storyforge

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, 0 comments

Explosions, tiny vodka bottles, and sand: What Lost’s pilot shows us about structure and timing, part 1

 

(photo credit: NY Observer)

With the news that Hulu acquired Lost, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs, I thought it would be interesting to crack open one of their pilots to see what we can find about story development and craft. I chose Lost because it’s a really meaty two-parter, and it’s got more moving parts narratively. Also, it’s easier to breakdown than a cartoon, because I can’t always translate sight gags or cartoon physics into text in a better way than just showing you the clip.

Let’s start with what Lost means to me. The first season in particular holds a very strange but unique place in my mind, as it was one of 4 shows (Rubicon, Rome, and Cosmos being the others) my father and I watched together. This didn’t happen very often, as we seldom agreed on entertainment and just about any discussion of a show devolved into an argument about how I was somehow wrong or a disappointment.

For whatever reason, Lost was different. I think it was the early commercials for it, but something made us both say, “Yeah, let’s give that a try” so we scheduled ourselves a weekly appointment to be civil to each other and watch the show. I have to tell you – I liked that. My dad is a lot of things, and some of those things I don’t agree with, but I did like the fact that we had this show. And the show’s first season was good for us too. It didn’t have all the later drama or time travel or weirdness, and it told a pretty interesting story about people in a strange place all sort of bound together. It was Robinson Crusoe with just enough “Oh that’s interesting” to keep us paying attention.

Later seasons didn’t hold us though. My dad checked out I think at the end of season 2, and I stopped just before the final season, reading about the ending and feeling like bailing out early was the right move if I wanted to preserve the memory of the first season with my dad.

So what I’m asking you to do is put aside all the stuff we know about the later seasons. Let’s just look at this like we’ve put the television on for the premiere, and we’re gonna cover both parts here. If you want to watch along with this post (which you totally should), I’ve timestamped paragraphs as we go.

NOTE: Given the sheer amount of narrative stuff there is to talk about here, I’m stopping this post at about the [05:00] mark of the show. And then we’ll do the next few blogposts to cover the rest of the two-part pilot.

[00:03] Yeah, I’m starting with the title. The title of any story is either going to convey information (Old Man and the Sea is about an old guy and the water), context (Star Wars is about a war among stars), or as in this case theme. Lost is about people who are, well, lost.

[00:15] Eye opening. Like we literally open the show on an eye opening. I’ve talked before about how the first character introduced in a story is who the audience is going to associate with and attach to until given someone else, and the intimacy here (I mean we’re all up in this dude’s face) gives us very little doubt as to who this character is to us – he’s our protagonist. With television being a visual medium, we don’t need to write paragraphs describing the state of him in any way greater than just what the camera means to show us – the eye – and if you want to keep up the idea that “the sentences and paragraphs are your camera“, then you’d probably want to avoid eating up that first page by talking about the weather or the trees if you want to prioritize the connection the audience has to our protagonist. We’re zoomed in, we connect, and we follow along.

[00:20] A quick word here that the second shot we see we an establishing shot of the bamboo and flora of wherever we are. It’s shot from the eye’s perspective – we’re seeing what the eye sees, we’re the eye – so we’re reinforcing that relationship between the character and the audience. This is deliberate, and it’s going to reinforce the emotional, the what-are-we-supposed-to-feelness of the moment. In paragraph form, here’s where you get to go all hogwild about what’s around the character. Do up the weather, and the immediate visuals, all that. BUT no, you don’t get to move the focus away from answering the question: “If (the reader) was laying there in place of the character and didn’t move their head, what would they see or experience?” Not moving the head is the biggie here in what would be the writing of this. If we want to preserve the closeness of audience to character, we can’t move until the character does, and the camera’s only going to follow the character’s lead, not the other way around. That’s an important lesson, so let’s repeat it – you’re developing what the camera sees, so it’s important to figure out if the camera follows the character’s lead or if the character follows the camera.

Let’s go sidebar on this:

You’ll want some examples. The camera follows the character’s lead when a sentence contains an idea of what the character is doing, and then the next sentence continues to develop what the character is doing. Like this: Darryl walked across the cold floor. He tried not to step on any of the toys his daughter left out last night. (We get the picture of where and how Darryl is walking)

The character follows the camera when a subsequent sentence creates an opportunity rather than describe what the character is doing. Like this: Darryl was very proud of his acrobatics and was ready to silently cheer his good fortune with a fresh cup of whatever garbage coffee his girlfriend left in the apartment. The ringing phone stopped the celebration. (Here we develop Darryl’s feelings and even given him a little personal history, only to cut away from Darryl to draw focus to a ringing phone. With it ringing, it’s taking our attention and creating an opportunity for Darryl to do something – answer it.)

