The television series Lost aired from 2004 to 2010. It helped change the way TV series are conceptualised, switching from an episodic story arc, to a longer-form journey stretching across an entire series.
In literary terms the story arc changed from a repeated short story formula (one that reset at the start of every episode), to a novelistic approach. Each episode became a chapter within a wider-reaching, more ambitious story. Shows like Mad Men (2007 to 2015) and Breaking Bad (2008 to 20013) continued this novelistic type narrative, which allowed characters to develop over time.
Lost created a ‘world’ complete with its own laws and possibilities. Episode one introduced a terrifying, and mysterious monster. There are strange sounds reverberating from the jungle, something is knocking over trees as at moves about. Could it be a dinosaur? Is this some sort of Jurassic Park? Could it be a giant beast, something like King Kong?
In episode two Sawyer kills a rampaging polar bear. What’s a polar bear doing on a tropical island? Was this the monster introduced earlier? The survivors listen to a mysterious radio message broadcast by a French woman. The short SOS has been continually transmitted for 16 years. ‘Where are we?’ Charlie asks prophetically. No one can answer his question.
We are on ‘The Island’. It’s a fictional, fantastic, surreal world — a magical realist, storytelling universe.
Lost uses reoccurring motifs to imbue the narrative with distinctive character. It’s almost like a branding process. These elements range from the visual, like the close up of a character’s eye opening at the start of each flashback, to the auditory, such as the distinctive music, and sound effects.
The lingering opening credits stay around for ages, creating the feeling that so much has happening even before the episode has ‘started’. The word ‘Lost’ comes into focus, the title of the show, backed by abrupt and discordant music. The ‘previously on Lost’ recap, and the song at the end of many episodes. These motifs are all very Lost.
The remarkable thing about Lost is how well the two pilot episodes set-up the whole fictional world. They create the world that will take six seasons to fully explore. Within those two episodes the characters, and any possible conflicts between them are set out.
Jack the good guy, the protagonist, the hero, always thinks about helping other people. He’s a Mr Nice. He is a calm man. Always able to keep his cool in a crisis. But, we learn from his backstory that he’s not always been so controlled. There’s a glimmer of romance between him and Kate. But, we also learn about her hidden side through her own flashbacks — a backstory that Jack has no idea about. There are other characters. Charlie is a has-been rock star with a chaotic past. Sawyer is a self-serving badass, Jack’s antagonist. But is Sawyer all bad? Michael is a father, struggling to communicate with his son, Walt. Hugo is the comic character, who humanises situations. Locke is a troubled character. Sayid has a dark past. And there’s a Korean couple with relationship issues. Right from the get-go there are enough variables for dramatic conflict.
Lost famously answered questions with more questions in an attempt to retain audience attention. The ordinariness of air crash survivors on a tropical island beginning their day-to-day survival could have turned into a soap opera on a jungle island. Instead, it became a surreal mashup of science fiction and fantasy.
The foreshadowing of the polar bear, with Walt reading a comic featuring a huge polar bear signalled the possibility of strange forces at work. Is there a reciprocal relationship between the thoughts of characters and events that occur later? Maybe. Maybe not.
In episode three Sawyer began his flirtatious, cheeky, relationship with Kate. He brings a cynicism and playful edginess into the mix that sensible Jack lacks.
Lost is all about disconnects. It revels in disconnects. Part of the viewer’s job is to sift through the mixed-signals, to make sense of the garbled plot-line. To work out connections where there is an absence of certainty. Lost is a fantasy world where the normal rules of time and space don’t apply. It’s a latter-day Robinson Crusoe, part survival soap opera, part fantasy tosh. Much of the plot doesn’t make any sense, especially in the later seasons.
Right from episode one we begin the flashbacks, starting with Jack. The story widens, exploring the backstories of the other characters. Each one has a history of identity related challenges that they must face. The backstories offer insights into the characters; set in context to the dramatic action. This creates tension by delaying the conclusion of the action sequences. And, it slows the overall pace.
As season one progresses we discover that one of the survivors – Ethan – was not in the plane when it crashed. How could this be possible? Logically, he must have come from the island. But Charlie shoots Ethan dead when he’s captured. Maintaining the mystery of where the man originated from.
Later, Locke discovers ‘the hatch’. This door to another part of the story is discovered in episode 12, but it’s only picked up in episode 17 (five episodes later). For almost a quarter of the season the audience is left wondering what this bizarre hatch is all about. The hatch is only opened on the season finale. And even then, we don’t get to see what’s inside. We have to wait for season two to discover that.
Season two begins with one of the best season openings of any TV series. A man in an apartment makes a smoothie, works out on an exercise bike, listens to a record playing on a retro turntable. Who is this person? Why are we opening with him his home? What has this got to do with the Island?
Lost continually throws the audience, confusing, and confounding their expectations. The disconnect is part of its delight. Series two ends with an electromagnetic trace of the Island being detected by a polar listening team. Who are they? Why are they there? What relationship do they have with the Island?
Series three starts with the opening eye motif, retro music playing, a women taking burnt muffins out of an oven. She’s hosting a boring book club in what appears to be a dull town (‘small town America’). Why were we here? What does this have to do with the Island?
The power of Lost, its disconnect comes from good old fashioned mystery. The audience has to work out how and why different plot elements connect. Flashbacks become flash-forwards. The non-linear narrative creates further confusion, further mystery.
The Lost world had similarities to computer game narratives. The island in Far Cry (2004) for example with its ruins and deserted buildings and wrecked ships. Computer games often mashup different genre elements. Return to Castle Wolfenstein combines a WW2 action story with a time traveling science fiction fantasy. The precedent for the disconnect in Lost exists within computer games.
When the others capture Jack, Kate, and Sawyer, Jack is questioned by a female psychologist who knows everything about him. She even has the autopsy report on his father at hand. How is this possible? Why does she have all this information about him on a remote jungle island? Lost shows us the impossible, and then (later) explains how it happened.
What does Lost teach us about building compelling plots?
It tells us to create interest by incorporating a deep sense of mystery. And to create further interest by introducing even greater mystery. Lost introduces dilemmas for the characters. Jack must choose between obeying his Hippocratic oath and saving the life of Benjamin Linus (the leader of the hated ‘Others’) or betraying his oath and deliberately sabotaging a spinal operation.
Plot reversals, changes of fortune, changes of alliances, heated rivalries, shifting romantic interests are all at the heart of Lost. The story constantly changes viewpoints and perspectives. It plays with the audience’s perception of ‘the truth’. It creates situations that test and challenge the characters, revealing their weaknesses and strengths. While none of these techniques are new (there’s a long tradition of this is in serial fiction from literature to movie serials like Flash Gordon) it hooks the audience’s attention.
Tantalised with tidbits, scant information, and possibilities, the audience anticipates the payoff. A satisfying ending. It’s debatable if the audience got this at the end of Lost. Either way, the viewers put up with increasing confusion and incoherence because they were invested in the characters. They were waiting for the end, to find out what happened to Jack, Sawyer and Kate.