Pop culture reference. Sort of. More of a portmanteau, really.
Anyway, please bear with me. This one’s a bit long, but I think it’s worth it. And there are extra pictures.
Some of you may remember a little show called LOST
that aired a few years ago (yeah, we’re just a couple weeks away from years–plural). I’ve mentioned it here a couple times because it completely redefined the one hour drama for television, and it also offered many brilliant lessons about executing mysteries and twists in a story
. It inspired thousands of writers, in film and in prose.
It’s only natural that networks would want to duplicate the success of LOST. Television is a business—it’s their job to be as successful as possible. If X works, it’s only natural to try more X.
After watching another one of these would-be successors to the throne tread water for a few weeks, I though it might be time to address what a lot of these storytellers are doing wrong. Not that any of them will ever see this or listen to me if they did. But there’s something here that all of us should keep in mind, no matter which format our tale of eerie puzzles and mysterious strangers happen to be written in.
So here are three shows that were all an attempt to cash in on the mystery/genre success of LOST.
The Ninefollowed the lives of the survivors of an extended bank hostage crisis. When the police stormed the building after fifty-two hours, these eight hostages and one captor were the only ones still alive. And despite having a huge impact on their lives, plus the lives of their family and friends, all of them are remarkably close-mouthed about what happened during those almost-three days. Husbands, wives, and others are left wondering why these nine people are so changed, and why the only people they seem to be able to relate to anymore are each other.
The Event was about three parallel plotlines. One was the story of a resourceful young man whose fiancé is kidnapped while they’re on a cruise and his ongoing attempts to find her. One covered a newly-elected President who’s learned the US government has been holding extraterrestrials in an Alaskan prison for the past fifty years and has decided to open negotiations and release them. The last thread is about the aliens themselves and the long-term secret plan they’ve been trying to carry out, even while imprisoned.
Last but not least, we’ve got Alcatraz, which just finished airing a few weeks ago. And I feel pretty confident when I say it finished airing, but I still might be proved wrong there. It focused on San Francisco police detective Rebecca Madsen who gets pulled onto a special government task force. It seems all the stories about America’s greatest prison being shut down fifty years ago aren’t exactly true. All the prisoners weren’t transferred, they vanished. And now they’re reappearing, one by one… and some of them seem to have missions.
Seems like a decent array of shows, yes? Now, here’s the really interesting thing. All three of these shows failed for exactly the same reason. They all had the same flaw. Perhaps even more interesting is that the one that was the most blatant example of it, The Nine, was the first to air. The others followed and still repeated the same mistake. And to be honest, I see this mistake crop up in prose manuscripts a lot of the time, too.
Allow me to explain
The core idea of The Nine—the unconnected people who share the same mysterious experience—is interesting, but here’s the catch. The narrative wasn’t about all their friends and family trying to figure out what happened to these folks during their two-plus-day captivity. It was about the nine survivors. They were the characters the show focused on as they approached the world with new attitudes and unknown motivations… yet still refused to talk about all those hours inside the bank.
The Event also had a very interesting idea, but you probably spotted the same issue just in the synopsis. Much of the ongoing plot circles around this secret alien mission, and the aliens are a third of the show’s cast. Of course, if the aliens discuss their plans the mystery goes away, so they always speak in vague generalities rather than, y’know, talking about anything.
And then there’s Alcatraz. Our big mystery is these time-shifting prisoners. How and why are they doing it? Since the show’s split between present and past, though, we see what our heroine doesn’t. It’s evident early on in the run that the Warden’s behind it all, or contributing heavily at the least. Not only that, it’s clear Rebecca’s new boss, Hauser, knows a lot more about it than he’s letting on. Part of the show’s “mystery” is that he isn’t telling her things she needs to know in order to do her job.
Everyone see the common link here?
Consider this—is it a mystery what day my brother’s birthday falls on? Sure, almost no one reading this knows the answer. Some of you might even be surprised to hear that I have a brother. But does that make this a mystery?
The problem with having a story that hinges on something like this is that there really isn’t a mystery. A real mystery depends on the characters
and the audience looking for an answer. But when a story’s falling back on withheld information
, the characters and the audience know right where the answer is. They’re just being told to sit and wait for it to be revealed. And since the characters are supposed to mirror the audience, this means everyone’s just getting frustrated.
This is the real problem all these shows had. They each had a couple other problems past that—every first season show does—but this was the crucial mistake they couldn’t get past. All three of them are just cases of characters who are deliberately withholding information from either the character or the audience.
Yeah, that’s right. The audience (or the readers, depending on your situation). My lovely lady made the observation once that any time the narrative of The Event
shifted to the aliens, they always spoke like they thought the room they were in was bugged. In a way, she was right. There was someone listening to those conversations that wasn’t supposed to be—us. The aliens can’t talk freely because we’d hear the answers to all the “mysteries” on the show, so instead their leaders had conversations like this…
“We’re going to have to do it.”
“Yes. Just as we discussed.”
“But what about–“
“I’ve considered it. I think the potential risk to our people is acceptable.”
“All the risks?”
“Even back at the beginning, we knew something like this might happen. We can’t back out now because we don’t like the options that have been forced on us.”
I know this sounds a bit silly, but… well, I’m not the one who was writing it. You could see the same thing on The Nine, when the former hostages would either have conversations just like that with each other, or repeatedly tell their friends and loved ones they wouldn’t understand because “you weren’t there.” And it happened on Alcatraz, too. The Warden would constantly dodge questions or try to bury answers under pseudo-philosophic homilies.
Let me give you an example of doing this sort of thing correctly. One you’d heard of long before LOST.
I’m sure most of you are familiar with Psycho, the Robert Bloch novel that was adapted into the famous Hitchcock film. Even if you haven’t seen it (or the pointless shot-for-shot remake) you probably know the general plot, yes?
So… who’s the main character of Psycho?
If you said Norman Bates, you’re wrong. He doesn’t even show up until half an hour into the story. The truth is, Psycho is almost an anthology of three different stories connected by the theft of a large sum of money and the motel where the supposed thief vanished. Our main characters are—in their respective tales–the thief, the police detective, and the thief’s sister.
Y’see, Timmy, this is why Norman’s secret is so powerful. We’re never seeing it with him, we’re always seeing it through the other characters—the one’s the story’s actually focused on. If Norman had been one of the main characters, the story would be required to focus a certain amount of attention on him—while at the same time trying not to let us see or learn anything about him. Instead he’s relegated to a supporting role in the story
, even though he’s the character we’re most interested in.
The Nine, The Event, and Alcatraz (and more than a few other stories I’ve read) all tried to put the mystery front and center while also trying to keep it a secret. They wanted us to be interested and invested in characters who didn’t want us to know anything about them.
And that just won’t work.
Next time, I want to talk about my collection of zombies. Sort of.
Until then, go write.