Why Islands Win: Hook, Line & Sinker

Confession: I watched way too much Gilligan’s Island as a child.

I was fascinated by the characters—by the ridiculous impossibility of Ginger’s perfect hair, and by the Professor’s brilliant island ingenuity. To this day I’m bewildered by the fact that the Professor could make a working receiver out of coconuts, and yet, he couldn’t figure out a way off the island. The illogical nature of Gilligan’s world mocked me, and yet I tuned in every day to see if THIS episode would be the one where they were finally rescued. Because I was hooked. (Granted, I was in elementary school and had yet to discover The Twilight Zone, so don’t judge me too harshly…)

Clearly I wasn’t alone. To this day Gilligan’s Island has a huge cult following, not to mention one of the most recognizable theme songs in TV history.

But the island intrigue doesn’t stop with Gilligan’s Island—or even start there. A slew of other memorable books, movies, and television shows are set on islands, especially deserted ones: think classics like Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson, or more recent films like Castaway and the riveting television series LOST. And what about Survivor, the mega-hit reality show most commonly set on island locations? I doubt Survivor would’ve been the same break-out hit set in New York City. (Oh wait—they tried that. *cough* Big Brother.)

So what makes an island setting so alluring?

I believe it’s because islands have a unique appeal; as a contained, isolated setting where escape is impossible (or at least, highly difficult), islands have the capacity to reduce people’s existence to the basic elements of survival and test their humanity in the process. And that’s the hook: what’s left inside when everything outside has been stripped away? It’s an incredible idea for an author or screenwriter to play with, one that prods the reader to look inside themselves and ask, “What would I do?” The answer may not be comfortable, but it’s always gripping. It’s the profound isolation—the detachment from society at large—that reels in the reader and provides the impetus for self-evaluation. And islands offer isolation in spades.

The power of island isolation is clear in Agatha Christie’s thriller And Then There Were None. A more recent twist on the same is Gretchen McNeil’s TEN. In both books, individuals are trapped on an island where escape is impossible… and a killer is stuck on the island as well. Cut off from the outside world, each character has one simple goal: survive until help arrives.

But while the characters in ATTWN and TEN fought to stay alive, they weren’t charged with fighting for their basic needs, such as food, water, and shelter, because those books aren’t set on deserted islands. Isolated, yes. Deserted, no. So what happens when an author removes every comfort of home and all connection to civilized society, including hope of help from the outside world?

Now we’re getting to the isolated-deserted-island fun. No civilization, no escape. Without the construct of society’s rules, how will the characters react?

That’s the premise of William Golding’s classic novel, Lord of the Flies. I first read LOTF in high school, and this novel made a lasting impression on me. Civilization versus anarchy, good versus evil, rules versus chaos—the themes were rich and layered and stuck with me even as I read Heinlein, Asimov, and McCaffrey novels on weekends. As the boys in LOTF descended into savagery, the fragility of humanity and loss of innocence was crushing. Chaos reigned until the society re-entered the boys’ world at the end.

Islands, especially deserted ones, are incredible playgrounds for writers, because an island instantly provides a contained environment completely under our control. Want to drop bloodthirsty beasts onto the island? Done. Pepper the island with poisonous berries? Not a problem. Make it arid, where water is at a premium? Check. At a fundamental level, water gives life, yet at the same time, when an island is involved, water comprises the prison walls; it’s a daunting barrier that the character faces every day. Each island variable introduced by an author challenges the human condition in order to force a reaction.

But perhaps the most compelling theme underlying most deserted island novels and shows? The inherent tension of being trapped in paradise. A prison is still a prison, even if the walls are gorgeous.

All of these ideas played into my debut novel, Nil. The premise is simple: teens are trapped on a deserted island, where each character has a year to escape—or die. (Think Survivor meets LOST with dashes of The Maze Runner and a Twilight Zone twist). Each character faces the same challenge: they wake naked in a place they’ve never seen, figure out what’s going on, and then fight every day to both survive and escape. Most rules on Nil are dictated by the island itself: there is only one avenue of escape—a portal, which the teens call “gates,” and gates not exactly easy to catch. The rest of the rules are crafted by the teens themselves. Some teens buy in; others don’t. Adding to the tension are the relationships between the characters themselves. Friendships form fast, as do connections, all intensified under the pressure of time—or lack of it. The juxtaposition of paradise and doom is ever-present, so the harsh reality: if any person (or relationship formed on Nil) has a future, it isn’t on the island. No one gets a Day 366.

So how do the teens respond as their time runs out? Do their priorities change? Does their humanity suffer or shine? All these questions were extraordinarily fun to wrestle with, and I couldn’t have done it without the deserted, tropical island of Nil as my playground. In Nil, the island is the greatest antagonist of all—and if you ever end up there, one word of advice: run!

Lynne Matson is a former attorney who thinks writing books for teens is much more fun. Her debut novel, Nil, a YA thriller with a SF twist, will be published by Macmillan/Henry Holt on March 4th. When she’s not writing or reading, you’ll find her hanging out with her husband and their four boys, usually at the beach. Cookies are her kryptonite, especially thin mints.


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