Stalling Your Narrative

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Last November, I began re-watching Lost from the beginning during my morning workouts. I read somewhere that we should think of exercise as a reward, rather than a punishment. But that’s never been easy for me, so I trick myself into working out by giving myself something like Lost to look forward to or, before that, a comic book movie broken into four or five parts. Hell, the way that I managed to bring myself down from 220 pounds to the 160 or so that I’m at now was by exercising via a video game: Wii Fit Plus.

At any rate, having watched the series from start to finish a number of times over the years, I knew what I was in for. I knew that the first twenty-four days would be easy, that aside from the Shannon and Boone episodes I would be itching to get up and watch the next episode every morning. I knew that the next twenty-four days would be hit or miss, but that once Henry Gale arrived I wouldn’t be able to stop. And I knew that once I got to season 3, the season I began watching the show, I would get to my favorite intellectual exercise (in relation to Lost, that is): figuring out where the producers quit stalling.

What I recall, covering Lost first on That Little Bastad and then on Geek Force Five, was that the stalling ended the moment the producers secured a deal with the network to give the series a definitive end date, that around the time of “Enter 77” (where Locke, Sayid, and Kate pay a visit to Patchy and Locke blows up the building) things got good for good.

But the reality, given that scripts and episodes for the second half of season 3 were already in the pipeline, was that the stalling continued until, really, the moment Jack told Kate, “We have to go back.” Yes, “Enter 77” was great and yes, “Through The Looking Glass” was the most satisfying season finale to that point, but in between those two high points we had to deal with episodes like “Exposé,” as well as the weak flashbacks in “Left Behind,” “Catch-22,” and “D.O.C.,” where they were obviously trying too hard to scrape the characters’ backstories for previously un-covered material.

It is in season 4, which is where I’m at now, that the producers are done with filler and are ready to bring their story to its conclusion. Every episode features a significant revelation that drives the plot forward. In “The Beginning of the End,” we discover that Hurley is the third of the Oceanic Six and that his siding with Locke was a big mistake. “Confirmed Dead” not only shows us what the rest of the world thinks happened to Flight 815, but reveals that Ben has a spy on the freighter that may or may not have come to rescue them. “The Economist” reveals Sayid is the fourth of the Oceanic Six and that he is working for—gasp—Benjamin Linus!

This is why I, as a storyteller, find seasons 4 and 5 infinitely more satisfying than I do seasons 1 and 2. Shit finally starts to go all to hell in a way that matters, in a way that has some finality. These are Lost’s Empire Strikes Back seasons. There's no Han getting frozen in carbonite, but people who matter are finally dying, not just red shirts.

The middle, the climax, is always more interesting than the beginning or the end. Yes, conflict is the heart of fiction, but if that conflict never gets us anywhere, never amounts to anything, then we end up with soap operas, with the worst of the comic books from the big two publishers, with most TV shows.

Are there problems with the way Lost ends? Sure, just like there are problems with how slowly it begins. But the middle of Lost, where the producers are finally free to quit stalling and start pushing their narrative toward its climax and eventual conclusion, that’s an incredible piece of storytelling and well worth studying.