- The five most important things in any good show, in order of importance: Characters, music, action/drama, comedy, tranquility.
- An ordinary person in an extraordinary situation is more intriguing and riveting than an extraordinary person in an ordinary, or even extraordinary situation.
- The hero shouldn’t be someone who is flawless, but rather someone who is heavily flawed. Someone who shows the audience that being a hero doesn’t mean being perfect and unrealistic.
- If a huge crisis happens, there needs to be a period of tranquility directly following it for the characters to process it and realize the predicament they’re now in. This actually helps the real audience do the same thing, whereas if the action just keeps going the audience can’t catch a breath and there’s no more investment in the show than there is in a cool rollercoaster.
- Every character should have a fairly detailed history, even if they’re a minor character. This makes the audience feel like the story world is more realistic.
- If you’re writing a mystery, there needs to be a “Mueller Device.” This is my name for a major mystery that runs through the entire story or series, starting out as something you barely notice at first but which gradually becomes the biggest obstacle the characters will have to overcome in the end. I named it “Mueller Device” after the Mueller Device in the TV series Alias. All of JJ Abrams’ projects have a Mueller Device, including the cancelled ones, and it’s one of the things I love about his shows.
- If you’re going to do flashbacks, make sure it’s something worth flashing back to and not something that a character could just explain in a few words to another character.
- Reverse-shock can actually be more of a shock than, well, shock. Reverse-shock is when something incredibly tense is happening, then you just suddenly cut to tranquility. The perfect example of this is the first flashback on LOST. It goes from the plane going down, to suddenly just staring out at a peaceful ocean. Watching it feels like you’ve been in a car crash — so use the tactic sparingly and be wise about it.
- If there are several people, they need to be a community and interact with each other. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget that a character you’re focused on while scriptwriting is currently supposed to be surrounded by ten other people. You need to keep track of who is there and make sure they’re doing what they would do, even if one of them would do something that derails your plans for the story. Let them do it, your story will get back on track quicker than you think.
- Fake deaths. I know, the first thing you thought when you saw those two words (or at least, the first thing you should’ve thought) was “No. Just no. Nope.” I know. I hate fake deaths too. But, there is an exception, as long as you don’t overdo it: Brief fake deaths. If you throw a character off a cliff and cut away for a little bit, then cut back to reveal the character caught something and is still alive, that’s technically a fake death but it’s resolved within moments. It makes the story intense without using the rather annoying cliche of “nobody can actually die.” I kind of just babbled with this one, but hopefully you understand what I’m trying to say…
- Never overdo anything. If someone is murdered, don’t paint too much blood on the scene. If someone is happy, don’t have them break out into a musical. The only exception to this rule is when not overdoing something just wouldn’t make sense — like when John Locke had a break down in his car after being rejected by his dad, who had just stolen John’s kidney. I mean, if your dad steals your kidney, you can overdo a break down. Basically you have to find a balance, but 99% of the time if something is happening it shouldn’t be overdone.
- It’s a good idea to have the characters in the story be drastically different from one another. Not just the good guy being the opposite of the bad guy, but the main character’s peers also being drastically different from them (and each other). Otherwise it’s just the Avengers, which was a really crappy movie because the only interesting character in that movie was Tony Stark, and they never even let Loki do anything. Seriously, Loki is supposed to be ridiculously powerful and he just sits in a cage almost the whole movie while the good guys deal with things that are nowhere near as powerful as Loki is supposed to be. OK, sorry, I’ll cut my rant short here and get back on track.
- It’s OK to have a female character that has sex appeal, but it’s not OK to have a female character that IS sex appeal. In other words, don’t make a female character take clothes off just to get more audience or just because you’re a perv. If someone takes any piece of clothing off at all — heck, even just their socks — they better have a damn good reason for it and it better move the story along. Actually this goes for both genders, but I feel like it’s done more to female characters. That may just be because I’m straight. I guess male characters do tend to remove their shirts quite a lot for no reason.
