While considering just how much the writers have known from the beginning, allow me to posit that, not only did Lost never have such a detailed master plan, its success was never dependent upon having one. What we fail to realize in maintaining faith in a master plan is that the business of network television usually doesn’t allow for that kind of creative mapping.
More than any other visual medium, television has the best opportunity to unroll the kind of dense, complicated storylines typically found in novels. Novels, however, have a built-in sense of anticipation the closer you get to turning the last page. Hour-long episodic television works on a different dynamic, one that leaves both its creators and the audience blind to where its final page falls.
Writers will tell you that stories unfold organically—characters develop and take on lives of their own; they influence the narrative in ways the author’s original outlines never anticipated. In television, this creates tension between doing business and the art of telling a good story. Some hour-longs have an easier time with this (re: Law and Order or House, M.D.). Serialized cult favorites face a tougher struggle between continuing the story the writers/creators had in mind, maintaining their ratings, and keeping their fans happy.
On a typical hour-long, writers and producers meet at the beginning of each season, pitch ideas, and map out a narrative course for the year. Lost has developed along similar means (see here, re: “mini-camp”) Given its heavy mythology and tight serialized narrative, writing an episode involves more than just crafting this week’s latest adventure. As Fury suggested, plot elements are set down to set up future pay offs that no one in the writers room may have ever conceived. The trick, as Lindelof has hinted before, rests in keeping the illusion alive that payoffs were conceived.
Storytelling at that level requires a specific set of gifts, and not every writer (or writers room) can handle the challenge for very long. A few, however, have managed to make it work. Aaron Sorkin, for instance, was known to write every successive episode of The West Wing on the fly. He never developed a narrative arc beyond the next script he had to turn in, and still managed to keep his plotlines somewhat together for four straight seasons.