On Writing

“Look, here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot stub which it is constantly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do.”

So writes Stephen King in one of the first writing exercises in his half-memoir, half-writing manual.

This exercise is referenced in the third season episode Every Man for Himself. In that episode, Ben Linus cons Sawyer into thinking that he installed a pacemaker in Sawyer’s heart. To demonstrate, he shakes the rabbit with a number 8 on its back to “death.”

*********************

The first half of On Writing is a series of random stories in lieu of a biography. These made for great reading. Every aspiring writer loves to hear stories about how other authors started writing. The biography part doesn’t tell us much about Lost, though I highly recommend reading the book just for the stories.

The second half of the book is King’s tips for aspiring writers. King did not want to write a style guide; instead, he writes a list of answers to questions he is often asked and questions he wishes he was asked. One of the first exercises in  he second half of the book is the aforementioned bunny exercise that was referenced early in season three of Lost.

There is a lot of interesting information in this part of the book. The Lost writers were influenced by Stephen King more than any other author, so we can assume that they consciously or unconsciously wrote like King.

King writes that he rarely plots out books. Of the books that he did plot out, he only liked The Dead Zone. For the most part, he believes that plot is a waste of time.

King typically writes situations and characters with no real plot in mind. He likes to let characters work their way into or out of situations. The Stand is one example of this – King had an idea for new societies forming in a post-apocalyptic epic, but eventually put the book away for a couple months when he could not figure out how to end it. The answer came to him a while later: he needed to kill off some of his characters. The end result was a bomb conveniently placed in the house where several of the main characters were holding a secret meeting. The bomb was a self-admitted deus ex machina.

Remember that by early to mid-season three, Carlton and Damon openly expressed frustration at not having an end date in mind. As they put it, they were just treading water. Stranger in a Strange Land came five episodes after the On Writing reference and thanks to almost unanimous disapproval from fans, ABC made the unique decision to set an end date for the show.

Imagine that you wanted to write a character-driven novel/script. You want to let characters figure things out. Hard to do that if the person that holds your contract insists on you making your novel/script longer and longer. Your characters need to progress the story forward or else your reader or viewer will give up. Certainly seems frustrating.

King notes that the general consensus among the editing world is that the book needs to read fast to sell (think any of the crap with James Patterson’s name on it). He makes the compelling case that this isn’t exactly true: the books that sell well aren’t necessarily quick reads; as long as the story keeps moving forward to keep the reader’s attention, it doesn’t matter how fast or action-packed the book is.

Perhaps the reference to On Writing at this point in Lost was to express the writers’ frustration at not moving the story forward. King would say (and Damon and Carlton would agree) that if you aren’t moving forward, viewers will give up. And they were right. Try to find a Lost fan anywhere that didn’t entertain at least some idea of giving up on the show in the middle of season three.

You probably noticed that I glossed over a pretty important tidbit. King doesn’t plot. He writes characters and situations and makes things up on the fly. That chapter in King’s book might be exhibit A for the fans who insist that Damon and Carlton made it all up as they went along.

And you know what? I kinda agree with these fans. Unlike those that oppose this idea, I absolutely don’t think that this takes away from Lost at all. King makes a persuasive case against plotting out ideas and then forcing stilted characters to get to the pre-determined conclusion. By not plotting ahead, the Lost writers were free to come up with the brilliant ideas that kept viewers enthralled for so many seasons.

I believe the writers when they say that they had the end planned the whole time. That’s part of the story they wanted to tell in the first place, just like how King comes up with a scenario to begin a book. But all that stuff in the middle and the little details that were never answered or only kinda answered were made up on the fly.

Reading about how King came up with the ending to The Stand reminded me of Lost too. In order to get to the finish, he literally blew people up in two different explosions. There were too many characters to make a satisfying and un-jumbled ending. The same thing happened in Lost – first with the flaming arrow attack in season five that got rid of all the unnecessary characters and later with the sub sinking in season six to get rid of several main characters. King describes how difficult it is to kill characters off, particularly since he grew attached to them. Likewise, it was tough for us and the Lost writers to let go of Sayid, Jin, Sun, and the rest of the characters, but it was necessary for the ultimate ending.

For more of my book reviews, return to the Literature of Lost series.

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