of his conversation with Sayid, we see that one of the pillars Hurley will be built on is compassion – he’s a nice guy, who says some funny stuff, who isn’t the rugged muscle type. All these details help create a context for him, as well as starting points for arcs so that Hurley can grow and evolve as a character over the course of the story.

[11:32] Over the course of these two episodes that serve as a pilot, there haven’t been many things that reduce tension. Everything’s always in motion, and here everything is heavy with urgency or danger. So a moment like this, where Kate is washing off in the tide, it’s not only a moment to relax (and do that audience thing of stepping back from story because there’s a pretty person scantily clad), but it’s also a moment to spotlight a character without the character calling attention to themselves spotlighting.

She’s not running off to Jack and the whole group to say, “Okay I’m going to narrate this massive flashback about myself so that we can figure out who I am, and I’m going to do it here in the back half of the pilot because I’m sure the writer is worried that some knob is going to give feedback that characters are introduced but not immediately developed, so shut up everyone and let me hog all the screen and share this story.”

No, she’s just washing off, and gets interrupted by the Korean wife and then we go back to shots of her in her underwear. There’s an awkward wipe to her clean and fully dressed because then we’re back on the plot – Sayid’s got the radio working.

[12:58] The discussion of the radio needing a higher location to get a better signal gives the story a much needed opportunity to associate world-building with the needs of plot. Yes, you can argue that it’s convenient there’s a mountain that might be high enough to do what the plot requires, but it’s not like we haven’t seen the mountain when there were long shots of people walking or running around. The mountain is known to us, and it didn’t just appear like “Hey look, over there on the right where no one ever looked before, a mountain that no one noticed until we needed one.”

Worldbuilding should support the plot without convenience. Convenience eliminates challenge and reduces tension, it makes it harder to show the character overcoming a lack or a wish for something when it’s just there in front of them.

[13:20] Jack is over with the wounded guy, and things don’t look good. There’s a giant chunk of plane in his gut, and he’s got maybe a day left to live, barring infection or something else. This is the also the moment where our two plot threads collide – Kate wants to go get up that mountain, Jack has to deal with this wounded guy and the other people, the tension of their decisions is what makes the plot threads interesting and worth following.

[15:31] The Korean wife who has endured a heap of Korean abuses unbuttons her blouse’s top button here, a signifier that she’s had enough of her husband’s shit. This is a character development moment for a character we don’t know anything about, aside from the fact that she’s married to this jerk and doesn’t speak a lot of English. This signifier proves that not all character development needs to be spoken in order to be conveyed to the reader or audience. Actions and reactions partner with emotions and context to convey what they need to. Sometimes it’s better when the characters don’t speak.

[18:07] Maggie Grace has a brief moment of character development when she’s sitting staring at a corpse and she thinks she was mean to the guy when he was alive. It’s a lighter moment compared to some of the other stuff that’s going on, but it’s a good moment – you want to try and give your shallow characters shallower strides in development early on, because it will seem completely jarring and incongruous for them to do something superheroic when up until that point they’ve been anything but. She cries, fights with Boone, and then inserts herself into the plot. This is called a “reactionary development” and it’s usual done to lighten the mood of a scene because the character’s inclusion is somewhat of a permission slip for comedy or levity or coasting on the tension.

[20:20] Time to humanize our antagonistic force. He’s reading a letter and doing some very fine facial acting, and we watch the radio plot thread walk past him in the background. By showing a sense of physical proximity, we’re helping to define the area and world of our story, as well as all the locations of all the people in it. This is another level of context to help the reader or audience relate to what’s going on and how people might be feeling.

And hey look …

[20:36] He gets to make a reactionary development and he’s in the plot too.

[21:20] I’m highlight this “climb up the mountain” scene because people wearing fairly regular planeware have really made some progress hustling upward. I didn’t think you could wear jean shorts and tennis shoes and end up so clean.

[21:30] Small thing that bothers me, Driveshaft guy looks back at the end of the shot, like he’s looking downward and the camera hard cuts to the guy from Oz on the beach, and it makes it look like Charlie of the Rings is looking down at him. It’s the smallest bother I know, but I’m highlighting it because it’s a chance for me to tell you to think about how you move your camera from sentence to sentence and how you organize the ideas you want to present the reader. Always be willing to question why you spend that sentence talking about the lamp on the desk if that next sentence cuts away to the teapot on the stove. Think about what sort of picture and what kind of editing that conveys to the reader or audience.

