I'm lost about Lost
June 16, 2008 8:49 AM   Subscribe

How far ahead do writers of serial dramas plan? I've been catching up on Lost (only through Season 2 - no spoilers please!) and I've been wondering how much of this was planned, and how much was decided a week in advance. I'm sure the overall story arc is planned well in advance, but just what does that entail?
posted by um_maverick to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It depends on the series.

With most major dramatic series, writers/producers will map out what they want the 'character arcs' to be over the course of the season(s). This means, for example, "We want Doctor X to lose his relationship somehow, become an alcoholic, and be redeemed by the end of the season." Specifics will get filled in later, and stories will be measured against the arcs.

More specifically, Abrams claims with Lost that he has had the endgame mapped out since the beginning. Going further back in time, Babylon 5's total story arc (including major character changes) was mapped out before a single camera was turned on. Specific small details and scripts hadn't been written, but the major events of the show had already been created.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:55 AM on June 16, 2008

I'm too lazy to get cites, but for Lost, the short answer is that the only people who know aren't telling. As I understand it, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse (the current Exec. Producers -- J. J. Abrams hasn't had any direct involvement with the show for a couple of years) claim to know the major story "beats" from now until the end of the series. However, the specific timing and sequence of those "beats" is fairly flexible. Moreover, subplots and characters come and go (see Nikki and Paolo, whom you will get to know in season 3). By all accounts, the Exec. Producers' negotiations with ABC last year to get the network to commit to a specific series end date (the end of season 6 in 2010) were designed to allow them to specifically plan out and control the rest of the story.
posted by pardonyou? at 9:06 AM on June 16, 2008

It also depends on the "bigness" of things. For instance, as far as LOST is concerned, I'm inclined to believe that they have had the endgame planned out from the get go, but other things have changed as the series continues. The strike and shortened season forced them to drop some planned character storylines this season, for instance.

Other times, they just change their minds. If you just finished season 2, you saw something pretty odd that was a big question for many viewers, but Lindelof has essentially stated that there will never be an *answer* to why it was there.

Or maybe not. Tough to tell if they're just backpeddling, or if in fact he was misquoted. More: LostPedia (Spoilerish, in as much as LostPedia contains info on things you haven't seen yet.)
posted by SpiffyRob at 9:23 AM on June 16, 2008

If you've got the time, give the official Lost podcast a listen. Obviously, don't start at the most recent ones, find the season 2 podcasts and work along the archive as you watch the show.

Lindelof and Cuse talk about these things at times. The analogy they used once was the show was planned like a long road trip. They know where they are starting, where they'd ending up and some major sites they'll see along the way, but some of the other details are filled in "on the road."

By all accounts, the Exec. Producers' negotiations with ABC last year to get the network to commit to a specific series end date (the end of season 6 in 2010) were designed to allow them to specifically plan out and control the rest of the story.

This is something they talked about a few times. You'll understand once you've made it through Season 3, but knowing exactly how much space they had left gave the writers something very concrete to work with. With a highly serialized show like Lost this is quite important. Only so much planning can be done when you don't know if you'll have one season left to utilize or five. Getting a concrete six season commitment from ABC allowed a lot more specific planning to occur, or so they said.
posted by Nelsormensch at 9:26 AM on June 16, 2008

From what I can tell, and this is just my opinion, is that the plan, if there is one gets quickly abandoned. If the show is popular then they try and stretch things out, sometimes fans of the show write in in sufficient numbers to get something changed (see Man with the Horned Rimmed Glasses in Heroes), other times the writers themselves change their minds.

From my experience all big networks are completely willing to abandon any kind of cohesive structure in a show at a whim; see X-Files, Lost, Heroes, etc. Many shows have a hint that things are heading in a particular direction, but they almost never get there, or anywhere in fact.

Short run dramas often fare better, like Twin Peaks or the first 4 seasons of Babylon 5.
posted by Vindaloo at 9:42 AM on June 16, 2008

For Lost specifically,

From the DVD writer comments, it's clear they only think things out one episode at a time. Not only that, but a different writer is hired on to write each episode, so... there's not much continuity there.

However, for the last season, the writers have said that since they knew they only had one year left, they could map out the series to its endgame. I'm not sure if they just agreed to an ending or an outline for the rest of the series or what.

