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Research Day: The LOST Script Style

This post contains a minor spoiler from the first season of LOST. It also contains the word "fuck." A lot.

Speaking of LOST (as I often am, these days) ...

If you are interested in the show, screenwriting in general, or wanton profanity, head over to The Daily Script and check out some of the LOST screenplays. They are written in a style that is, as far as I know, unique within the industry:

And as Jack slowly looks up -- standing right in front of him -- just FIVE FUCKING FEET AWAY --

Is ETHAN.

            ETHAN
    Hello, Jack.

Holy. Fucking. Shit.

Jack looks at him, ragged breath, but EYES BURNING. And he asks the question that hopefully all of America has been asking for the past week --

            JACK
    Who are you?

And we're LOOKING UP at Ethan. SOAKING WET but seemingly oblivious to the rain. And his EYES. His FUCKING EYES.

That's from "All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues", season one, episode nine.

J. J. Abrams (the series creator) established this style in the pilot with phrases like "HE SCREAMS BLOODYFUCKINGMURDER" and "this guy is a Class-A prickfuck" (wha-?!). Since then it appears to have become part of the show's template. Most LOST scripts read as if the writer has just hit his thumb with a hammer.

Of course, most screenwriters put some subtext into the action descriptions. In his book Crafty TV Writing, Alex Epstein (author of the screenwriting blog Complications Ensue) dubs these "subtitles for the nuance-impaired."

Subtitles for the nuance-impaired are legitimate when the episode, if properly shot and edited, will easily communicate something that the script might not get across. Producers and executives are used to reading dialogue, but editing, for example, doesn't read well ...

[But] be careful writing directly to the reader this way. It's slightly naughty.

The LOST scripts take naughty to the next level, going beyond "subtitles for the nuance-impaired" and into the realm of "before the nuance-impaired can fucking process anything, the writer SMASHES THE PORCELAIN FOOD BOWL RIGHT INTO THE SIDE OF HIS FUCKING HEAD!" (Actual line from Lost 220! Well, sort of.)

I asked Epstein why the LOST staff writes this way. "It gives an 'energetic read'," he replied. "Network execs like it. They don't have to put too much energy into reading it." He also speculated that it had become part of the LOST culture. "Everybody does it 'cause their boss, JJ Abrams, does it."

Some do it more than others, though. Search the pilot for "fuck" and you'll find it 28 times in 96 pages; do the same on "Two For the Road", and you'll get 96 hits in 56 pages. My goodness. I wonder if they write emails to their mothers using the same fingers they use to type these screenplays. (Though, as Epstein points out, "Abrams probably rewrites all the scripts, so he may put the f-bombs in himself.")

So, is this a good style for an aspiring screenwriter to adopt? Epstein again:

I find it annoying. If I got a script like that, I might not keep reading. I find it vulgar and cheap -- and by cheap, I mean you're getting a zap! into your script without actually working for it.

It's imprecise. Use words like bullets, not like a spray of birdshot. Note how the porcelain bowl line does not mention whether the food bowl breaks, or whether his head caroms off the bowl. Is there blood or not? It's loud, but it's not visual. It's abstract.

JJ Abrams gets paid a lot more than I do, so he can do as he likes. But just because e. e. cummings wrote free verse in lowercase doesn't means you should write poetry that way.

Duly noted. Indeed, when I write my LOST spec script, I intend to adopt a different style entirely:
Jack is peeved as all get-out! His DANDER is TOTALLY UP!

He draws his gun and points it RIGHT AT JOHN'S GOSH-DARNED HEAD!!!!!

            JACK
     See you in aitch ee
     double-hockey-sticks, you
     good-for-nothing so-and-so.

Then, when the LOST staff reads it, they'll be all, "Whoa, check out this FRESH NEW VOICE! This SON OF A BITCH can THINK OUTSIDE THE MOTHERFUCKING BOX!!!"

