Monday, May 24, 2010

LOST: Connections

Less than 24 hours after the series finale of LOST, I am tackling the meaning of the show, its importance for modern story telling, and why, as anyone who writes or enjoys stories, should appreciate the show. But, before I begin, I have two disclaimers:

1: There will be spoilers. If you haven't watched all of the way through and don't like learning things beforehand, back out now and come back later.

2: The following essay is simply my interpretation of the show. I do not claim to know the thoughts of the writers and producers.

For six long, tumultuous seasons LOST has brought people together over insane story telling. The show was never about the island, it's mysteries or the mythology. In my mind, that's fluff: fun, but not the point. After watching the finale last night I can say that the show is about connections. It's about how everyone you meet has an impact on your life. Regardless of how little the interaction happened to be, it can -- and most likely will -- have a butterfly-effect-type impact on your life and the lives of others who you touch.

Throughout the first three seasons of the show, we see how all of these characters' pasts are intertwined. Sawyer drank with Jack's dad in Sydney. Jack and Claire were half-siblings. Locke's dad was the one who drove Sawyer's parents to their deaths. Every episode the connections grew. The last three seasons we got to watch as all of these people's relationships evolved and some cemented into life-long loves.

Then we have the finale. In the "flash-sideways" time-line, all of the characters are re-connecting and remembering their experiences together. Turns out they all died, each on their own time, and the "flash-sideways" time-line was created to help them all re-connect and move on together. Even in death the connections we make, the time we spend together means something. Everything we do, everyone we meet, has purpose.

Sure, that's all well and good, but what about Walt? What about Aaron? They were supposed to be special right? Why didn't we learn anything more about them? Let's come down from our cloud of LOST's greatness and remember we are watching a television show created by human beings. I can say with a decent amount of certainty that the producers knew they were going to re-unite all of the characters in death at the end of the show. But, I will venture a guess and say that they didn't have all of the mythology planned out. Walt and Aaron, their character's importance fizzeled out as the show evolved and 'more important' bits of the story overtook them. They created Walt as an interesting kid who seemed to be able to summon birds, and that's why the Others were in-turn interested in him. But ultimately the show grew around him. While sad, I think we need to remember that television shows are rather elastic in their creation, and some things will get lost (no pun intended). We should count ourselves lucky that the producers actually got to end it on their own time. Now we don't have to sit through seasons of the writers aimlessly coming up with individual episode plots that have no purpose towards the end.

That's what happened in LOST's lesser moments. Who cares about the chick from "Expose"? Not I. Do we really care that Jack had a fling with some crazy woman in Asia where he got his tattoos. Nope. Again, such is the nature of a television show.

So, why, as lovers of stories and, some of us as writers, care about the show? The characterization is fantastic. Most of the characters are quite complex and the biggest characters, Jack, Locke, Ben, and others I'm sure, have full development arcs. LOST is a great study in character motivation, complexity and growth.

If your into sci-fi or speculative fiction, the show's treatment of time travel is superb. The mythology created, and fairly well maintained, throughout the entire series is exceptionally complex. This complexity has frustrated many, and I understand. That is an acquired patience. LOST's writers really went out of their way to include intelligent cultural references. From Sawyer's quipped nicknames for everyone, to Jacob reading "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor as Locke falls from paralyzing heights.

In the end, LOST succeeds as an intelligent, complex show. It is a show about people; people struggling with their lonely and depraved pasts to make sense of their lives, to have faith, to have purpose. The mythology is good, confusing at times, and yes there are some dead ends. Stories should make you think, make you contemplate your place within that story and what its message means for your life. In this, LOST succeeds.

LOST brought viewers together all over the world. The show definitely helped me cultivate friendships, including one with my future wife. It gave us something to talk about, something to bond over. For this, I will be forever grateful. But thank God, LOST is finally over!

(Edit: Actually Aaron was explained already. Scratch that.)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Does Any One Read Short Stories Anymore?

