Wednesday, February 3, 2010

LOST Returns!!! AKA What I Learned From LOST About Writing

My absolute favorite show has returned to TV and I am ecstatic. I have been a fan since the first season. I missed the first episodes when it first aired and caught up in a marathon that ABC aired. The show was highly recommended by friends and family and I was curious to see if I was really missing something special. I was hooked the very first episode.

LOST has been a show that people in my personal life and online have debated about since its first airing. A few of my family members quit watching the show when they felt not enough mysteries were solved. Their patience ran out. Surprisingly, I have zero patience (I will not think of what is going on in NYC...I will not think of what is going on in NYC), but I am so hooked on LOST it is like I'm a junkie.

Strangely, I have learned a lot about storytelling by watching LOST. Though writing a novel and writing a TV show are two different animals, a writer still has an obligation to his/her audience to tell the best story possible. Whereas the TV writer has to keep the viewer coming back episode after episode, season after season, the novelist has to keep the reader turning the pages from beginning to end. I admit I have quit watching shows and stopped reading books when I found the storytelling to be tedious or just dull. As I have watched the story of LOST unfold like chapters in a long, amazingly complex book, I have learned quite a few lessons.

So in tribute to the last season of the best show on TV, here are a few things I learned from LOST.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead for both LOST and As The World Dies.The First Season Cast of LOST

Characters Are Important
The people behind the show hid that the show was science fiction for the first season as they developed their cast of characters back stories and relationships with each other. The mysteries of the island were compelling, but the characters themselves were mesmerizing. It's a tribute to the casting directors that the actors and actresses so completely embodied their character that you could believe in them as though they were real people. It was the characters that kept me coming back show after show. I became completely and totally emotionally invested in a lot of the characters. I cheered them on, yelled at them, and cried for them. I fell in and out of love and hate with characters.

As the show comes to an end, I am already mourning the loss of these amazing characters in my life.

Over and over again I have been told how important the character of As The World Dies are to the readers and how the readers miss them once they are done with the books.

Be True to Your Characters

LOST has been very good at developing the characters during the last six seasons. All the characters have strengths and faults. A few that started out heroic have faltered along the way. I have fallen in love with characters I originally hated (Juliet and Sawyer) and fallen out of love with characters I originally adored (Kate). Some characters seemed gloriously heroic only to falter and fall (Locke) while others have risen above all expectations to be more than anyone could imagine (Sawyer). Hell, at this point I am not even sure of who the big bads and good guys are anymore. All I know is that I am invested in the story of these characters and I want to see them either find redemption or punishment.

The only time I felt LOST screwed up with a character was in the first season. The catty, bitchy, demanding Shannon suddenly softened into an ingenue as the badass Sayid unexpectedly fell for her. It felt forced, contrived and awkward. I hated every scene with the two characters and was frankly glad when Shannon was offed in the second season. I would have loved to see Shannon continue her bitchy path, but that was not to be.

Highlight Invisible Text To See How This Impacted As The World Dies(MASSIVE SPOILERS): Though I knew Curtis was the vigilante from the first book, I felt bad for him as a character. I could understand his warped sensibilities and why he was doing what he was doing. I also knew why he was wrong and how he was sliding down a slippery slope. For a short while I considered redeeming him, but realized it was too late for him. Even as emails poured in with people telling me how much they liked Curtis, how they wanted to hug him and console him, I knew I had to stick to the reality of the character. So Curtis remained the vigilante, slid down that slippery slope into madness, and died at the hand of Nerit.

Kill Your Characters

I first learned this lesson from Joss Whedon when he killed off Jenny Calendar in the second season of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. I still remember my utter shock at her death. A few years later he would kill Tara, Willow's girlfriend. I remember thinking he was merciless, but he achieved his goal of making me feel as though no one in his story was safe.

