He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children. —Psalm 113:9

July 14, 2010

Writing Lessons From Lost

Last week I started re-watching Lost from the beginning. Why? Because it's summer and there's nothing on, and Netflix has seasons one through five available for instant streaming. I finished up Season One this weekend. As I barreled through the season in three- to four-episode marathons, a few things occurred to me that I could apply to my own writing.

  1. Pacing is everything. The first season of Lost has 25 episodes. The second has 24. A normal TV season in the US is 22 episodes. Even watching the entire season in one week, there's a lot of filler and meandering in the middle that's a little tedious to get through. No wonder it's almost universally accepted that this show got so much better around Season 4 when the episode number was cut nearly in half, and suddenly there was little room for filler. The latter seasons maintain a momentum that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, and that momentum is sorely lacking throughout big chunks of the early seasons.  
  2. Don't make characters difficult-to-impossible to like if you want the audience to feel sympathy for them. I know there's a big "I Hate Jack" contingent out there, but I'm not even talking about him and his tiresome self-righteousness and guilt-tripping ways. I'm talking primarily about Shannon. Remember her? Remember how awful she was? And then how (spoiler alert!) suddenly she was supposed to be sympathetic after she became a dubious love interest for Sayid while remaining manipulative and demonstrating that she was perfectly willing to use him to exact revenge on Locke for Boone's death? I'm so confused about what this show wants me to think of her. Frustratingly, that goes for most of its characters. I'm not saying that protagonists have to all be likeable (or antagonists unlikeable -- after all, the most despicable villain on this show turned out to be one of my favorite characters), but show some consistency in their motivations, and for the love of Glow Cave, make them interesting. Especially if you insist on telling people that your story is character-driven. Which brings me to...
  3. When writing a character-driven piece, don't make your McGuffin more interesting than your characters. Was there anybody who was more interested in Driveshaft's falling out or in Jack's daddy issues than in what the what was going on with that island? Not that the flashbacks didn't provide necessary character development, but with few exceptions (e.g., how did Locke end up in a wheel chair? And why is Jin being such an overbearing jerk? And what is up with Walt?), mostly I wanted the flashbacks to be over with so we could get back to the island weirdness. I'm sorry, Cuse & Lindeloff, but the island overshadowed the characters. The lesson learned is to maybe not provide such a fascinating mystery if you want your readers to focus on the characters instead.
And now I'm going to go start Season 2, which I'm sure will yield more lessons on writing. Hopefully I won't be too busy counting the hours till we get Ben and full-time Desmond to notice them.

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