How the Lost School of Storytelling Blurred the Line Between Intriguing and Confusing
I love writing mysteries with vast casts, layered subplots, and dozens of twists. My favorite mysteries contain elements of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. They’re the everything and the kitchen sink approach to storytelling. The TV show Lost inspired much of my love, and apprehension, for this facet of the mystery genre.
Lost has taught me a lot about what to do and what not to do when writing mysteries. It featured emotionally involving character arcs with themes like regret, the wages of sin, and crisises of faith. It set up intriguing plot lines about psychological manipulation, international conspiracies, and time travel. Lost successfully followed through on its character arcs, but fell short of bringing its plot lines to completion.
In the end Lost had little to do with psychological experiments, quantum physics, or philosophy. It was really just Stephen King’s The Stand on an Island. Candidates endorsed by a Christ figure, Jacob, had to defeat others endorsed by a Satanic stand in, the man in black.
For those of us who wanted the Sci Fi elements to factor into the big reveals we were sorely disappointed, especially when the production ended in a church.
The Island’s unique electro magnetic properties, its ability to travel through time, and the motive behind the Dharma Initiative’s experiments were never explained. We were left to tie those dangling plot threads off on our own. The show runners were more interested in pairing off the characters for an afterlife of monogamous bliss.
I remain a Lost apologist, but I don’t believe a compelling journey excuses a disappointing destination. If the destination rewarded us for paying attention the mysteries throughout the journey would feel like they meant something, not just tricks to string us along. This is why I understand people who came away from Lost with viewers’ remorse.
If you’re interested in writing a complex mystery, like Lost, here are some tips to make sure both the journey and its end are rewarding.
Answer Some of Your Mysteries Early On
If your question to answer ratio is skewed towards too many questions readers will start to wonder if you bothered coming up with any answers.
If you foreshadow an event in the first chapter and it happens before the end of act one you build trust with your audience. When these hints payoff early you train your readers to look for more of them.
It’s like the first screen of Super Mario Bros. World 1 stage 1. The screen tells you everything you need to know about the game. You learn that there are mushroom creatures that can kill you. You can flatten them by stomping on their heads. You can hit random bricks to collect coins or power ups. The screen is designed to teach you the right way to play.
If page one of your mystery sets up a reveal that happens by the end of that chapter your readers will search for more to come. They’ll trust you know what you’re doing. One of the most unsatisfying things about getting invested in a mystery is being half way through the book and having no idea if you enjoy what you’re reading. The audience’s opinion shouldn’t depending on an epic ending.
Make Sure Your Philosophical References Benefit Your Theme
People want to be enlightened while they’re entertained, so long as the philosophy writers pepper in has an impact on the proceedings.
If you’re writing a story where reality is not what it seems you’d do well to reference Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. This is a parable about two slaves born into bondage. The slaves spend their lives facing a cavern wall watching the shadows of the miners working there. They believe these dancing silhouettes are the inhabitants of the world. If you’re writing a story about clones separated at birth that allegory doesn’t fit. It will only confuse readers into searching for meaning where there is none.
I once used the ethical question of the trolly dilemma in a story where it didn’t fit. In the trolly dilemma a trolly is careening down a hill. A madman has tied five people to the track. You have the power to switch the track. The only problem is the trolly will hit an innocent bystander if you do. Is it morally right to willfully sacrifice one life to save five others, or is taking action wrong?
This conflict between rational and emotional thinking had nothing to do with my story’s broader themes. My story was about how we can conquer our fears by embracing our imagination. I’d just read about the trolly dilemma and thought it’s inclusion in my story would make my mysteries seem more important. The dilemma was the wrong fit for my theme.
Deep references don’t belong if you’re only using them as intellectual window dressing.
Spirituality Doesn’t Automatically Make Your Mystery More Intriguing
I’ve noticed a trend in mystery thrillers, like Lost, to evoke spiritual themes to give themselves an ominous flavor. The same rules apply here. If you quote a bible story as a metaphor for what’s happening to your characters it must factor into your broader themes. If you reference the book of Job one of your characters better go through a crisis of faith.
Spiritual themes need to pay off. Audience members of faith don’t like to see their beliefs used as esoteric gibberish to make stories seem more mysterious. Audience members without faith need to see spiritual concepts play out in tangible ways. Lost blurred this line by using religious references as metaphors for moral dilemmas that applied to everyone.
Still, Lost was at its best when the concepts of science and faith were part of a narrative debate. When the show revealed that it was coming down on the side of faith in the final season, a chunk of the audience felt shortchanged.
Why Wouldn’t Your Characters Share What They’ve Learned?
Conflict is the heart of drama. Goals are the heart of conflict. If two characters’ goals are the same then conflict arises from poor communication. Back when I was watching Lost my friends would always yell at the screen, “Just tell him what you saw already!”
So many of Lost’s filler episodes would’ve been unnecessary if the characters had pooled their knowledge of the island’s mysteries. The show-runner’s justified the characters’ tight lips in a number of ways some more effective than others.
When the Others, the cult-like natives of the island, kidnapped Michael’s son, Michael had good cause not to share what he knew with his fellow castaways. Leverage is a good reason for characters to stay mum.
If your hero fears rejection they might not share information they learned while researching the person they have a crush on. If there are incriminating photos of your hero they’re not going to feel compelled to tell their pals they’re being blackmailed. If your hero is afraid people will think they’re crazy they’ll be less inclined to share their dead father’s prophecy.
One of the tricks the show-runners of Lost used to keep miscommunication going was a sense of urgency. There was never any time to explain, even though slowing down to do so would save everyone in the long run. This got aggravating, because most of the time characters were trekking across an island. Even if there was an urgent matter the characters had nothing but time to explain on the way to their destination.
If your heroes are always in too much of a hurry to share what they’ve learned you’re using urgency too often.
Long form mysteries demand more structure than other genres. For writers, like myself, who enjoy discovering the story as we go, we need to have a good memory for the questions we’ve raised. A mystery is a check we are writing to the audience. We should let them know that our credit is good by cashing a few checks early on.
A lack of communication between characters shouldn’t be the only thing keeping our long form mysteries going.
A clear theme can keep the audience invested when they’re not entirely sure what they’re reading. Our philosophical, psychological, and spiritual references should support that theme.
As I mentioned, I am a Lost apologist. I own all six seasons and part of me still thinks show-runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse hung the moon. My fantasy version of Lost’s ending has our heroes facing the bright light in the sky from the inside of an airplane, not a church. Still for all its narrative sins Lost’s imitators commit so many more. Lost was able to sustain an even tone and a level of intrigue until the very end. I found the character endings satisfying even if the plot fell short of my expectations.
If you can’t tie up each of your dangling plot threads at least make sure that your characters’ aren’t left hanging.
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