narrative design

Torn shirts, quiet looks, and push/pull – What Lost’s pilot teaches us about storytelling, part 2

Looking for part 1? It’s right here.

Time for more Lost. As with last time, there are [XX:XX] timestamps if you’re watching along with this breakdown. I should say this isn’t a recap just for the sake of summary, I’m looking specifically at the pilot for key moments in the story design – the moments where the audience is informed of something, the moments something is developed, the moments there’s something to pay attention to beyond just the “hey that human is attractive” or “hey that joke is funny.”

[05:45] We get a name for our protagonist, Jack. Normally a character gets named a little sooner, and its one of our first points of contact and connection with them. We learn their name, then we learn more about them. Here, that’s reversed, we’ve learned about the guy (his courage, his skills, his attitude) ahead of his name, so we keep the focus on HOW he is as a person, rather than WHO he is as a person. Also “Jack” is a really generic name, if you’re unsure of how a name can affect how we organize what we teach the reader/audience about our characters.

[06:08] I’m mentioning this beat because it will ultimately be levity, but here we see Jack in another medical situation, trying to save a woman from someone else’s poor attempts “to help.” Again, we’re at a new beat in the scene, and we’ve got one more opportunity to reveal character-nature to us without dialogue expressly saying “I’m a doctor, here’s some jargon to prove I’m a doctor.” Dialogue is always going to come up short against a character’s actions when it comes to revealing something about the character, which is why the two so often have to work in concert in order to affirm something to the audience.

[06:58] Big giant explosion! Now this is caused by a wing falling, so I’m not entirely sure what exploded, unless the wing was made out of dynamite and the beach was all nitroglycerin (it was a pretty big fireball), so I’m thinking this was a nice action-for-action’s-sake-because-television beat. It does show us more about Jack (he’s the hero) and the geography of the scene when he’s running back across the beach pre-explosion.

[07:34] So we’re in this slow-mo, and it’s also here that I’m aware of the credits in the lower third on the left. Slow motion allows us to see the scope of things, to see just how bad it is, and give us an unhurried look at what’s going on. It helps impregnate the visuals with emotion. It’s visual exposition. There’s a rule in storytelling that exposition helps train the reader to receive the story, and slow-mo here over the scene of fire and panic and people and wreckage helps give the idea of “Oh wow, this is a mess” a bit more personality and weight. I’d go one step further to say it even gives the scene more humanity, because we’re not seeing a lot of corpses or gore, we’re looking at the confused and scared survivors.

[08:06] Over this slow-mo we’ve had orchestral strings, not in-scene sound. Music will always help emphasize emotion, giving us a reminder to feel a certain thing (test this yourself – watch any jump scare in any horror movie with and without the sound on and see the differences). Here, as Jack wanders around the wrecked plane, we get this confluence of strings and the emotion of “I’ve been in a plane crash” coming together. What this teaches us is that in this story characters aren’t afraid to feel feelings, particularly the sort of feelings we often term as “bad” or “private” or that we otherwise feel the need to hide from other people for whatever reason. This not only gives us more access to the characters and makes them human (they have feelings like we have feelings), it also helps convey this show’s tone, or what part of the tone will be.

Tone is  a tricky and sometimes nebulous thing that people grapple with in writing. You do need a tone, and it does need to be consistent, no matter what genre or POV. It’s a layer of expectation setting; it’s how you want to tell your story via its emotional vocabulary. If your story is lacking a coherent presentation, you’re going to confuse the audience but they won’t be able to specify what exactly you did to make them dislike it. (Hint: It’s tone. Tone helps tie a lot together).

[08:14] Remember that joke from 2 minutes ago? The guy trying to help so Jack sends him to find pens? He’s back and the joke pays off. I’m bringing this up because this serves 2 purposes – the joke and the dramatic moment  are both resolved by the same actions. This is good – this means we have fewer working parts to resolve and it helps keep the audience/reader engaged because we’re lightening the emotional load. This is part of the push/pull I talk about – if you can end drama with a lighter note, you gain momentum. The “right” lighter note shouldn’t completely undo or wreck the drama, but it does keep us out of being constantly inundated with heavy emotions that take a lot of mental processing power. Sometimes, you gotta let the audience breathe a little. And no, this doesn’t mean the tone has changed, it’s that we’ve let a little pressure out of our Instant Pot. We’ve been pushed forward with heavy plane-crashy drama, now we’re being pulled out of it, just for a moment, so we can move forward.

[10:05] So we’re at this moment on the beach where Jack has appropriated a sewing kit and he’s going to attend to his wound. There’s a lot here I want to talk about. First, notice how he hangs up his jacket. It’s a small touch, it’s maybe a developmental after thought -he just wants to keep his jacket clean- but then take a look what he did with his bloody t-shirt. That got dumped in a pile in the sand. Now, okay, I know, he probably won’t put it back on, to keep the sand out of the wound, but (and here’s the what-if) what if he needed cloth? Some part of that shirt was cleaner than the wound site, right?

And here we get our first female character introduction, as she plays nurse/stitcher, taking Jack’s direction. The resuscitated lady was female too, but we really didn’t meet her, she was a scene-object so we could show off our character and set up a joke amid tension. Here we get a nicer moment between two people, our returning vodka bottle, and a needle and thread. See how this scene keeps us away from the up-close of the needle? That’s because the focus here isn’t on the wound, but the people. This reinforces the idea and the momentum that this is a story about people. It also tells us something about these characters – they’ll help each other, or at least these two people will.

[12:21] We’re back to our strings, and we’re given the broad montage of the sun setting and people’s initial shock wearing off. They’ve built fires, they’re gathering supplies, they’re going to do more than run around and panic. We’re shown all this stuff at a distance, to make the people feel a little small against the landscape and make their efforts (proportionally also small) feel small, but because we’re framing this story about the people being people, this montage hits the right notes for drama and because the montage is a series of shots, it gives us movement going forward.

And thanks to pneumonia, I’ve got to call part 2 here. We’ll pick up in part 3 next week.

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, part 2 of many, step by step, the craft of writing