The “Lost Effect” in Writing
Leaving unanswered questions can destroy a great story
The TV series Lost started in 2004, back in the days before on-demand streaming. My family and I were captivated by the show. In those days, you planned your schedule around when a TV show aired so you didn’t miss it. If you missed an episode, it may be hard to understand the next episode. So, for seven seasons we faithfully watched to find out what the island was. What was the smoke creature? Who were “the others”? What was in the hatch? What would happen if they didn’t press the button? What would happen when they left the island? As we watched episode after episode for season after season, some questions were answered only to create more questions.
Then came season seven. The last season. We anxiously waited and watched each episode hoping to have all of the questions answered. Seven seasons of questions. Seven seasons of mental energy spent where the family talked at dinner time about what this could be or that could be, why this was happening or that was happening. Seven seasons of wondering. Finally, we were on the last episode. It was finally going to all come together because this was the last episode. We were excited. We had the popcorn. We had the candy. This was an event. We were ready. We watched.
When it ended, we were lost. For seven years, we wasted time and energy on a show that did not have a purpose. The writers had no idea what the show was about. Looking back, it was clear the writers knew the show was ending and were working frantically to contrive a conclusion but they themselves had no idea what the story was. We wasted seven seasons of our lives.
If you look at the show Firefly, you see the same thing but for a different reason. Firefly was a brilliant show but only lasted one season. There was so much potential, so many questions to be answered. Maybe they were better off than the writers of Lost because we can believe they knew what the story was and didn’t get the chance to tell it. We can believe it wasn’t them who left the unanswered questions because of a poorly conceived story, and point our frustration at the network for dropping the show.
In writing, what creates a “page-turner”? In TV, what creates a series that brings viewers back to watch? In a movie, what keeps people engaged? The answer is questions. The reader or viewer, consciously and unconsciously, has a set of ongoing questions as they move forward through a story. The major question is the arc of the story, but throughout the story, other questions arise and are answered. Those questions drive their interest forward. As the reader or viewer nears the end of a story they have a set of mostly unconscious questions they need answered for the story to be a compelling story.
For a writer, those questions can’t be unconscious. They have to be planned. I’m currently working on part four, the final part, of a book series and, to be honest, I’m thinking a lot about “The Lost Effect”. Part four scares me because, if I don’t answer those questions, the other three parts, no matter how great the reviews and ratings are right now, will be pointless.
In the writing world, there are two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. The plotters outline and architect a story from the beginning. Before they start writing the story, they know exactly where it’s going. The pantser writes by the seat of their pants. They just start writing and writing and writing, with no idea of what the story is or where it’s going. Give a pantser a great sentence and they’ll write a book around it. I have both feet planted squarely in the pantser world.
One of my sons said he wanted to write a story with me. I thought that was a great idea and asked him what he wanted to write about. He didn’t have any idea. This conversation went back and forth for a month but he didn’t know what he wanted to write about. Finally, I suggested we brainstorm some opening lines. I gave one I was proud of and he said, “I couldn't help but notice the lack of penguins.” I was stunned. That was a sentence demanding a story and I started writing, excited to see where this one sentence would lead us. We now have the start of what has turned into a very interesting sci-fi story.
I think it behooves a writer to think of a story in terms of questions. To get ready for part four of my book I have started a weekly book club. This way I can get first-hand knowledge of what the readers are thinking as we go through the three current parts of the series. Because of this, I have a Google doc with a growing list of questions that need to be answered by the end of part four. I know the basic story of part four, but this list lets me know what I need to weave into that story. As I write part four, this Google doc will have a growing number of strike-throughs. By the time I write, “The End”, that document should have every sentence struck out or a reason for not having done so.
Leaving some of the items on that list of questions unresolved is just as critical as answering some. The last thing a writer wants is for a reader or viewer to do when they shut the book, click the remote to shut off the TV, or walk out of the movie, is to get up and move to the next thing in their life without another thought about what they just finished. A writer wants the story to take a place in the psyche of the reader. A well-developed set of unanswered questions can do exactly that. One of the amazing things about writing is that all readers bring something to the story. The reader fills in the holes left by the writer. That can be magical or destructive. The trick the writer has to perform is to guide the reader through the story they want to tell but let the reader read the story they want to read. That is done with answered and unanswered questions.
Because I’m a pantser, I can appreciate the writers of Lost having no idea where the story was going when they started. I love the idea of creating a smoke monster with no idea what it actually is and then seeing what it becomes as the story develops. But, as the story develops, that smoke monster has to have a valid part in the story. It has to make sense. It has to answer the question of why it existed and what its purpose is, or those questions have to be left unanswered in a way that gives the viewer enough of an idea that they can supply their own answer. Otherwise, we have “The Lost Effect” where a very promising story idea is destroyed because the questions in the story were not addressed in a manner that creates a compelling ending.