Keeping Promises: reflecting on “LOST” one year later.

Telling a story in modern times is really all about keeping promises. I am trying to make a living as a professional writer. My chosen medium for storytelling is the novel. I sometimes dabble in screenplays. When a prospective reader picks up my book, they might do so for any number of reasons: the cover art, the blurb on the back, my first page, or even my first sentence. All of these become part of the ‘hook’.

The same goes for other forms of storytelling, regardless of medium. Sometimes, we call the hook a trailer; sometimes we call it a teaser. But it is still a hook and what it amounts to is a promise. When someone buys a book, or a movie ticket, or tunes into a television program, they do it because the promise, the hook, is something that resonates with them. Writers in any medium break that promise at their own peril.

Think about the stories that you don’t like. A lot of them started out good, even great. The concept was something that interested you. You bought into the promise. Then when the story’s execution fell short of the promise, you felt cheated. That’s really the root cause of your dislike of these stories, that they didn’t fulfill their promises. Because, you feel cheated, emotion enters the equation. That can turn mere dislike of a story into absolute hatred for the story and its creator (i.e. Star Wars prequels). That’s the kiss of death for a storyteller.

This brings me to some brief thoughts on “LOST”. As quick background, I was an avid fan of the show and never missed an episode. I looked forward to each episode but actually, when I think back about it, it wasn’t the episodes I really looked forward to, it was the discussions about the episodes on the forums, at work, and with my friends that made the show fun. “LOST” was some of the best television to come about in years. For the most part, it was ably acted, well written, and played with our emotions. It could be funny, sad, smart, and flat-out entertaining all at the same time. Anytime you have story that good, you will get emotions wrapped up in it. To say the series finale conjured up an emotional response is a severe understatement.

So, now we have two camps. Those that think “LOST” was a monumental success down to the last closing credits versus those that believe that “LOST” was ultimately a failure in its execution of the series finale.

I place myself firmly in the latter camp.

The show’s defenders will often trot out bromides like, “It wasn’t about the mysteries,” “the answers don’t matter,” “Character first.” Often they do it in a snide tone, since I, and others that disliked the show’s ending, obviously don’t “get it.”

I get it. I actually agree with ‘Character first’. In any genre or medium, the best stories are the ones that place character first. The best stories have the plot driven from character motivations and not the other way around. So why don’t I agree with the program’s defenders? Why did I hate the series finale so much?

Because as much as you can say, ‘it wasn’t about the mysteries’, it really was. The show’s entire premise relied on them to move the story along. Each episode ended with a hook, a new promise, a new mystery be it the Dharma initiative, the Hatch, the Others, the numbers, Walt.  (Ah, for those heady days when Walt and Whidmore were still important.) A good number of viewers tuned in to see how the characters would deal with the mysteries.

By ending the show the way they did, I feel the “LOST” writers broke its promise.

The series finale attempted a heck of twist and a year later, I still hate it just as much as the second it aired. That’s not to say that I don’t like twists or that storytellers can’t have twist endings. In fact, we need new twists to keep old ideas fresh. But that twist still has to fulfill or exceed the original promise. That’s why Star Wars: Episode I is disappointing, why the Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean sequels fail to live up to the originals, why the “Dallas” dream ending finale is still notorious after all these years.

No, the show wasn’t just about the mysteries. Yes, it is about the characters. But denying that the mysteries, and how the characters dealt with them, were a key factor of the show is false.

Imagine the following: An Agatha Christie story, with no mystery. A Sherlock Holmes story where he never leaves 221B Baker Street and instead reflects on the uses of cocaine for the entire tale. An Indiana Jones movie that’s just a college lecture for two hours. A Doctor Who episode where he takes the T.A.R.D.I.S. through time, just to eat at a restaurant and then nothing else happens. People can tell these stories, but no one will care, because no one wants to hear about the stories that don’t fulfill the original promises. Fans of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes want the mystery. Indy is best when he’s having adventures. Doctor Who is about time traveling surprises with clever solutions. When a storyteller tampers with that, they risk breaking their promise and compromising the story.

To me, the “LOST” series finale violated its promise deeply. I feel cheated. Lied to. But there are many people out there that feel that the storytellers fulfilled or even exceeded their promise. I can never convince them otherwise and vice versa. But both sides actually “get it” and therein lies the rub.

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