I'd like to articulate what I disliked about the TV show Lost, not to warn people who haven't seen it yet so much as to better work out which problems I want to avoid when writing my own fiction. I won't tell you if it's worth spending almost four sleepless days watching this show (not the recommended method) so much as give you my well articulated empathy if you feel this amount of your life was somewhat wasted in hindsight. This rant contains spoilers for not just Lost itself but also Douglas Adams's novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and Neal Stephenson's novel Crytonomicon.
Lost is a phenomenally addictive show. The writers shamelessly dangle endless cliffhangers and mysteries in front of the viewer, so while you're still hooked by one, two or three others pull you in further before you're finally freed from the first. Before you know it, you're fully addicted, buying whole season box sets at a time to get your fix.
The ending, however, didn't really feel like the satisfying conclusion of triumphantly making it through rehab, so much as your local dealer getting shot, leaving you aimlessly wandering the streets at night, unfulfilled and with nowhere to go for your next fix.
After my Battlestar Galactica rant, you're probably under the impression that I'm generally incapable of grasping metaphors or empathic emotional bonds, so naturally as a curmudgeonly science fan, I was put off by the religious nonsense at the end of Lost.
You may point out that I should stop punishing myself by watching shows I fundamentally don't understand the point to -- I could clearly tell full well from the pilot episode alone that this show was more than likely going to feature scientifically impossible supernatural fantasy elements -- and go back to watching the grumpy House M.D.'s emotionally oblivious logic puzzles instead.
Well, yes, I was disappointed with Lost's ending, but my main gripe wasn't what happened in the afterlife so much as what didn't happen back on the island. A lot of questions weren't answered. And no, I don't want to know every logistic detail behind every piece of fiction, and I'm not missing the point of character driven stories.
I like character driven stories. If the characters are the most important aspect of the story, moreso than the plot, then fine. I have a whole bunch of romantic comedies and about as many dramas, and I enjoy watching them.
However, I'm not convinced Lost is a character driven show. As soon as any character starts to get emotional, a few seconds later the plot is guaranteed to suddenly burst back onto the screen, barely giving her enough time to wipe away her tears before she has to perform her next Herculean task. Sure, there's childbirth and there's falling in love and there's mourning the death of loved ones, but it's always done with a cache of rifles lurking under the nearest rock, ready for use. That's not generally the sign of a character driven story.
As with so many apparent dichotomies, there's also no reason why an ending that focuses on the emotional interactions of the characters must inherently do so by neglecting any other aspect of the story.
To use a cliched analogy, Lost is like sitting down with some friends trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle together. By the end of a gruelling weekend, we've discovered that the box actually contained three or four incomplete jigsaw puzzles. Sure, we had fun together, and yeah, we bonded a little too, enjoying the time we spent getting to know each other, but at the end of the day, we felt a little cheated that we didn't also have a single big picture to admire, satisfied in the knowledge that we'd solved the puzzle.
Another problem with the ending of the show was arguably its anticlimactic feel: usually a story's ending involves wrapping up just how the protagonists are going to resolve the situation they're in. The original situation that needed resolving was simple enough: they were stuck on an island and wanted to get off it. The overall story goal was to get off the island. The problem with Lost is that they already accomplished this in roughly the middle of the series.
The climax to the entire series, in large part, is that some of the characters get off the island... again. Had they not already done so earlier, it may have been more gripping, and the decision of some of the characters to stay and protect the island's mysterious force instead would have been especially moving had they still believed they could be happy off the island and were thus sacrificing a happy life for a noble cause.
In fiction writing, being somewhere you don't want to be because you have no choice is called a crucible. It's the spaceship in Alien or the remote research station in the middle of the Antarctic in The Thing. It gives you nowhere to run. Choosing to stay there once you can leave can be a noble gesture. By contrast, leaving and then coming back again because someone talked you into it and you're no longer happy anywhere is plain indecisiveness.
Leaving the island is generally depicted as difficult, requiring both a mode of transport and just the right bearing. This helps with both the intrigue (why the bearing?) and the conflict ("I need to build a raft in order to achieve my story goal").