[24:14] So there’s this scene where backgammon is explained, and there’s a long shot when the two sides – light and dark – are explained and this is probably my most predominant complaint about Lost as a series: it can get really on the nose about saying it has symbolism in it. Light and dark have long been the shorthand for opposing sides like good and evil and to visually reference them here as pieces held in each hand and narrated over by a character named after a philosopher known for the tabula rasa approach , this is one of those story elements that screams “Here’s some symbolism!” with all the subtlety of blinking neon signs on fire.

Of course this is the same show that will have a character named “Christian Shepherd” on it, so I’m thinking they’re very unafraid of lighting a lot of neon signs on fire.

[26:52] Oh flapjacks. The polar bear. Okay, I really wasn’t sure how to cover this part, because it’s frankly marzipan bananapants strange, but there are two storycraft ideas here that we need to discuss.

First, be careful deploying your big shock “pay attention to the story” moments. Yes, you can put polar bears on this island to indicate its weirdness, but ultimately it’s such a weird detail that it demands explanation. And I dug deep into the Lost wiki and other sites, and the explanation is so insignificant and comes so late that there’s no way it can be satisfying. Adding something in like a polar bear is an interesting idea, but it’s too loud a telegraph for a thing we’ve already had introduced and explained – that there’s a lot going on here, and we need to pay attention. Weren’t we already doing that?

Second, in an action beat, find the takeaway. A takeaway is the thing the audience comes out of the beat knowing, feeling, or realizing. In this case, the bear is the least of the problems, because the takeaway is that Sawyer, our stubbly antagonist, has a gun and it has some bullets. That’s a much more significant and potentially dangerous element than a bear attack, because this is a story about people, less so one about bears.

When I watched this show with my dad, the lack of polar bear explanation within the first 3 episodes severely jeopardized my dad’s sticking with the show. He, like a lot of audiences and readers want anything introduced to be developed, not immediately, but at least sometime in the immediate relative future. To this day, when you ask him what he remembers about watching the show, he’ll say, “It got really soap opera, and it had the damned polar bear. I just lost interest.”

[27:38]  We’re back at beachside ER, where Jack has to deal with plane shrapnel guy. We get a lighter moment here with the cliche “I’m not so good with blood” and some fainting. Ha ha and hee hee.

[29:40] And our radio plot thread crew finally addresses the giant elephant in the room, which in this case is I guess, the gun in the jungle. Sawyer reveals he took the gun off a body, and there’s some discussion about how the only guy who would know about a gun on a plane would be the guy in the custody of a marshal, which is a nice piece of what’s called “turnaround” from Sayid (the guy previously on the receiving end of assumptions now being the one making them). Turnaround is role reversal for the purposes of character development. If this were plot development, it would be mirroring. Or if you’re George Lucas, you’d call it rhyming, just to be annoying in interviews.

[31:40] After Sawyer antagonizes we cut to a Kate flashback, where the big reveal is that SHE’S the prisoner and the shrapnel guy is the marshal. Think about how much this pair of facts reveals and helps contextualize. Everything Kate’s done, everything she has or hasn’t expressed, every interaction she’s had has been built around her knowing this and the audience not knowing. This also explains the earlier found handcuffs, and the gun. To ice this cake, we can put into context her earlier comment about the guy “sitting next to her” as being more than just strangers, and now she’s got a vested interest in shrapnel guy NOT living.

This is what good storytelling does – it lays out ideas that can be interpreted one way until one piece of information comes along and changes how the audience relates to that information, without changing the information itself.

[34:37] Back to our beach ER, Jack’s been doctoring the guy and the marshal is awake, long enough to ask about Kate, without saying immediately who Kate is (because that helps keep the impact of the last reveal away from Jack, so we get an additional opportunity with it when Jack finds out this info).

[35:33] Our radio plot thread gets some French resolution as Maggie Grace (who still looks pretty clean and not sweaty) speaks French (okay that’s convenient, but she needed something to do here) while the batteries die (because we need to ratchet up tension in this plot thread), and we find out that the mysterious message is on a loop for 16 years and 5 months. We get some nice tension with an “It killed them” so now we’re incentivized to tune back in and see what’s coming next.

All told, this 2-parter is a tight ensemble story. For me, it’s one of the best pilots I’ve seen, and certainly has one of the greatest hooks to a show that kept me watching then, and will likely keep me watching it again on Hulu.

I hope this series gave you some things to think about and look at or for in your own storytelling, and I hope you’ll come back next week when we’ll talk more about storycraft, writing habits, publishing, and whatever else.


See you then. Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus

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