Monday, May 24, 2010

On the Importance of Storytelling


If you haven't yet seen the lost series finale, I suggest you put off reading the below post until you do. Anything after the break may contain significant spoilers.

Yes. lost.

Say what you will about the series finale—who died*, who lived, what was wrapped up, what was never addressed**, what questions were answered, sort of answered, left unanswered, &c—one of the major strengths behind the show is the establishment of an interesting, consistent mythology that is slowly revealed (I hesitate to say "explained") to viewers via effective storytelling.

When writing a short story, novel, screenplay, or television show, it's not enough to have interesting characters and a cool plot; you have to be able to advance the story and explore the psychologies and depths of the characters in an engaging way. Simply put: it's not enough to have a great story, but you need to tell that story well, too. The what is necessary, but the how is absolutely essential. It's character development, it's maintaining the relationship (often tension) between what the characters know versus what the reader/viewer knows (dramatic irony, anyone?), it's controlling pacing, it's telling your story in the best order, &c &c. If lost had been told from the point of view of the smoke monster (what the hell is his name, anyway?) from the very beginning, or if the show had unfolded in strict chronological order (starting with Jacob's birth and ending with the series finale), the show wouldn't have been nearly as effective as it was.

Granted, there were some pretty big questions that were left partially or wholly unresolved, and I don't necessarily recommend that M.O. when writing your novels—readers like loose ends tied up, even if it's not perfect. I also tend to think readers don't really like abstract church-afterlives vaguely reminiscent of the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, either, so I'd also avoid that tack if possible. To each his/her own.

As for the ending of lost in particular: I think it was interesting and competent, but not totally mind-blowing. I didn't like that major questions weren't answered (e.g. what the island actually is, the fates of certain seemingly extraneous characters, the source of Eloise Hawking's apparent extra-temporal awareness, and so on), but I suppose those weren't really "the point." I'm not sure I could really tell you what "the point" was. I did, however, think the bookending of the eye opening/eye closing image, while predictable, was nice, and while I wasn't really a fan of Christian being there (though I suppose, being dead, he did belong), I did like the "reunion" feel of the church scene. It may grow on me as time goes on.

What do/did you think, fair readers?

[Edit: speaking of you, fair readers: there are now 1,000 of you following PMN! Thanks to everyone for reading, commenting, and following!]

* Everyone? I think?
** Walt?


  1. I'm going to quote my reaction from an internet community I'm on:
    LOST's ending only made sense within the internal logic of the finale itself. It wasn't clearly foreshadowed within even this season--in fact, there are enough plot inconsistencies and questions opened up by it to feel really niggling. [another member]'s really raised most of them already ["WHY did Jack and Juliet have a kid together in their What Dreams May Come-style purgatories? WHAT happened to Desmond to make him so special, and how did he get off the island (or did he just die on it)? HURLEY AND BEN running the island would have been way more fun to watch than most of the stuff that happened in this episode. DOES THIS MEAN that when Aaron died, he became a newborn in purgatory?"], though I have a feeling they'll be piling up in the days that follow. There were a lot of ways they could have taken this that could have been more concretely foreshadowed and frankly logical. For example, they'd already told us that Desmond was a "failsafe device" who would somehow save the island if everyone was killed. Juliet had already told us that the bomb had worked. It would have made sense, if the bomb had created an alternate timeline, for Desmond to go running around, reuniting everyone, and somehow restoring the island to its previous state. But instead, the producers went with this purgatory thing, which honestly felt like they did it just so they could say: "SEE, WE TOLD YOU THE ISLAND WASN'T PURGATORY!!" or something.

    It was also weirdly Mormon. Everyone reunited, in family units or romantic pairings. Never mind that some of these pairings weren't true to the character relationships that we actually saw on the show. Claire and Charlie had what was an often-strained friendship; his romantic overtures weren't always welcome. And now they're this happy family? Shannon and Sayid were really romantically linked for, what, an episode? And he's with her, and not Nadia? I mean, even if we look at the character motivations stated within the episode, some of the gestures here made no sense: Rose and Bernard just want to stay the hell away from the main LOST crew, and yet they end up departing to heaven with them?

    The one thing I liked was the symmetry between Jack in the first episode and this one. But it wasn't worth anything. In the end, we find out that Ben and Hurley go on to protect the island--hey! I would have loved to watch that show! I bet they even find out the island's secrets! Lord knows we didn't.

    (And yet, I somehow managed to hold out some expectations of a satisfying resolution until the last fifteen minutes, when it all fell apart into wishywashy newageyness in a . . . Unitarian church?)

