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Nights, Stubble, and Stories – What Lost’s pilot teaches us about story, part 3

Catch up with Part 1 and 2 here.

We continue our discussion of Lost’s pilot as an example of strong storytelling with the third installment of our series. As usual I’m using [XX:XX] timestamps to mark things worth talking about.

To recap: The plane has crashed, we’ve met Jack and a woman, Jack showed himself to be a hero and our protagonist, there’s a pregnant lady, Maggie Grace screamed and cried a lot, and the plane blew up when the wing bent.

[12:21] This is where I left off in part 2, and I wanted to pick up here as the shot moves through different people. One of them, a stubbled cigarette smoker who filled the frame, we haven’t really seen before and his position in-frame tells us he’s going to be a major character. More time in a shot and bigger in the frame is the visual equivalent of many paragraphs of text. We don’t know much about this guy other than he doesn’t appear injured, he smokes, and he survived the crash.

It’s also right around here that I became aware that the plane is no longer on fire. It blew all to hell before, but now the only fires we get are the signal fires on the beach. I don’t want to suggest that jet fuel should melt the island or something, but if the plane crashed and blew up, would you really want to set up camp NEXT to it?

[12:35] We get Pen-Guy here trying his cell phone to get reception. In storytelling, this is a “sensible act”, and it’s usually what someone says they’d do “if they were stuck on an island.” Sensible acts are connective, they build a bridge between the things happening in a story and the reader’s life and choices. Ultimately, it’ll be a series of sensible acts that lay the groundwork for engagement and then the sensible acts get replaced by character acts as the reader transposes themselves into the situation because they’ve come to know the character better.

Example: We start off checking cell phones for signals, we start accumulating food and making fires. But over time, as we get to know this or that character, we start to sympathize and agree with their specific actions because we feel we know them – this is how we as an audience would for example agree that going back in time is of course the only reasonable thing to do a few seasons from now.

[12:47] It’s that guy from Lord of the Rings. No, I don’t care that in the series he’s named Charlie, he’s always gonna be the Lord of the Rings guy to me. The important note about Charlie is that he’s the next name we’ve heard, and he’s the second male character we’ve gotten a name for. Now, here’s the decision: did this happen at this moment in the story because he’s going to be pivotal to this episode and the show overall or are we treading on his Shire cred and using his “celebrity” to help connect to the audience a little faster and easier. I will give him props for the sweet hoodie though.

[12:56] I will make a case that our next named character, Sayid is maybe the coolest out of the whole series. One, it’s good to see the representation, and two, he’s clearly practical – did you see any other character working on fires? Now at the time this aired, we’re only a few years removed from 9/11 so the audience climate was still a mix of different-people-are-bad hostilities, so to name a character “Sayid” is very clearly taking a stand and setting up for some character tension.

[13:17] Jack is still getting sewn up. Here’s where I’ll question the passage of time. How long did it take to stitch? How fast does the sun set? This scene is going to tell us more about Jack and Jack’s heroism, so it’s developmentally important for Jack’s arc, but time passes in every scene, and time always moves in one direction (even true if we dick around with time via flashbacks or time travel), so the idea that the sun is setting over in one scene and cut then to a very set sun in the next scene, the time is a little fast and loose.

[15:44] Maggie Grace is doing her toenails. This is a glimpse into her character. The plane went down, people are dead or scared or injured, and she’s doing her nails, planning on the rescue. It speaks to her selfishness and her situational near-sightedness. In any ensemble cast, as much as you try to avoid it being so overt, you do try and have specific characters represent different aspects or elements so they can have particular arcs – the loner learns to work with others, the grieving spouse moves on, the selfish character makes selfless choices, etc – so however you introduce a character both in description and action is the start point for whatever their arc may be. And Maggie Grace is painting her toenails, eager to be rescued.

[17:09] Okay, let’s talk about the father son relationship, In general it’s often used in stories to illustrate a communication or a power dynamic where one of the pair is estranged from the other. If the father is estranged from the son, he overcompensates. If it’s the son, he acts out, often aggressively until something collaborative has to happen and the two reconcile through mutual action. (Because working together is a great story shorthand for “we’ve put our past and its problems behind us”.)

[17:16] Let’s look at the husband wife relationship. Similar to the father son we just saw, they’re often used in stories to illustrate a shift in dynamic. Most often it’s the wife coming into her own power and authority, standing up to a husband who’s previously been anything from domineering to abusive (the more violent you get down that scale, the more cliches you find). What I’m struck most by here is that they’re Korean. Again, representation matters, and it’s good to take the dynamic and show it as not just endemic to one race or culture.

[18:09] Before I point out that Jack has crafted a plane out of a leaf, as if a stick or his finger wasn’t a clear enough prop, we’re treated to an exposition dump about what the crash was like. But at [19:31] we get a critical piece of dialogue and world geography – she saw smoke, through the valley. So far we’ve been treated to a sort of bamboo woodsy area adjacent to the beach and the beach in terms of what we know about this area’s cartography. Were this a manuscript, we’d have been spared the numerous paragraphs about the landscape, because it’s not meant to be revealed to us in advance of when it serves a purpose for the story. There’s nothing wrong with this decision, it actually frees up a layer of convenience for the author, since the island’s makeup can be introduced when necessary rather than hardcoded and limited early in the story. We also in this scene give the woman a name, Kate. With Kate and Jack having shared this scene, we put them on equal and reciprocal footing.

