Monday, March 17, 2008

The Rules of LOST

[I realize lately I have been hitting some of the same buttons I already hit around here. But I am trying to think some of this stuff into an essay, and writing it in parts. I do not know if it will work in the end, but it is something I get to use the blog for.]

Any screenwriting manual will tell you that one of the first things you must do in your screenplay – at least by the end of the first act – is establish the rules. The kid in The Sixth Sense can see ghosts, and we, the audience can see them with him – for us the only way we can tell them from normal people is that we can see the fatal wound. A kid might look normal in profile, but when he turns, we, with the kid, will see the head wound and know he is a ghost. What makes the ending of the Sixth Sense satisfying is that we only figure out Bruce Willis is a ghost at the end – and when we realize it, we see that it fits into the rules perfectly even though we failed to put it together earlier. The movie did something surprising within the confines of the rules established at the beginning.

Contrast this with the seventh season of Buffy, in which we are introduced to Uber-Vamps – basically super-powerful Neanderthal vampires. There is virtually a whole episode devoted to how hard these things are to kill even for an expert slayer like Buffy. Then suddenly, and basically for no reason, they become easy to kill – even when Slayers are outnumbered ten to one. The show broke its rules and we are not satisfied.

(Grant Morrison’s Cassandra Nova is a controversial example – the rules around her kept changing. This may have been the point, but I do not think it worked, especially since the changing rules made her a less and less interesting character. We covered all that in the New X-Men posts, but I thought I would mention it as different example of the rules).

LOST seems to have accomplished something a show should not be able to do – to a large extent it refuses to properly establish the rules at all. One of the main reasons it gets away with this is because so little time has passed for the characters on the island – 100 days in three and a half years. Four years without knowing what the smoke monster is – and I bet it will become nearly six – would be silly, but 100 days, with all the time spent on basic survival, among other insanity, is not so crazy. There is also the large cast, which allows them to drop plot-lines for long stretches of time: something like 11 episodes pass until they can get the hatch they discovered open because they don’t spend 11 episodes on the hatch.

Then there are elements like the numbers – they simply will not explain it, and may never explain it. (It is explained to an extent outside the show proper, but I am going to put that aside for now). One of the show-runners, when asked if the numbers will be explained, brought up the metaclorians thing from the new Star Wars movies and said “Happy now?”

By keeping “the rules” at bay, LOST is able to tell all kinds of stories. If Neo could time travel in the second movie we would all go nuts, but LOST can introduce time travel three seasons in and we are OK with it, because, hey, why not? It does not break any rules. Smoke monsters, cursed numbers, time travel, morality tales, survival tales, jungle adventure tales, love stories, weird science, Christianity, paganism, drug stories, colossus statues, natives, doctors, a bunch of guys fixing a VW – it all works because by making reticence about the rules part of the show, we will accept almost anything. Season Two make Locke’s concern that the numbers were meaningless part of the show – the embodied the feelings of a host of fans. Compare the mythology of Lost to the mythology of any other show. You can articulate the mythology of other shows – aliens do not exist on Firefly – but on Lost you really never know. That’s one of the reasons why it is funny when Sawyer asks Juliet why they are breaking rocks and she says, deadpan, “we’re building a runway for the spaceship.”

It will be interesting to see where this all goes, but they have created a structure that really works, that really allows them to do what a show is supposed to do – tell surprising stories. One of the things I like best about LOST is they way it privileges characters and story over mythology on a show where mythology could easily dominate, as it does on Star Wars for example, or the Matrix sequels. But it also puts a ton of pressure on the ending – is there a guiding principle, a set of secret rules, behind it all? Or will LOST take them same road it did with the rules in the first place, and figure another way out?


Marc Caputo said...

Geoff, I'm curious how you would assess other "head-scratcher" films on that basis. Is "The Usual Suspects" well-written in terms of its surprise or does it rook the audience? In the case of "The Spanish Prisoner", when Campbell Scott signs the "club membership", we clearly see that it is a club membership. Later, it's revealed to be a notice of defection (or something like that). Is that the script, the direction or just a goof that we can dismiss or attack, depending on our like of the film?

James said...

I love the way The Faculty corrects The Breakfast Club as outlined in the superhero book, but that tentacle-finger is bullshit.

briang said...

I've only seen a few episodes, but House seems like a show that is almost suffocated by its rules. The episodes I've seen all follow an extremely similar format to the extent that all that usually changes is the medical jargon being thrown around by the doctors.

George said...

Not sure whether you need another example, but the history of television is rife with other instances of shows/writers having a tough time with The Rules (however they have chosen to establish them). "The X-Files" really went off the rails once The Conspiracy became all. It got to the point that what was ever revealed would be invalidated and so, the viewer lost any incentive to stick with the show.

Maybe an explanation is that cliche from writing, "Kill your darlings." You might be enamored with your "world" but unless you stick with rules that could allow for unending stories, the reader/viewer will complain that the author/creator doesn't have the guts "to shoot his own dog."

Geoff Klock said...

Usual Suspects seems fair -- there is no rule broken to have the twist at the end. So in that case I am actually not sure what you are thinking of that COULD be a problem. I never noticed that about the Spanish Prisoner before and now that I know it DOES bother me. I suppose there could be some way it became the other thing, or we were seeing the situation through the caracters eyes, but that does seem less than perfect. On the other hand I LIKE that movie, so yeah, I always want to cut it some slack. I wonder why they did it that way. It does seem like cheating.

James -- can you be more specific about the tentacle finger thing. I think I forgot that. And did I really mention that Breakfast Club Faculty thing in the superhero book? Wow I forget stuff fast.

Briang -- dead right. SUFFOCATED. Although on that show it is more the structure than the rules that is causing the problem.

George -- I like that Shoot is Own dog line. Someone should send it to Joss Whedon.

James said...

Geoff: Just in passing as another example of someone "aiming correctively", yeah. The tentacle-finger thing (SPOILER) is when they all sit 'round and snort Josh Hartnett's homebrew super-coke out of biro casings to prove they're not aliens. Later you get a flashback to that scene, only now the girl who was an alien all along unscrews the bottom of her biro with her CRAZY MORPHING TENTACLE-FINGER. Whaaat?

George said...

Geoff, you might not have caught this Disney classic when it was in the theaters, but there was a Tommy Kirk film in the mid 1960s, called "Ol'Yeller". It's a coming of age story where Kirk's character crosses the threshold into adulthood by having to shoot Yeller (because the poor beasty, alas, is infected by rabies, having been bitten by a beast who threatened Kirk's character or another human). Drilled my seven-year-old- afternoon-matinee-butt straight into the chair!