Ten Things I Learned (as a Writer) by Watching LOST

Say what you want about the way LOST wrapped up its epic six-season run recently, the show got you invested in it. The people who created it made you want to watch it. Even when stuff didn’t make sense, you kept coming back.

I know I did. I had to know how it would all shake out, in the end. I was hooked, I was eager to know who’d make it off the island, who’d die, and how those annoying flash-sideways would work in the end.

As far as I’m concerned, mission accomplished by the LOST creators. The finale worked for me, for the most part. I was surprised by how they did it, and impressed that they were able to tell a story that lasted six years and over 120 hours and retain such a massive, intensive following.

So, as a writer, I’m always interested in what I can learn from events like this. So here goes.

What I learned (as a writer) by watching LOST:

  1. Characters have histories. The show made flashbacks a required part of the show, stopping everything in the present storyline to delve into a character’s past. As a result, we got fully developed characters we cared about, because we knew the damage they’d suffered in the past. Lots of damage. Lots of history. (And then there’s the flash-forwards, and the flash-sideways…)
  2. People are driven by their desires. Jack wanted nothing more to leave the island and deal with his wrecked life and dead father. Then he had to go back. Locke wanted to stay on the island, where he could walk and had power. Was it any surprise that these two were duking it out in the final episode?
  3. The supernatural is great, but only in small doses. People love weird stuff, things you can’t explain. But only so much. Don’t let the monsters outshine your characters. And don’t get bogged in the details and the rules. You’re going to end up painting yourself in a corner. And when you flip on the light and show people that the monster in the closet was just a hanger and an old sweatshirt, they’ll feel cheated.
  4. Mysteries hook the audience, but may backfire if you don’t answer them. The show got bogged down in so many sub-plots and tangents and reversals that I think even the show’s writers said, “The hell with it,” and didn’t try to figured them all out. The show worked best when some small truths emerged and got us closer to understanding the big picture. Yes, I’m thinking of the episode “The Constant,” with Desmond and Daniel Faraday — two very fascinating characters who helped explain some of the mysteries.
  5. Not all things need to be explained. And not everything should be explained. Especially not in a big infodump of dialogue ten minutes from the end. Just show it, don’t talk your way through it.
  6. Humor can go a long, long way. See the character of Hurley and the value of a well-placed and well-timed “Dude” or a reference to “Star Wars.”
  7. People can spot a phony, tacked-on series of events a mile away. We labeled a lot of the action in Season Six “moving the chess pieces.” This was when the show got away from the character-driven aspects of the plot and fell into the mechanics of getting people from one side of the island or another. Once they got somewhere, they’d talk and maybe argue, and then break up and go somewhere else. And the Smoke Monster would bash people’s heads in now and then. It’s hard to care about a pawn in a game of chess.
  8. Not everyone is white and living in America. The international and colorful cast of characters was a breath of fresh air. And not everyone spoke English (at least not in the beginning). Sure, the initial flight was going from Sydney to LA (because everything important in TV and movies happens in LA, right?). But we had characters from all over the world from that flight land on the island, and even if some of the characters edged into stereotype, the move from lily-white characters in a US-only setting was wonderful.
  9. Don’t insult the intelligence of your audience. People can retain a lot of details about their beloved characters, as well as the ins-and-outs of a story’s mythology. Don’t spoonfeed the audience. They’ll lose interest and reach for the remote or the iPad or a (gasp!) book. People can handle a big story chock full of characters and monsters and action. Plus, there’s the Internet, DVR, and Netflix for all those details you might miss on the first go-round.
  10. Don’t try to please everyone. Tell the wild-and-woolly story you want to tell, because it’s the kind of story you’d like to watch or read or experience. And try not to end the story with everyone smiling at each other and getting ready to sing Kumbaya. I’m just sayin’.

2 thoughts on “Ten Things I Learned (as a Writer) by Watching LOST

  1. Yeah, dude, got a good list there. I think “Doorways” does a lot of the things you list above. Tell you the truth, I was visualizing Terry O’Quinn as one of the book’s main characters while I was reading it. Just seemed to fit, somehow.

    You mention avoiding a big infodump of dialogue (just show it)–something similar for writing, I’ve always thought. A lot can be inferred (backstory, motivation, etc.) from word choice, adverbial expressions, etc. Doesn’t have to be junked out there in dialogue or long descriptive paragraphs.

    OK, onward into the fog….Beam me up, Scotty!


  2. Oooh. I like the idea of the guy who played Locke playing ol’ Ray in the movie version of GATHERING. Great casting, Sarah (I’m assuming that’s the character you meant!).



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