The duo began the groundwork for Once eight years ago, but it took working on Lost to really hone their idea. "We were really young and we didn't understand how to execute the idea we had. We called it our eight-year writer's block," Kitsis says with a laugh.
The result? A series in which familiar fairytale characters have been ripped from their world by a curse that the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) unleashed in hopes of destroying everyone's happy endings and obtaining one of her own. They're relocated to Storybrooke, a town in which time stands still, with no memories of their previous fairytale identities. Enter Emma (Jennifer Morrison), a real-life bails bondsperson who somehow must break the curse.
Though the series is ripe with mythos springing from the original fairytales and what the Once writers have also created, the producers believe the real strength and appeal of the series lies elsewhere. "We never thought about Lost or Once really as mythology shows, even though mythology obviously is a part of [both]," Horowitz says. "They are character shows to us. That was the greatest lesson on Lost: Really learning how to approach the story through character." Kitsis notes that Lost bosses Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse strived to put character first on the island mystery series. "On Lost, we started to realize how you can tell these character stories with the background and the mythology and hopefully try and weave it together."
Horowitz and Kitsis have also pieced together their own "bible" to keep track of the Once timelines and character histories, not unlike the one used by the Lost writers. "It's just to keep ourselves straight as to what we're doing," Horowitz says. "But we're allowing ourselves freedom. It's not like we said, 'Here's what all three seasons would be, or five seasons.' We've got some goal posts, but we're allowing ourselves to create a freedom to change our minds."
Freedom means that the producers are mainly focused on the current season, rather than looking too far ahead to what their endgame may be — though they recognize that Lost fans relied on knowing there was an end in sight, however far off that may be. "We want to make sure that five years from now, whatever thoughts we have, they're still relevant," Kitsis says. "There's a curse that needs to be broken, and these characters have had their happy endings ripped from them. Emma [Jennifer Morrison] comes in there trying to help them find their happy endings. Ultimately, the last happy ending is for Emma."
Before that can happen, Emma, who also just happens to be the daughter of Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) and Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), must truly become the hero of the story — a quest the writers find exciting because she was never part of the fairytale canon. "Emma is essentially a new fairytale character," Kitsis notes. "Emma's journey is just beginning and it hasn't been written yet."
"We've heard people discussing: Will [Emma] break the curse? How will she break the curse? When will she break the curse?" Horowitz says. "The curse, in many ways, is the tip of the iceberg. Even if you do know who you are, that doesn't mean everything immediately comes back to you and you get your happy ending." Adds Kitsis, "In fact, in a lot of ways, it might just make it worse."
Unfortunately, this means Prince Charming and Snow White have a long way to go before their tale becomes the love story we know it to be. "Anytime you have a love story on a TV show, it's always hard to keep them apart," Kitsis notes. "In fairytale land, we understand that these two belong together. Now, in Storybrooke, these two are separated by [David's] wife, so they can't be together. You get to really see that the curse makes good on its promise, which is that it will rip everything you love from your life."
Getting her parents the happy ending they deserve will be the greatest challenge for Emma. Though she's gone toe-to-toe with Storybrooke's mayor Regina, who adopted Henry (Jared Gilmore), the son Emma gave up for adoption 10 years ago, she'll have to face the ultimate antagonist of the story: Regina's fairytale counterpart, The Evil Queen. "The Evil Queen is not somebody whose bad side you want to get on, but if anyone can take her on, it's Emma," Kitsis says.
Will you be sticking around to see the ultimate showdown?
Once Upon a Time airs Sundays at 8/7c on ABC.