The climax of the whole series was largely dependent on the characters who wanted to leave again getting a plane working against all odds, only they didn't seem to need a bearing this time. In the epilogue, the island's new protectors can come and go as they please, apparently without the hassle of finding a means of transportation. Although Jacob's followers could always leave the island as they needed to, it was only because they had a submarine and a compass bearing. I guess they could have used Jacob's wheel to get spat out in Tunisia, Being John Malkovich style, but then it's never explained why the man in black couldn't do this himself, and it renders the whole escape part of the climax to the series unnecessary.
If I could recommend one book on fiction writing, it'd be James N. Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel. One of his many pieces of good advice is a quote from Aristotle:
The story, as an imitator of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole. For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.
In other words, be economical: if something (in this case a scene, but arguably also a character or a setting) isn't necessary to tell your story, it shouldn't be there. This is one of the main issues I have with Lost: its countless plot threads which are opened up for potential exploration, but then never explored.
For instance, Walt seems able to summon animals by thinking about them. It's a superpower that he has. However, he never gets to use this superpower to help or hinder another character. It's just used to make him seem a bit odd, then never mentioned again.
Three things have helped me learn the art of cliffhangers: Lost, the complete works of Dan Brown, and Jack M. Bickham's writer's guide Scene and Structure. From the latter:
Stories start with a character jarred out of his sense of ease by a disturbing development of some kind that represents threatening change in the status quo. That character forms an intention or long-term goal, the attainment of which will make things "right" again. The reader looks at this story goal statement and turns it into a long-term story question.
Cliffhangers, indeed stories in general, are all about asking questions and then answering them in a way that's satisfying.
A wonderful example of this which completely blew my mind when I first read it is the ending to Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. A silly question is posed near the beginning of the novel, in which the protagonist can't work out how his sofa got stuck on the stairs, apparently unable to be moved in either direction.
As the story draws on, it transpires that one of the characters has a time machine. By the time you find this out, you've forgotten all about the sofa, but then at the end of the story, the real kicker that has you laughing out loud at the author's cunning is that the time machine gets used to help someone move the sofa into its now impossible position, answering this question in a very satisfying manner.
Similarly, Lost poses all kinds of questions, but many are left unanswered, or vaguely answered in several conflicting and unsatisfying ways. I'm not saying that every single detail of the logistics of the fictional world should be painstakingly pointed out, only that all the burning questions that viewers have are answered in a satisfying manner -- and the writers know full well which questions those are, because they put them in our minds to begin with.
We see a good example of how this is done correctly in the final episode: in one of the flashsideways (actually a deep flashforward into the afterlife), Hurley is reunited with Libby, the woman he was meant to go on a date with before she died. Presumably in the afterlife you're only reunited with your most recent love, as her longer dead husband is nowhere to be seen, but let's ignore that. Making a plausible afterlife would be a near impossible task, after all.
Being good writers, the people who wrote the show rephrased this as a question: will Hurley get a date? and asked it in the beginning of the episode, by showing how successful in life he generally is, then showing his mother pointing out how he doesn't have a girlfriend and setting him up on a blind date. As the audience, we become interested in the question of whether he'll get a girlfriend or not, and we're satisfied when he does, doubly so because she's not the woman he's been set up on a blind date with, so it's a little twist to the story.
On the macro scale, however, there are lots of little questions like these that have been set up but left unanswered. The problem isn't just that the viewers never find out the answer, so much as the likelihood that the writers never came up with one in the first place, even to keep to themselves.
It's like playing a game of Twenty Questions, only the person answering those questions is doing so randomly, rather than having actually thought of something specific to begin with. The inevitable result is accidental contradiction.
"LaFleur asked me where my keys were. That bastard doesn't ask any questions he doesn't know the answers to."
If only the writers followed the lead of one of their own characters.