    I feel like the finale violated a lot of the trust inherent in a writer/audience relationship. You need to clearly foreshadow what will subsequently happen. You need to deliver some answers to the questions you raise. You need to be true to your characters and the relationships as you've previously written them. This ending did none of these things. There were a lot of ways they could have gone with this, and they picked saccharine reunions, oversimplifications of the relationships between the characters so they could project it back to us through a Kodachrome-tinted lens and make us feel all nostalgic. But nostalgic for what? What was all that sentiment even for? Guys, where are we?

  2. Further: I felt like the sentiment of the series was supposed to make us feel warm and fuzzy about our experience having watched the show, and warm and fuzzy about the characters as institutions. The problem with this is that it presupposes that we liked the central characters (and my fondness for Jack and Kate waned dramatically from the first season onward, particularly), and that we were wrapped up in watching the series almost wholly as a social phenomena, and not interested in it in terms of storytelling or character development--because the "growth" shown in the characters by the end of the finale and the episodes leading up to it was often inconsistent with what we saw before. It went for tidy endings and repetition for repetition's sake rather than true larger lessons. If you were interested in the show for the science fiction or fantasy aspects, particularly, you were screwed: every single one was a meaningless MacGuffin, and the answers that were given were pretty facile and shallow. The island is a magic light. Nothing bad happens if you put the light out as long as you put it back on. We'll never know why this light is really special or important or what happens after Jack dies. It's not supposed to be as important as the journey-that-was-the-television-show-LOST. But that's recursive and frustrating. I didn't love the show as a cultural experience. I invested six years in it because 1. I found the mysteries compelling, and wanted answers. No matter how many times they writers claim that it was a character-driven show, not a plot-show, I wasn't watching because I cared whether or not Jack and Kate got together. I watched because I wanted to know why the women couldn't have babies, and what was up with that four-toed foot. 2. I found the characters interesting and wanted to watch them grow, change, and reach resolution. But the writing just didn't support that. Look at Ben's actions during the last season. The moment we think he's redeemed, he's fucked up again. And then that's forgotten and he's redeemed again.

    I don't know. I'm pretty disappointed by the whole thing (and after "Across the Sea," my expectations were really low), though the rage that I felt last night is gradually subsiding. I just feel like I've been jerked around for six years. Surely I'm not the only one?

  3. I thought the finale had a lot of great moments, but the final twist did not resonate with me. I went into detail on my blog:

  4. I'm not ready! I don't think I can comment without re-watching EVERYTHING! I know that sounds silly, but... I still ended last night with that "what?" feeling.

    I didn't like Christian being there, I never really bought into Sawyer & Juliet, Said and Shannon... meh? And like an above commenter, I wanted little details of the island mysteries revealed as well. (Although the comment about it being "weirdly mormon"... um, yeah... not even close if you study their doctrine.)

    BUT if that was all "just a place they created together to find each other"... do the details matter? That in and of itself explains everything-- where's Faraday? It's not important, he was just a figment of their minds to get to another place... Abominable Snowman? Just someone's fears coming true-- like in a dream...

  5. The afterlife seemed reminiscent of the Mormon Celestial Kingdom, specifically, in that all of the couples are reunited in death. The church scene specifically reminded me of the celestial room of Mormon temples; however, I'm not Mormon, and have just done a bit of reading on the internet over the past year or so about it (blame Big Love), and so I might be completely off in seeing any similarities.

  6. I loved the finale--until the final scene. Then it was "huh?" for me. I go into more detail on my blog as well, so I won't repeat that here, but I will add this: It is nice to see that love survives, as Patrick Swayze said in GHOST. "The love inside, you take it with you. See ya."

    Ultimately, the journey these characters took was a search for love and connections, and that's what the final scene was meant to portray. As Jacob said, he chose them because they were all alone. And the fact that they refused to "move on" without each other showed that they learned that being alone was "not good."

    Very interesting, although I do still want to know why that giant Eygptian statue only had four toes. And what was the deal Sun made with Charles Whitmore? And how did Desmond get off the island, finally? And what about Michael and Walt? And exactly what, other than being a big, throbbing, glowy MacGuffin, was the light supposed to represent? And...and...


  7. I think as a ending to the series it was okay. It wasn't great but it was good. I like how it dealt with the characters and tied things up emotionally.

    I think for us to get answers about the mysteries, we need a spin off series. Like Phoebe said, it would be great to see Hurley and Ben running the island for a while. I really hope they make a one season around that premise and give us some more answers.

  8. Network television isn't something that's designed to work as a single overarching story. Episodes have to have narrative arcs, and seasons have to have arcs, and these structures don't seamlessly fold together into a years-spanning meta-arc.

    And the traditional span of a television show is more about milking it for as long as the program remains popular, and the cast can be held together, followed by a slow unravel to an anticlimactic denouement. "Lost" got mired up in this kind of development in Season 3, with the bear cages and the episode about Jack's tattoos. Viewers started drifting, and the creators concluded that they couldn't sustain the momentum without a clearly defined direction and endpoint.