Years later, LOST would once more remind me of this lesson. The character of Ana Lucia was not very well received when she appeared in the second season of LOST. As leader of the tail section, she had the tough job of leading her survivors through the jungle as the Others pursued. I felt the character was very complex and difficult to like, but she did intrigue me. Libby, who became Hurley's love interest, was much more likable and I simply adored Bernard, Rose's husband. Out of the tail section, the character I loved the most was Mr. Eko. He completely entranced me.

Toward the end of season two, to my complete shock (I even shouted, "Oh, my GOD!" at the TV), Michale shot and killed not only Ana Lucia just as she found her own personal redemption, but Libby. I was utterly stunned.

Later, in season three, my beloved Mr. Eko also met his end when the nefarious smoke monster killed him.

At this time I was struggling with the upcoming deaths in my own story. Watching LOST, I realized that sometimes the death of a character is a reminder to the viewer/reader that all bets are off. No one is safe. Anyone can die. And when you are writing a horror novel about zombies, well, characters are going to die.

But there was one death that was just killing me...

Highlight Invisible Text To See How This Impacted As The World Dies(MASSIVE SPOILERS): I knew from the very beginning that Jenni would die. Because I knew her fate from the first sentence I ever wrote in the story, I thought I was emotionally prepared for her demise. I was wrong. I struggled for weeks to finally write her death scene. But when I finally did, I felt an immense relief wash over me because it felt so right. It was the perfect arc for her story and Jenni went out in a way that made her proud.

But that wasn't the hardest death scene to write. That scene was Bill. I never DREAMED Bill was going to die. I thought for sure he was going to make it to the end of the book. But as I wrote the scene that would lead to his death, I slowly realized he was not going to make it. Bill was going to die. A reader once said she didn't know how much she loved Bill until he was gone. I couldn't agree more. Bill was just that guy who is everyone's friend and a pillar of the group dynamic, but he didn't have the pizazz of the hero. When I realized he was going to die, I struggled with the scene. Removing Bill from the book felt so utterly awful. To not have him in the mix just left this huge gasping blank spot. Then I realized that was why he had to die. The fort inhabitants and the readers needed to feel that emptiness, that loss. They had to realize that anyone could die. That realization gave me the guts to finally write that scene.

I still miss Bill.

New Characters Must Fit In Or They Gotta Die

In retrospect, it is odd how badly the writers of LOST handled the integration of Nikki and Paulo into the LOST family. They have done an amazing job of bringing Desmond, Juliet, Ben, Richard, and Faraday into the mix. It's hard to imagine a time when those characters were not having some sort of impact on the story.

Nikki and Paulo were dumped into the story abruptly and it was glaringly obvious they had not been there before. I would have rather they were slowly integrated into the storyline, seen in the background for awhile, then slowly move to center stage. The characters potential just got muddled and though I loved their final episode (where they die), I didn't miss the characters at all.

In As The World Dies, I was aware that new characters would be coming be entering the story as the plot expanded over the course of the trilogy. In fact, one character, Kevin Reynolds, appears in the first two books in very small roles in preparation for him taking a much larger role in the third book. I was very careful with the introduction of new characters along the way and I think it paid off. These latecomers into the storyline are fan favorites.

Luckily, I haven't heard anything about having a Nikki and Paulo in the mix.

In Closing...

The best advice any fledgling writer can receive about writing is to do two things: read and write. The more you write, the better your cultivate your skills. The more you read, the more you learn about the intricacies of plot and character development. I never dreamed that watching a TV show would teach me so much about writing.

In the end, to sum it up, LOST taught me to be fearless, to take risks, to not falter, but to push my characters and myself far out of our comfort zones. I learned to make characters that are like real people. They have their strengths, they have their flaws, sometimes they will rise above expectations, and sometimes they will falter and fall.

Last year when the producer first approached me about the TV/Film rights for As The World Dies, one of the things he said to me was that it reminded him of LOST. Not the story itself, but that it was populated by characters you either loved or hated, but always cared about.

As the last season of LOST unfurls, I'm glued to my seat and waiting to see just how far the writers will take us down the rabbit hole. I waiting to see if there are anymore lessons to be learned along the way before the final curtain falls.

I can't wait.

The Last Season Cast of LOST

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