Part of the problem is that J. J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof are both big Star Wars fans, like too many of their peers. Disillusioned by prequel talk of midichlorians, they appear to have made a vow never to scientifically (or otherwise) explain any fantasy elements. That's fine. Fantasy and science fiction, despite their superficial similarities, are completely different genres, as lucidly explained in Red Letter Media's review of Star Trek (2009).
However, the original three Star Wars films only benefitted from not explaining what The Force actually was because they never set it up as a mysterious riddle that should be explained in the first place. Not explaining The Force is analogous to not explaining the weird glow that turns one person into a smoke monster yet has no apparent effect on anyone else, or how drinking wine or water can make someone immortal. These are fantasy elements that don't warrant explanation any more than the power of the ring in Lord of the Rings.
However, things like the numbers aren't presented as a fantasy element blatantly defying the known laws of the universe. They're presented as a mystery, as pieces of a larger puzzle. This is why they should have been explained.
This is again rather similar to my problem with the new Battlestar Galactica: not having a reason for something is fine if you don't set up the audience to expect there is one. The fact that the numbers used in the hatch are the same as those being broadcast by the radio tower before Rousseau changes the message warrants an explanation. If there's no reason they're the same, they shouldn't have been the same to begin with.
Yes, it's great to send a chill up the audience's spines for the sake of it. As a writer, that's a big part of your job. Just don't do so at the cost of your story no longer making any sense.
In short, when you present clues to a mystery to the viewers, they're trusting you to have a satisfying answer to that mystery. Not having such an answer prepared is a betrayal of that trust.
Just as bad as the unanswered questions are the questions that were answered multiple times in contradictory ways.
One of the animals Walt may have summoned by thinking about it was a polar bear. After reading a comic book Hurley brought with him that depicted a polar bear, an actual polar bear appeared on the island. This power of Walt's explains where the polar bear came from adequately for the purposes of fantasy, if not science fiction.
Except there's another, slightly more sensible, explanation: the scientists kept polar bears in cages, which only occasionally went missing and only once accidentally ended up in ancient Tunisia.
Note that the writers had a clear, single answer as to why there was a Spanish language comic book on the island: Hurley brought it with him. When it came to explaining something that was actually important, however, such as why there was a polar bear on a tropical island, they seemed to get scared of backing themselves into a corner and came up with two contradictory explanations.
Another question that demanded a single, logical answer was the reason the protagonists had to enter some numbers into a computer in the hatch, and as it was those particular dreaded numbers, what they could possibly have to do with Hurley's bad luck or the lottery.
One answer was that it was a curiously manual relief valve, and that when Desmond once failed to enter the numbers on time, the result was the plane crash that brought the protagonists to the island in the first place. This somewhat makes sense, provided you don't know how magnets work, but then it was revealed that Jacob summoned everyone personally, so Desmond wasn't the cause of that after all.
The other reason given for entering the number in the hatch is that it's a social experiment, which is even more bizarre considering that social experiments generally don't involve people actually getting hurt if they act a certain way, and even if they did, it would defy the point if they didn't know in advance what would happen, giving the threat an opportunity to affect their actions. Either way, neither of these explanations explains the presence of the mysterious numbers in particular when a simple button would have sufficed.
As far as the numbers themselves go, an official alternate reality game apparently reveals that they're related to a Drake equation style hazy yet mathematical looking prediction of how long the human race will last, whereas towards the end of the show they're revealed to be Jacob's arbitrary numbers ascribed to the protagonists. It's hard to imagine that these are all coincidences, and equally hard to imagine that they're connected somehow.
A good piece of fiction won't have coincidences, of course. It will gel together like a schizophrenic person's paranoid delusions, every new piece of information neatly slotting into place in the giant jigsaw puzzle of the show. This complete picture is what Lost ultimately ended up missing.
Any one of these explanations might have been OK on their own, but the offering of several contradictory explanations shows a shocking lack of concern for cause and effect. One of the main points of storytelling is to craft a narrative that makes more sense than the viewers' own lives, at least by the time it's finished, in order to satisfy our desire to recognise patterns. After all, the aforementioned schizophrenia involves recognising patterns where they don't exist. It's the job of fiction to make them exist.
