Scribes endure agony, ecstacy in telling story
Lush jungle. Sun-baked beaches. Cool ocean breezes. Working on “Lost” sure is paradise.
Except that’s Hawaii, where “Lost” has been filmed for five seasons now. Where the writers toil away? Well, that’s actually Burbank. What we lovingly refer to as the Oahu of the San Fernando Valley.
That being said, the writers room of “Lost” is paradise in its own way. Though none of us are particularly tan, we’ve had the good fortune to enjoy the most amazing collaboration that any of us have experienced in our careers.
Since joining “Lost” during its first season, we’ve worked on breaking many an episode and during that time stumbled on a few simple truths, or secrets, about writing “Lost” that, in honor of its 100th episode, we thought we’d share. No, they have nothing to do with the monster, Jacob or the numbers — they’re much more mundane than all that.
The first thing to understand about “Lost” is that it’s not a job. It’s a lifestyle. For the eight to 10 months we spend writing and producing the show each season, we all eat, breathe and sleep “Lost” — and sometimes takeout from CPK. But mostly “Lost.”
The next thing you need to know is the answer to the question we most often get asked: “Is there really a plan?”
Yes. We really have a plan.
However, there’s quite a distance to travel from “having a plan” to executing it. There’s still the small issue of actually divvying up that plan into the 17 or so episodes we write each season. That’s where the work comes in, which leads to the next thing we’ve discovered about writing the show. Every episode, for better or worse, must go through a process we’ve dubbed the “Four Day Break.”
Day 1 — Wouldn’t it be cool if …
Day 1 is the day we start batting around the ideas. We know where we are in the uber-plot, and we know where we have to start and finish. Now we need the idea that gets us from A to B, and Day 1 is where the greatest idea ever happens. And that’s when one of us will spit out something like: “Wouldn’t it be cool if … Miles and Hurley took a road trip in a Dharma bus. Two guys who can communicate with dead people. Come on, that’d be cool. Right?”
Excitement sweeps through the room. The blank dry erase boards no longer look so daunting. We’ve done it. We know what the episode is going be and all pat ourselves on the back and head home. A job well done. Which leads us to…
Day 2 — um, there’s a problem
Everyone comes in early, excited to knock this sucker out, only to discover that after a night’s sleep, maybe this great idea doesn’t exactly write itself, that maybe it’s got a few… issues. The conversation usually goes something like this.
Someone: “So we’ve got two guys in the bus heading to see Chang.”
Someone else: “What are they doing?”
Someone else: “Going to see Chang. This is where we learn he’s Miles’ father.”
Someone else: “But isn’t the story over then? In act two?”
Now our greatest idea ever suddenly looks challenging.
After a few hours of wrestling with the difficulty of our premise, we all decide to sleep on it again. Which leads us to…
Day 3 — the breakthrough
We all come back in, maybe a little later than the day before, and all with the same conclusion.
The problem is unfixable.
Time to scrap it. Can’t be done. We need something else. Do we have any backup ideas? Island talent show sounds pretty good right about now. Yeah. We’re doomed. All appears lost. That is until the sun is setting and someone, thankfully, quietly pipes in with … the breakthrough. In the case of episode 513 (“Some Like It Hoth”), it went something like this:
Someone: “What if, after they find Chang at the Orchid station, he has to come in the bus with Hurley and Miles?”
Quiet. Time to absorb that. At first it seems just a small thought, but in actuality it has huge repercussions. And this change sweeps through the room, creating a new wave of excitement.
Yeah, if we did that then Miles is forced to interact with the one man with whom he has no interest in spending time. Conflict! Drama! A character going on a journey of discovery. Learning something about his past that will affect his future. And, lo and behold, hope returns to Burbank.
Riding the wave of euphoria, everyone heads home nervous. Is this a real breakthrough? Possibly. Which brings us to …
Day 4 — the break begins
Everyone sits around the table. Lots of nervous energy. Do we have something or not? As the discussion begins, suddenly ideas for scenes start popping up. Natural places for our uber-mythology to slot in appear. Connective tissue between episodes presents itself. All the ingredients seem to be there.
And that’s when we know we might have a ways to go but we know we have an episode.
Which is not to say we’re done. No, in actuality we’re just beginning, but the four-day gestational process for the idea is complete, and now we can get our hands dirty figuring out the nuts and bolts of the story.
It’s exciting and thrilling to be a part of it all coming together. Slowly but surely over the next few days to weeks, scenes and structure start to sort themselves out. All in the support of the core idea that was hatched during this four-day process. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
Up until the end of the break that is, because that’s when, once again, we stare at the blank board that taunts us.
Yep. It’s time for episode 514. Despair slowly fills the room once again. How can we possibly do this again? We’re spent. That’s all we’ve got. Every last bit of talent we have was expended making that last episode. We can’t possibly keep going.
Someone: “Wait. Wouldn’t it be cool if …”
And the room goes quiet.
Suddenly we’re re-energized. We all realize it at the same time. It’s Day 1 again and, just maybe, we can do another one of these.
One-hundred episodes later we’re still doing it. Doesn’t seem possible. But Variety told us it’s true, so it must be. Now if you’re really interested in Jacob or the smoke monster, just watch the show.
Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz are exec producers of “Lost.”