- Never use special effects unless they’re absolutely necessary. If you can pull off a scene without using special effects, do so. Yes, they’re really cool, but you’re telling a story through film, not showing your friends how cool all these special effects are. More often than not, if you let go of the voice in your head screaming “BUT IT WOULD LOOK SO COOL!” you’ll find that the scene actually looks better without effects.
- Adventures are fun. They start with a minor goal, which leads into a minor journey to reach that goal, and ends in the goal either being met or the character(s) realizing they can’t meet the goal right now. They’re not exactly necessary, but they’re fun. Maybe writing one into your script will help you feel better about not listening to that voice in your head screaming “BUT THOSE EFFECTS WOULD LOOK SO COOL!” …Just be sure the adventure is necessary. That’s the big thing I’ve learned. Everything has to be necessary. (Despite the fact not everything in LOST was necessary. What was the point of those people who got buried alive? Nobody knows. There was no point to them. But then, nobody liked that subplot, which proves my point about everything needing to be necessary and have a point.)
- Camera movement tells the audience how they’re supposed to feel. For example, if you want the audience to be focused, the camera should have a smooth, medium-speed movement. Or if you want the audience to feel tranquil or in suspense (the music makes that difference) you move the camera in a smooth, slow motion, or no motion at all. Or if you want the audience to feel like they’re on a rollercoaster, you have the camera moving quickly and a bit shaky.
- Bad things happening should be balanced out with good things happening. Despite all the dramatic things you recall from LOST, most of it was actually balanced out with scenes of good things happening. Which of course, then balanced out with more horrible things happening. Having that balance creates a sort of hypnotism for the audience by messing with their emotions. I mean, don’t be a jerk about it, but people watch TV because they like being taken on a tour through their emotions. That’s also why we listen to music and read books. Entertainment is our excuse to be human in a society where being human will get you hurt. (There’s also just the fact that the story would get really uninteresting if it was only ever bad things happening.)
- End every scene with a cliffhanger. End every act with a cliffhanger. End every episode with a cliffhanger. End every season with a cliffhanger. Just end everything with a cliffhanger. They don’t have to be huge cliffhangers, they just have to be things that make the audience want to keep watching to find out what happens next, or to see a promise of what’s to come be fulfilled.
- When it becomes necessary for a character to explain something, the explanation needs to happen fluently. It needs to happen in a way that flows perfectly with the storyline and the surrounding dialogue, and not in a way that makes the audience remember they’re just watching a show, bumping them out of their trance.
- There should always be a character who is absolutely crazy and, while everyone else is terrified, he just runs straight for whatever’s breaking down five trees per second. Because if you don’t have this character, nobody’s ever going to do anything seriously interesting.
- In contrast, there should also be a character who is too smart to walk straight into danger, despite it turning out they’re the only character that can defeat said danger.
- Where there is suspense, there must also be relief. Relief from suspense, as unfortunate as this may seem, only comes from a shock. People enjoy suspense, but if you do suspense but never have an actual shock at the end of it, the audience will be expecting a random shock for the next half hour and will become extremely uneasy. Most people do not like that, and you’ll be seriously ticking your audience off. If someone is walking down a hallway with the camera way too close to them, there better be someone behind them. REMEMBER: Suspense is a slingshot. If you stretch it too far, it’ll just break and hit you (the writer or director) in the face.
- Music defines the scene it’s in. A lot of comedy scenes are actually the same as drama scenes, but the music applied to them makes you perceive them as one or the other. For example, someone might give a biting sarcastic remark to another character. If the music is dramatic, the audience will perceive it as threatening and intense. But if the music is light, the audience will perceive it as a funny joke.
These are all things I learned just from watching the first four episodes of LOST. You can learn quite a lot just by observing!
Neither the author of this post nor Absurd Axis Network is in any way shape or form associated with or sponsored by ABC Network, Bad Robot, or anyone else who made the phenomenal series “LOST.”
Also, this disclaimer text would be way smaller if I knew where the text size options were. No, not the thing that said “paragraph” and “header 1” and “header 2” and so on. The thing where you can change specific blocks of text and not the whole post. Seriously, someone please help me. I don’t see it anywhere.
Do you know anything about storytelling through film? Let us know in the comments below! That rhymed. I apologize.