Posted on April 09, 2008 to Research Day





Comments

Fans of television-script geekery will probably enjoy Jane Espenson's website. She's written episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, and other shows. Nearly every day she writes a new post on her site offering advice to aspiring screenwriters. I'm not an aspiring screenwriter, but I still enjoy the inside-baseball info about how scripts are written and produced.

When I read these stage directions from Lost, my first thought was, "Jane Espenson would never approve."

Posted by: bluishorange on April 10, 2008 11:15 AM

I thought of Jane Espenson too! She must be catching.

Posted by: Mae on April 10, 2008 11:32 AM

And here I thought this was a joke. It explains so much though rather unfortunately.

Posted by: latenac on April 10, 2008 12:40 PM

Why does it always have to be a motherfucking box?

Posted by: meat on April 10, 2008 3:32 PM

You've been doing too much programming, Yeti. You wrote "search the pilot for the string...".

Posted by: Jack on April 10, 2008 3:40 PM

Dude, I'm way the hell behind on this show.

Can you do something with The Wire instead? I'm halfway through season 4. Thanks, Yeti!

Posted by: LAN3 on April 10, 2008 8:30 PM

funny shit. and please keep the LOST posts coming, i love them.

Posted by: Darcy on April 11, 2008 2:45 AM

The team moulding Lost aren't just making a TV series.
They are creating a marketing environment. A climate of desire for anticipatory product. If they want to sell to the masses they must think like them too.

Posted by: Anonymous on April 11, 2008 3:27 AM

previously, on LOST: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcatQSyRK6c

Posted by: Dale Thresh on April 11, 2008 12:16 PM

I wrote about this same phenomenon some time ago; you're spot on. My sense is that Damon Lindelof is the main influence on the show's writerly tone - Abrams was M.I.A. for long stretches of the show as I understand it. He was the draw for the moneymen but it seems to have been Lindelof's show deep down. (There's a long article to be written about the massively overrated J.J. Abrams, but no matter.)

My suspicion is that the profanity is there for a simple reason: the show is dimwitted pulp and the scripts need to reflect that, and it's not like the writers have any deeper material to work with, any richer inspiration or baseline to start from. There are some fantastic writers on Lost but they're slumming, obviously. (Atop which: written in Cali, shot in Hawaii, how better to communicate tone?)

That said, I'm guessing the Sarnoff/Kim 'Two for the Road' script is in part a spoof on the house style. I can't imagine a Deadwood alumna writing braindead shit like that and taking it at all seriously.

Posted by: Wax Banks on April 11, 2008 12:30 PM

Lengthy further thoughts on the script style at Lost - here. (Back in the day I was working on a Lost spec and felt the need to chart out the show's typical pacing; it didn't seem worth continuing, not least since Lost is a hell of a hard show to spec!)

Posted by: Wax Banks on April 11, 2008 12:55 PM

Funny how, even with scripts like that, some members of the cast don't seem to be catching on and actually selling the intense fucking moment beyond "gosh-darned." Not naming any names in particular, but she is very pretty.

Posted by: fanshawe on April 14, 2008 4:48 AM

I'd be interested to see an old ALIAS script and see if the profanity was used there as well. As a comparison as to whether it's JJ or Damon's influence, that is. Because I just read the new JJ pilot and it's used there as well.

In that script, it felt as though it was used primarily to underscore action scenes (giving you the more amped up feeling of action than you might otherwise get from just reading stage directions) or to emphasize that the moment was going to be/needed to be visually impressive. For the most part, it worked for me but there were a few times when it was overkill. Sounds like it may have started the same way with the LOST scripts and now it's just become a habit that maybe the writers rely on a little too much.

Posted by: Rae on April 14, 2008 5:56 AM

This looks to me like bad directing, not scriptwriting.

Posted by: blogward on April 14, 2008 6:01 AM

As someone who's read both Alias and Lost scripts, I'd say it's an influence from JJ.

Posted by: BC on April 14, 2008 1:21 PM

Matthew, did you actually mean that the post above is your last post for a year?

Posted by: Anonymous on April 21, 2008 9:23 AM

Last LOST post, or Last LAST post?

Posted by: mercedes on April 21, 2008 9:31 AM