[01:25] Our unnamed protagonist has seen a dog and now stands up. This is important because now the camera moves back to establish context. We’re still invested in this character, so we no longer need to come back to his direct view (we’re not all up in his eye, seeing what he sees). We’re just about 90 seconds into the show, so if we’re saying X number of seconds is a paragraph, I figure we’re about 4-6 paragraphs in, and if we’re doing that publishing thing where the first page doesn’t start until the halfway point on the paper, then maybe we’ve turned the page in our paperback. This tracking isn’t as hard and fast like it is in screenwriting (1 page to 1 minute), but it’s worth having a clock in your head when you’re trying to figure out how long to spend on describing something before moving on.

[01:33] Hey look, a tiny vodka bottle.

[02:08] There’s a quick shot of a shoe hanging in a tree. This is an ‘establishing detail’ and we’re seeing it so that we know there’s a greater, stranger, somehow dangerous context to expect. Establishing details add or confirm context.

[02:26] Okay, there’s a weird camera move that I need to point out. The camera circles clockwise away from the protagonist, so that we keep the shot of the clear beach in frame. We juxtapose the empty beach with the woman screaming to set up some kind of incongruity between the two. The problem here is that our protagonist started on our right and is now on our left, turning left, so when the camera moved, he actually moved backwards and away from us – like circling a chair to try and chase the dog only to have the dog slip past you on the turn. This move doesn’t help us make all the incongruity more jarring, it just leads us to wonder “why did we stop seeing what the protagonist sees?”

[02:36] Oh, that’s why, the reveal of the plan crash and wreckage and people was supposed to be a big “Oooh” moment. Except let’s look at the distance between our MC and the scene, he takes maybe half a dozen steps and he’s clearly smaller than a plane crash, so the previous camera move tells us … did he not notice the plane crash because he didn’t turn left?

[03:23] Hey look, it’s that guy from Lord of the Rings standing way too close to a jet turbine.

[03:40] Big giant establishing shot of the plane crash. Also, I’m glad I paused it here because sweet Luther Vandross am I glad for the silence from Maggie Grace’s screaming. The importance of this shot is to highlight the physical hazards as well as the calamity of the scene. It’s dangerous, plane’s already a wreck, loads of people are hurt, and if that wing section comes off, people could be even more hurt. These are the stakes of the moment. We don’t really “know” any other characters and we don’t really have any framework for tying other ideas we have together, so we’re kept to this present moment where the plane crash is the biggest threat going.

[03:50] Now since the majority of writers tend to create stakes then want to create something smaller thereafter (to show that within this big deal there are a lot of little things going on, all cogs in some large danger machine), we cut to the guy pinned under part of the plane. He’s screaming for help, and before I get to the googling where I don’t think you’d be able to hear him over the sound of the turbine, but if we didn’t hear anything but the shrill whistle of a jet engine, the show would feel radically different, I need to point out the stacking stakes can work, and here’s an example.

Stacking stakes adds tension. There’s this plane crash and it’s a big deal but these localized elements of individual people and injuries help make the big thing feel even bigger without affecting the plane crash itself. They’re the effects of the crash but they’re the seeds of subsequent scenes and stories, causes that will later have their own effects. The plane crash is the first domino, even if it’s just a very big explodey domino.

[04:23] Ooh, a little blood.

[04:36] Our MC reveals some of his attitude and skills by dealing with the leg wound and then a pregnant girl, assigning her an aide, and getting her calmed down. If we’re on paper, I’m saying we’re at least 3 to 5 pages in, and we’re spending a lot of text showing context through sensory information – our MC looks overwhelmed, and were we there, we’d be overwhelmed, so we should convey overwhelmingness by taking about the sound and the sand and the screams and the blood and the whatever-else.

[05:06] The jet turbine explodes. Big huge moment, our protagonist tosses himself to shield the pregnant girl. This tells us a lot about his character.

So in the first 5 minutes what do we have? (not necessarily in this order)

  1. A male protagonist
    1. And we know he has
      1. Medical skills
      2. Courage
      3. Athleticism
  2. There’s a dog
  3. The guy from Lord of the Rings
  4. An Australian girl
    1. she’s pregnant
  5. Maggie Grace
    1. She’s screaming
  6. A plane crash
    1. A turbine
      1. It explodes!
  7. Lots of injured people
  8. Lots of people looking for other people
  9. A beach up against jungle
    1. Tropical
    2. Mountains in the distance

See you next week for more.

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, structure, 1 comment