The only show that I know of that actually created an outline for their entire series is The Wire. That's why that's the best freaking show to ever hit television, and everything else feels like a loosely connected series of one-off episodes.
posted by xammerboy at 9:51 AM on June 16, 2008

Oh, and it was almost sad listening to the commentary to realize how unplanned all this stuff was, like simply showing a board with a bunch of numbers with absolutely no idea at all if they would be meaningful later on. The minute after I listened to the commentary I stopped watching. That was midway into season 1.
posted by xammerboy at 9:54 AM on June 16, 2008

I can't find the interview I read this from, but for 24, the period between writing an episode and filming it shrinks over the course of a season, and generally over the course of the series. I believe it was something like a month's lead time at the start of the first season, with several episodes plotted in advance, down to maybe a week at the end of that season; subsequent seasons have been even shorter, with a choice quote being something like "we'll finish writing on Wednesday and start shooting Friday."

This doesn't cover season-long planning, like general plotarcs and stuff, but my impression was that 24 never planned much further ahead than the particular eight-episode act they happened to be in or were about to enter.
posted by chrominance at 10:03 AM on June 16, 2008

Oh, and it was almost sad listening to the commentary to realize how unplanned all this stuff was...

I agree that it's sad when a story doesn't hang together. And MOST of the time, if writers don't plan, it doesn't. But I want to point out that this isn't necessarily the case. As a director, story is all important to me. Yet I would LOVE to work on a series in which random events keep hitting the writing team. (In large or small ways, this always happens: you can plan until the cows come home, but in the middle of filming, you may discover something that compels you to go in a particular direction; an actor might quit or die; etc.) The challenge would be to keep things coherent even while dealing with randomness. It saddens me that so many writing teams either aren't talented enough to roll with the punches or don't care enough about story logic to do so.

I think there are measures you can take to deal with -- or even embrace -- randomness in storytelling. The major thing is to have some sort of "spine" to hang your story on. Some central idea or metaphor or something. For instance, if I'm trying to tell the story of A Family Collapsing, I can do that regardless of what happens. But it's vital that I keep returning to that spine over and over. An actor quits the show? Fine. Okay, how do we continue to tell the story of A Family Collapsing -- given this twist of fate?

You also need a good "bible" of what's gone before, and you need to religiously consult it and refuse to violate it. If, in the first episode, so-and-so said that he was never married, he can't, in season three, start talking about his ex-wife.

I even think there's a great way to deal with the vagaries of how long a show is going to last: you make each season have its own satisfying arc. This is the norm in England. I don't know why it's not the norm in the US. If someone told me I was in charge of a show but not when it was going to end, this would be the immediately obvious constraint. Some US shows are planned this way, but not enough of them are.

A great example of a show that rolled with the punches -- and made good use of them -- is "Upstairs Downstairs." There's a HUGE event that happens about a 3rd of the way through the series. It changes everything. Yet it was unplanned. But the writers embraced it, and it defined the series from then on. Now, I can't imagine it NOT happening. The skilled writing team managed to make something out-of-their-control look inevitable. That's brilliance.
posted by grumblebee at 10:23 AM on June 16, 2008

It becomes pretty clear by the first episode of series 3 that they are just pulling stuff out of their collective asses, they might have an ending lined up for 2010 but everything in the middle they're making up as they go along. It just gets ridiculous. I can't believe they're going to carry on for another 3 years.
posted by missmagenta at 10:26 AM on June 16, 2008

It becomes pretty clear by the first episode of series 3 that they are just pulling stuff out of their collective asses

I'm not sure how that's clear. An incoherent story can be just as planned as a coherent one. Think about the bad storytelling in many Hollywood films. Bad as they are, most of them are scripted way before filming starts. The sad truth is though many storytellers plan, not all are good at planning. And not all of them even care that much about coherency. In my view, Tim Burton doesn't care about it at all. To me, he seems like someone who likes "cool stuff" (cool effects, cool premises, etc.) -- story logic be damned! Since I care so much about story details, I find most of his films unwatchable.
posted by grumblebee at 10:40 AM on June 16, 2008

I'm going to disagree with xammerboy a little bit. (And let me preface this by saying I have almost no insider information to go on here, just a gut feeling.)

I really liked the first season of Lost. But that second season was terrible. But then it got good again. I've heard that they had the show planned out from the beginning and I think they did. I think the plan was: they're in Purgatory. But then the audience figured that out by the end of the second episode and the writers freaked out because their big grand reveal had been gleaned and broadcast over all the blogs. So they treaded water and made up a bunch of shit as they went along, a bunch of shit that mostly won't be a part of the rest of the show.

Then, somewhere along the line, they figured out what to do with the show, and knew that the only way they could pull it off is if they had an agreement with ABC about exactly how many more episodes/seasons they would have to tell the story. And then the picked up in season three with this new storyline. It was the fact that they got a firm end date for the show that made seasons three and four much, much stronger. Now they seem to be on a path that, while maybe isn't the greatest story, is infinitely more interesting than most of what they were doing in the second season.

