*Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers about season 1 of the television show Lost.*
Lost became an instant sensation when it first aired on ABC, both a critical and popular success that helped turn the fortunes of the struggling network. The two elements of success on any television show are writing, and acting. While there are other factors to a show’s success (time it airs, appeal to the contemporary audience, etc.), a show’s writing is the greatest force that helps to propel any form of media into the spotlight. Learning from the writing techniques behind the show can help make your plots more involved, more multi-faceted, and more compelling. Let’s take a look at some of these techniques, and how you can implement them.
First, let’s remind ourselves that Lost is not a television show about a plane crash, or the survivors of said event. What any good writer must realize is that it’s never about the setting or backdrop: it’s always about the characters. The human experience is what compels each of us to become involved in a dramatic presentation. We must feel a connection to the characters, and know that they have histories much like our own. Even if we ourselves have not experienced anything similar to the characters we are watching, we must feel empathy towards the character. In short, the situation must be written in a way that allows us to picture ourselves in that situation, even if we have not been there before. Undoubtedly, you have heard the adage about Star Trek, which states that it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people. The same holds true with almost every other story told in history.
Perhaps the most compelling part about the series Lost is the use of the flashback throughout the show on a regular basis. With this technique, the writers are able to tie the viewer to the character in a profound way. Remove the flashbacks from Lost, and you’re left with little more than a bunch of frightened, bickering castaways. But with the flashbacks, we begin to see the motivations for each character’s actions. What is it that drives Jack to try so hard? Why does Kate so easily connect to Sawyer? Why such tension between Sun and Jin-Soo? All these questions are answered through the flashback method.
Let’s take the character of Sawyer, for example. On Lost, Sawyer is immediately pigeon-holed into the villain by many of the survivors of the crash. His resource hoarding, one-line comebacks, and standoffish-ness make him a prime target for the aggression of others, despite the fact that many other share the same personality traits as he. Jack is a resource hog — for good reason: he’s trying to save others. Shannon can be pithy. And clearly, Locke is more than a bit standoffish. But what got Sawyer, specifically, to this personality? Through the flashback scenes of his childhood and scenes of his recent stint as a “confidence man,” we begin to understand that he is a complex man, demonized by the “Sawyer” from which he got his name — a con man who ruined his parent’s marriage by taking their money, and eventually caused his father to murder Sawyer’s mother, and then commit suicide.
The important point here is that the audience learned of all these details through the use of the flashback. Indeed, most of the others on the island know little or nothing of his past — just like the other characters on board your vessel might not know about your character’s past. Your goal is to create an interesting story for others to read, while giving realistic impetus for your character.
Now let’s look at using flashbacks in our own sims. The next time you write a sim, think of how you usually try to convey your story. Is it mostly through the actions of your character in the present? “Ensign Bloggs fires phasers. Ensign Bloggs eats lunch.” What’s missing, as we now know, are the motivations of the character. The reader needs to know why Ensign Bloggs is firing the phasers. Or, why is he a tactical officer? Why is he so willing to follow the orders of this Captain? Giving the reader these reasons helps us to see the character in a sympathetic light, even if what they’re doing isn’t particularly a heroic action. Perhaps the reason Bloggs is at tactical is because his father was a weak man who could never stand up for himself — a trait that eventually got him killed. Maybe because of this, Bloggs feels the need to protect others. To present this kind of information, we bring in the flashbacks slowly throughout the course of the story.
We’d start by giving a flashback to a time when Bloggs’ father couldn’t stand up for himself. We could introduce this flashback at a time when Bloggs find himself confronted by something or someone. Don’t always tie the two situations (the present and the flashback) with identical scenes, though; be nuanced! Perhaps this first confrontation is as simple as the cook in the mess hall being rude to Bloggs, while the flashback shows Bloggs’ father not standing up for himself when something much larger was at stake. Next, we could show a flashback of Bloggs’ father struggling with his inability to stand up for his family. Perhaps this could occur when Bloggs is struggling with his own ability to protect those around him. Finally, perhaps at the climax of the plot, Bloggs could flash back to the moment he saw his father killed at the hands of an attacker. How does Bloggs change and grow, and overcome these issues in the present? What allows him to do that? By using your flashback sequence over a number of sims, you have created a compelling sub-plot that others are interested to read and learn more about.
Having a plan
The next technique, which is only slightly less important than flashbacks (and less rarely used) is having a plan. While you may find that it is difficult to have a plan when there are so many other writers involved in the direction your character takes, if you can create long-term goals for your character which will only minimally be effected by the general plot, you will be most successful in creating a character that is fun to read, and fun to write. Lost continues to be an entertaining show for the simple fact that its characters are moving in a metaphorical direction that the viewer enjoys watching. We, as the audience, subconsciously know that these characters were well developed before the show began. But by their stories being so developed before-hand, we are able to enjoy their clear and coherent direction in the episodes.