[20:00] We’re just about at the halfway point of the first part of the two part pilot, so overall we’re 25% done with the pilot (sorry it’s taken so long to do, pneumonia really saps my endurance for long writing bursts), so that means we’re due for a “global threat” or some other sign of collective danger that raises the stakes beyond the “hey we survived a plane crash.” Cue the growling monster. Cue characters named and otherwise looking dramatically to the right.

[20:35] Pen Guy gets named Boone. Boone is a terrible name, if you weren’t sure.

[20:49] It’s worth pointing out that the monster sound allows for all the characters to stand up and cluster together. I wouldn’t call this a sensible action, because it’s like gathering all the Skittles before you shove them in your face. This is a dramatic action, something undertaken that’s somewhat out of character, but done to move the emotional current of the story forward. (Dramatic action is how you get damsels in distress or prompt significant changes in character arcs like where that selfish character makes some noble sacrifice to be selfless. Dramatic actions are generally limited so that they can feel appropriately sized to the scene.)

[21:17] This is the show’s first flashback, although we won’t initially know it’s a flashback until we move off the shot of the plane’s wing and see a character. Flashbacks are a tricky tool to use effectively, and I have to say they get used here pretty well (though in other spots in the series, not so much). A flashback’s best job is to fill in a gap in knowledge between two time periods: a “specific past” and an “effective present.”

The “specific past” is the time when the events of the flashback start. In this case, it’s the plane in flight pre-crash. The flashback runs its course, and doesn’t necessarily have to lead us all the way back to the present, because that’s what the story pre-flashback was doing. The “effective present” is the end point of the flashback and it’s the situation or action, and this is usually something like the character waking up from a dream or being jarred out of staring off into space.

You use a flashback when the reveal of previously unknown information better establishes or clarifies a context for what’s already known. Don’t get into the habit of using a flashback to suddenly tease what’s going to happen in the future, unless you like killing your pacing and putting a little distance between the reader and the story.

What do I mean? Let’s suppose you and I are sitting at my dining room table having dinner. When I ask you how your day was, and if I haven’t already been told or made a conclusion, the information that your day was sucktastic is new to me, and therefore my response to you is relatively uncolored by other material. It’s new information getting a new response. If you sent me a text message saying the day sucked, and I knew prior to asking you at dinner how the day was, the response I’m giving is affected by the fact that I already knew. The response is now less new and can be seen as more compassionate, since I’m listening to you vent rather than being freshly shocked about your day. Exterior knowledge, the stuff we know already going in to a flashback affects our interpretation of anything a flashback provides.

[23:55] We contrast the panic of the flashback with the calmness of the water, and before the dialogue gets underway, the most significant immediate change is that it’s morning or daylight at least. What we don’t have an answer to is “how long did the monster make noise, and how was the night spent because of it?” Not answering this question could be a developmental stumbling block, since the opportunity for character growth at night is now lost (unless we jump back with another flashback later). We’ve advanced time, so we’re either not calling attention to what happened, or we’re going to now address it in dialogue – which is the case in this scene. This tells us that it was a big deal, but not so big a deal that we needed to have it shown to us. This reduces its threat somewhat. With the threat reduced, an author would have a decision to make – do we just let it be less of a threat, or do we say it’s one of many different threats these people will face and that these different threats will be of all differing scales of importance and danger?

[25:19] Kate loots a corpse for some shoes and has an odd moment with a guy eating an orange. This sets up their dynamic as tense, though orange guy tried to get her to smile, and she stayed resolute. It reveals something about both characters.

[25:58] A big giant group talking scene. On paper, this is one of the first places I can editorially poke and prod, because so often an author will get the majority of this scene in a very static “only here for the talking” way, but it’s important to remember the world doesn’t stop turning just because characters are talking and need to be talking. There’s very little character movement here, but here is also visual, so some the details and questions I’d pose editorially (“what are people doing, how are they sitting, what do people look like”) is covered by my ability to see them.

Because the visuals have me covered, the focus of this scene becomes the dialogue and how the dialogue reveals character. Notice here that they’re not recapping the plot to each other, since they were all present for the plane crash, they know what happened. They’re reacting to the aftermath – talking about the bodies and the rescue and what to do next. Dialogue is always going to be more reactionary than summary if you want the characters to have some depth to them.

We’ve got 16 minutes left in part 1 of the pilot. Next week, I’m aiming to get at least halfway into part 2. I really appreciate you sticking along with me for this ride. I’m sorry I’m not getting healthier faster, but I’m making the best progress I can breaking this all down.


See you next week.

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, check this out, dissect writing, storycraft, what did i just watch