In real life, things might not appear to make sense because you don't have all the information, but on this show, they don't make sense because the writers have several contradictory explanations for so many things.
This kind of writing would have been acceptable back when people were originally conjuring up myths involving smoke monsters, but in this enlightened era, Hollywood has generally had to raise the bar a lot higher than the uneducated mythology of eras past ever reached. Lost's writers really should have kept up with this trend.
Unnecessary Time Travel
At this point I'd like to talk about what I actually liked about the show. Aside from its impressive use of seemingly endless cliffhangers, I also liked how the show starts in the midst of the action, following the point of view of characters who have no idea what's going on, blissfully unaware of the warzone they've accidentally stumbled across, and equally unaware that their destiny will lead them to play an important part in this war. It worked in Hidden Fortress and the original Star Wars, and it works in Lost.
I also liked the epic timespan. In the episode Across the Sea, Jacob and the man in black's real mother and fake mother speak to each other in Latin, presumably leading to its subsequent adoption by Jacob's later followers, insinuating these twins may have been born in Roman times. Richard Alpert joins them in the second half of the eighteen hundreds, as shown in the final season's other ancient backstory episode Ab Aeterno.
A bunch of scientists find the island in the nineteen seventies, moving in to observe and exploit its unique properties for a good decade or two before being mass murdered, whereas the plane with all the main protagonists doesn't crash onto the island until two thousand and four, when we're introduced to the story, in what was at the time of airing the present day.
Alpert's immortality is subtly hinted at long before it's explicitly shown, and what first seems like a typically implausible Hollywood style death defying fall that Locke miraculously survives turns out to be the work of Jacob. Twists and turns like these are exactly the kind of fulfilling answers I was hoping for, and are shown in drips and drabs of flashbacks in a way that's very satisfying, and probably the most dramatic way they could possibly have been revealed.
Really, the only critique I could think of about this aspect of the show is that season five features time travel for no adequately explained reason, when it was completely unnecessary to do so. Maybe it's just because we were already attached to the main characters, but I think it would have been just as entertaining, and certainly more believable, to have the benefit of seeing the bigger picture of the whole story by watching several unrelated sets of characters who themselves have no idea what's going on. The conflict between the scientists and Jacob's followers in the nineteen seventies would have been gripping enough without the survivors of Oceanic flight eight fifteen turning up to say hi, just as Alpert's backstory was perfectly gripping without them.
Even if the audience couldn't bare to go a whole season without seeing the main characters, such a backstory without them could have been interlaced with the present day story throughout the other seasons instead, just as their own flashbacks were, or in their place.
I guess you could argue that each season has its own story arc and there's nothing wrong with them being somewhat independent of each other, with season five being about time travel just as season four is about Widmore's boat and its crew, but I find it jarring to watch a show that the writers have suddenly decided should be about time travel for one season but not any of the others. It's a pretty significant thing to randomly introduce, then never mention again.
Neal Stephenson's epic novel Cryptonomicon is the only other story I've read that spanned such a long timeline to tell a single story, and it managed to do it just fine without time travel, even though it too has a character who is subtly revealed to be immortal. At no point did I, as a reader, feel annoyed that I was being whisked back and forth between two different sets of characters. Both had their own stories to tell, and as long as each one's interesting enough, I'm happy to switch back and forth between multiple groups of characters as writers deem fit.
So in conclusion, Lost was still enjoyable to watch for the most part. I just feel kind of betrayed that the whole time it was stringing me along with the subtle promise that eventually everything would make sense, then it left without ever fulfilling that promise. I guess the show's writers were going for the long con.
I suspect that a lot of these problems stem from the fact that Lost is a TV show rather than a novel, and hence the writers have to put up with changes in the lengths of seasons due to writer's strikes, not to mention actors leaving and coming back, and most debilitating of all, not being able to go back and rewrite what's already aired. Anyone looking to write a series of novels who manages to rewrite them retroactively as needed before publishing a single one would have none of these problems.
In short, the main thing I learnt from Lost is that people are still afraid of magnets.