Be forewarned, though, that it’s not a good idea to completely flesh your character out before you begin writing. Doing so will simply “box you in,” and make it difficult for you to go with the flow. What you want to find are long-term goals that can be fluid and flexible as the plot progresses. These goals will develop over the course of weeks, months, or even years as you write the character. For example, in Deep Space 9, there was likely the “goal” of having Jadzia Dax and Worf form a relationship that becomes marriage — “happy ever after.” However, with Terry Farrell’s departure from the series, plans had to change. In the end, this led to a great deal of very valuable character development for Worf. You can use the same “speed bumps” in simming as opportunities.
Similarly, as we discussed in the flashback section, it’s important to also open the story slowly and avoid giving too much away too soon. On the flip side, you do want to record as much detail as possible into your personal bio as events occur. Keeping track of personal nuances and events will help you to later keep your plan on track in a cohesive and realistic manner.
Let’s take another character from Lost, and see how this has worked for them. Kate Austen, beautiful and strong, is a great example of how long-term character goals are important. At the beginning of the series, Kate seems to the audience to be the sweet “girl-next-door” type. It isn’t long before we realize that she’s actually a convict who was on her way back to the United States, though. Had the audience known from the beginning that Kate was a criminal; we might have been less apt to see her as a sympathetic character. She wins us over first, though — which is even more compelling, proof that you cannot judge a book by its cover.
But even more surprising to the audience is what Kate did, and why she did it. And for this, it was incredibly important for the show’s writers to know well in advance that Kate had killed someone. Through successive flashbacks in season 1, we learn that Kate then conned a number of strongmen into helping her rob a bank — but not for the money! Instead, she was looking for a simple trinket owned by the man she killed. Who would have seen that coming? And who wasn’t heartbroken by Kate’s subsequent breakdown in front of Jack once she recovers the small toy plane from the metal suitcase she worked so hard to recover?
Criminal or cherub, you can create a compelling story based around slow blossoming of your character’s story, similar to how the writers of Lost developed Kate. They have (and still have — many details still have not be uncovered!) a long-term plan for her that will only become clear as more episodes are aired. Plant seeds along the way that may not be completely evident to the reader, but will assemble themselves into a clear moment of epiphany when you’re ready. (With Kate, for example, the “seeds” that led to her eventually being uncovered as a criminal include the audience being show how concerned she was about the marshal before the marshal died. Indeed, Jack even questions Kate on why she is asking him if the marshal will die. It’s only after we learn that she was being transported back to the states for her crimes that we realize why she was so concerned about whether the marshal would die or not.)
Implementation of this is simple — just word backwards as you begin simming your character. Start by thinking long and hard about where you want this character to be in five, or even 10 years; then work backwards to how you’re going to get them to that point. It’s good to leave room for personal development in this journey. You don’t want this character to be at the same place they are now. So if you have a character who is the epitome of kindness and generosity, perhaps some time in the “real world” will teach them how to be both kind, but worldly.
Let’s start with a clean slate for Kate and assume we, as her writer, knew nothing about her past except she committed a crime. Where could we go with this, if we know she is going to end up on an island with a “fresh start”? Hmm… Even with a fresh start, we’re all haunted by our past. Does Kate regret what she’s done? Let’s go ahead and say she does regret it. Can she ever atone for what she’s done? What if the only way to atone was to commit another crime? What would she do to avoid jail? If we know we want her to redeem herself, then we must create a back-story of sympathy for her. In doing so, we see what lengths she’s gone to in an attempt to get closer to right.
For any character, or show, it’s the same process. Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, among many others, had a very clear overarching plot to their characters, and the larger story. Look at your own life and consider the decisions you made. Where would you be if they had been different decisions? Where would you be in the future if those decisions had been different?
Learning from the masters of writing is the best way to become a better writer yourself. Many people say that watching TV is a waste of time, but if you’re trying to develop your writing skills, then consuming fictional media is the way to do it. The important thing to do is to actually take lessons from the writing itself, instead of simply allowing it to wash over you. Lost can teach anyone a multitude of lessons about drama and suspense. The characters are wonderful examples of how people in stressful situations can become better people, but also interesting people to watch. Your characters are put through the ringer every day in their StarFleet lives, but if you don’t take the opportunity to shed light on their past, and thus make their motivations clearer, then other readers will never find reasons to connect to your character. And, in the end, you want others to connect and be interested in what your character does. That’s what writing is all about.
(Written by: FltAdml. Tristan Wolf.)