And to not completely disagree with xammerboy, he's right about The Wire. Best thing on tv ever.
posted by nushustu at 11:23 AM on June 16, 2008

I was at Comic Con panel when Lost was first demoed (I think it was even called "The Lost" back then) and remember three things:

1) Girls screaming every time "Charlie" said anything as he was big time because of LoTR

2) Damon Lindelof saying this wasn't a "Land of the Lost" remake and that in no point would a dinosaur appear in the series. I think this was because they showed the early scene where "Kate" is running away from an unseen monster people thought was a T Rex and the show was named "The Lost" at the time. Since they would never say what the show was about I have a feeling the Land of the Lost things came up a bunch.

3) Abrams saying the they had the main arcs planned out and that the show would last 5 years. Abrams said he didn't want any comparisons to Giligan's Island.
posted by sideshow at 12:48 PM on June 16, 2008

So basically with Lost, ABC decided they wanted a "castaways stranded on island" drama to try and riff on the success of Survivor. They get Abrams to come up with an idea for what this could be, they like it, and then they give him just twelve weeks to write/cast/shoot/edit the pilot.

What I'm saying is, there's no way at this point that they've got the whole thing planned out. But what Abrams knows is that a) he loves weird sci-fi shit, and b) there needs to be some phenomenon beyond the characters just existing on an island, to create the kind of drama that can sustain a series. Hence the smoke, and so on, and so forth. (I suspect ABC originally had in mind something else - it would just be a kind of castaway soap opera and the drama would come from "getting food" and stuff like that.)

Fortunately for the writers, the audience loves Lost, but unfortunately, they aren't tuning in to watch the latest in the Kate/Jack/Sawyer romantic rivalries or even discover new stuff about the characters via flashbacks - they want to learn more about the smoke/hatch/NUMBERZZ.

This was hard to respond to, considering that they were at least partially winging it to begin with and they were loathe to "answer" any questions too precisely due to the lack of an end-date. As a result, the writers tend to resolve mysteries by introducing two even stranger mysteries. And because the viewership was very mystery-oriented, it wasn't that they de facto didn't like the other stuff (in our imaginary Friends-on-an-island version of the show, the flashbacks would probably have been the coolest part!) it's just that it was seen as a distraction, a sign that the writers were stretching it out and playing for time. On DVD this is probably a lot more tolerable, but waiting a whole week only to get no substantive developments was pretty irritating.

Around this point a bunch of the interviews with the producers feature them insisting that the show is essentially "about the characters" contrary to the expectations of their viewers. Conversely, during Season Two of Heroes, Tim Kring (the showrunner) saw that trying to pull these kind of shenanigans didn't really work and publically talked about fixing it. Lo and behold, three episodes later the show seemed to get back on track! (I think the three week/episode lead time is about the same for Lost and Heroes.)

Anyway, now there's an end-date in sight for Lost, I think it's getting a lot punchier and making decent headway in terms of bringing the show to a reasonably satisfying conclusion, something that once seemed deeply deeply unlikely.
posted by so_necessary at 2:54 PM on June 16, 2008

Not about lost, but Battlestar Galactica, which is also a serialized drama with major twists, it's been said by the producers that a major revelation about 4, 5 of the characters (not gonna say what, but if you watch the show you know what I mean), the characters chosen for this revelation was, in effect, random.

This was about a season ahead of the revelation, mind you, but still it shows some of the unplannedness.
posted by Lemurrhea at 5:09 PM on June 16, 2008

You can definitely roll with the punches, but it depends on the kind of show. For instance, The Sopranos, one of the best things on television, was written episode by episode. This worked for The Sopranos, because the episodes each explore facets of the characters lives and there are no big seasonal themes. There are issues, but those can be resolved any number of interesting ways at any point.

On the other hand, Lost felt very much like a story that needed to have an arc where threads came together later on and were resolved. I don't believe the writers / directors ever had a plan, because the previous show they were involved with, "Alias", was completely ADD. It was the kind of a show where plots were hatched, thrown away, and forgotten for new plots so fast you couldn't keep track. That show thrived on atmosphere, and I think the same thing was originally envisioned for Lost. In fact, I think it was a surprise to the folks working on it that the audience became invested in the stories and demanded they be fully realized / addressed. I think the creators of the show kind of imagined it as a never ending series of mysteries that would never be explained or tied together. Almost like a post-modernist show where issues could be explained through a deconstructed narrative.
posted by xammerboy at 11:50 PM on June 16, 2008

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