I started writing this post yesterday, but I was sick and decided to quit while I was ahead. Now, hopefully in a bit more coherent voice, I want to encourage all of you to read short stories!

Again, I was inspired by a lively debate over at BookEnds, LLC about whether novellas are too short to successfully convey a story. Some of the argument focused on whether publishers would buy something as short as a 30k-word novella. But in the comments section, I was incredibly surprised by the amount of people who said they never read short stories or novellas. Several even went so far as to say that it is impossible to get full characterization out of short-length stories.

I'm in love with the short story. I am the proud owner of 13 short story collections and am looking to expand (once I have money). I write short stories. It is possible to tell a compelling story, to fully bring out a character within the short story format. It sure isn't easy, obviously, because of the smaller amount of words you have to use.

READ SHORT STORIES! Your life will be better for it. Below I list a number of short stories that have impacted me. The list is by no means exhaustive. But it should suffice to silence you doubters. Go forth and read!

In no particular order:
"Refresh, Refresh" by Benjamin Percy
"A Good Man Is Hard To Find" by Flannery O'Connor
"The Lady with the Dog" by Anton Chekhov
"The School" by Donald Barthelme
"A Distant Episode" by Paul Bowles
"The Swimmer" by John Cheever
"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin
"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe
"A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J.D. Salinger

PS: Be on the lookout for my "Lost" retrospective on Monday.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mommy, Where Do Stories Come From?

It's so easy to criticize a story for lacking creativity or for using the same plot over and over again. Yesterday I watched the movie "Quarantine." It used several tired devices: hand-held camera action, zombies, infection, screaming. Half of the time I shook my head in wonder. Why would you rehash the same story over and over again. Because it works; the public has a thirst for zombies right now. Despite being a combination of cliches "Quarantine" managed to actually be fairly frightening. What made it work was that the people were 'quarantined' in an apartment building; they'd be shot if they tried to leave, turn into zombies if they stayed. On top of reusing devices, the acting was sub-par. But the environment was just fresh enough to make the movie work.

As a writer it's easy to fall into these traps of plot lines that are overused but always produces decent reaction. Jessica over at her blog, BookEnds, LLC, discussed the problem today also. (I credit her for inspiring this post. See? I steal story ideas too.)

If we want to be considered creative (good) writers, we need avoid these 'classic' plots. So how do we do that? Where do we get our story ideas?

I'm a bit of news junky. The short story I'm working on was inspired by several articles about veterans in various magazines. (See my previous post "A Need For Direction.") So we can look for stories in news. Another thing I like to do is imagine the points of view of secondary characters in other author's works and try to figure out how that person feels about things. I've also seen interesting people while out driving around or running errands, and I start to imagine a life for this poor guy I just saw on the side of the road. I'm not of the class that can just conjure a plot out of nothing. I have to really work at it.

This post comes at a critical time for me. As I'm finishing up "Getting To Know Lou Jones" I'm starting to brainstorm my next story. No leads yet. It will come. It always does.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

On to the Editing

I enjoy editing. Really, I do. I just don't like editing my own stuff. It might be the most frustrating experience ever. When I look at my story, I see what I wrote as I intended to write it. Sure, I'll pick up on most spelling and grammatical errors. It's the larger flow of the story that I have a harder time seeing.

About a week and a half ago, I finished the first draft of story that for now I'm calling "Getting to Know Lou Jones." Honestly, I think it's better than most of my rough drafts, but I know that it isn't perfect either. I think that this might be my first publishable story, considering that much of my unpublished catalog is so bizarre. I've been avoiding digging into it, because I'm not sure where to begin.

If a journal or magazine is to pick it up, it needs to be as close to finished as possible. How do I figure out if certain scenes are working? How do I know if the reader knows enough about the characters to care, to make the action believable? These are the questions that are haunting me. If anyone out there has any tips, please share. In the meantime, I will try my best to work out the kinks, to look at Lou Jones with outsider's point of view.

This ain't easy.