    Other stuff happens, too. Characters become unexpectedly popular and have to be written into greater prominence, like Ben in "Lost" or Spike in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," or Jesse in "Breaking Bad."

    I think the show has kind of been grinding its gears in many respects, and there are numerous loose threads and unexplained non-sequitur plot devices that never paid off. They dressed the set with way too many of Chekov's guns, and they couldn't fire them all in the third act.

    A lot of people wanted "answers" or "solutions," but the point of the show was about constantly building and sustaining mystery, and to keep the corners blind, TV shows like this have to bring in elements from outside the story. The introduction of an element like Jacob and his brother late in the story would not work in a novel or a film where narrative is expected to be spare and cohesive rather than digressive. But spoonfeeding the audience revelations and new questions was the formula that made the show work. The characters suffered because of it, and because there were so many of them, and because the story was so long.

    The "Lost" finale went back to the characters and milked viewers' lingering affection for them.

    And the question of what the Island was could never really be answered. It was either some kind of scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo, or some kind of mystical-sounding mumbo-jumbo. Explaining it would have been exactly as satisfying as midichlorians were for Star Wars fans. Everyone must understand this intuitively, but the sort of folks who want to understand the theory behind the warp drive on the Enterprise still feel like they're entitled to something concrete.

    The afterlife thing felt like a cheat, but people who were paying attention should have seen a cheat coming. The emotional gut-punch made a lot more sense than piling parallel universes on top of time-travel. That finale would have been Doc Brown drawing on a chalk board to explain what had happened. And it was better than just burning out like "X-Files" or the notorious "angels did it" ending of "Battlestar: Galactica."

  9. The writers of Lost are masters at building suspense for suspense's sake. I don't think that qualifies as good writing. There's no denying that they're skilled, but execution and content go hand in deliberately mislead the reader for the sake of suspense alone is inexcusable. It's like lacing your writing with nicotine. At first you're addicted for the promise of satisfaction, but after a while it's a compulsion with minimal gain.

  10. I was very confused by the ending. I agree with whomever said that it seemed like an attempt to draw on nostalgic feelings for the characters themselves rather than bring any real resolution.

    I'm still uncertain about what actually happened in the end. Is everyone dead? What?!? When did they die? It kind of reminded me of that scene in Titanic when the main character dies and is back on the ship with everyone frozen in time. And you feel like, really? That couple of weeks you spent with that guy was the crucial piece of your life?

    At any rate, I loved the series for the mystery and the questions - but I think this just goes to show that you can't fake solid plotting. I know the writers implied they knew exactly where the story was going from early on. But, clearly, that's not the case. It's a good reminder to give your readers (or viewers in this case) some credit. They may let you string them along for a bit, but they really can see through weak plotting.

    And, really, who wants to go through labor and delivery twice for the same kid - and once in the afterlife?

  11. I just posted to my blog about this two seconds before checking my reader! This post was about what we can learn about story-telling from the things Lost could have done better.

    It got too long, so I plan to write about what we can learn from what Lost did well later.

    I liked the finale, although it didn't answer everything. I seem to be the only person who feels we know quite a lot, or at least enough, about the island.

    A lot of people seem confused about the ending, and who died/didn't die/etc. Here's what seems to have happened:

    The flash-sideways timeline was a purgatory-ish plane of existence created by the survivors. Whether it was something all humans do when they die, returning to the time and place that was most important to their lives, or something unique the survivors did is not explained. As Christian said, there is no "now" in this place; past, present, and future exist simultaneously.

    Thus, all the survivors went there when they died, and were given the chance to relive their lives (and not make the same choices that led to them being "lost" in their real lives before crashing on the island, and to accept their past lives) before they could move on together. They all showed up at different times, whenever they died, because even the ones who lived long lives, like Hurley and Ben and Kate, etc., all died eventually. Because there is no "now", no sense of time, it didn't seem like the ones who died first (Boone, Shannon) had to wait around for the ones who came later. They all reunited when they all died and all moved on together. Those people in particular showed up because the island and the people they met there was the most significant part of their lives (which is more believable for some characters than others, I admit).

    So everyone who died on the island died on the island, Jack died at the end of the show, and Kate, Sawyer, Hurley, Ben, etc. all died at some undisclosed point in the future. (Notice Ben and Hurley say "You were a good number one/two". When they remembered their past lives, they remembered serving in their Jacob/Richard roles. It was already in the past for them because they were dead.)

  12. At first, I thought, "REALLY?!?!" but I just FELT so awesome and had been breathless the whole time, so I decided to go with the visceral and love it.

    The thing LOST did so well, above all else, was create layered storytelling so dense and beautiful that the audience might never get a clear look at each facet, but the overall effect is (at least to me) absurdly captivating and ultimately satisfying.