I find that many British programs can really push the envelope on the storytelling front (Orphan Black, Torchwood, Doctor Who to name a few). So when a coworker at my day job suggested I check out Black Mirror, I took a chance. Now I was expecting an edgy show but it’s way beyond that.
So what is Black Mirror? It’s an anthology of stories that offer up the dark side of society and its relationship to technology. It takes the worries and the paranoia we have today, amplify it by 10, and present it in hour-long episodes. While every one of them is different, the underlying feeling you get from watching it is the same — you have no idea what you’re in for and each story stays with you long after you watch it. As a TV watcher, it’s unlike anything you’ll find on TV today.
As a writer, it’s a gold mine for storytelling goodness.
If you’re a writer, this is why you should check out this show.
It Teaches the Art of the Set Up
Each episode has only a few minutes to give viewers the information they need to get into the episode. That means there’s no room for lengthy backstories, showing off of fancy tech, or even a half-hour of a character going about his day. The first person you see is the main character. They show a little slice of their “normal” futuristic life and then gets right into the conflict. Everything we see in those first few minutes is important and not just for show. While we writers have a bit more room to set up stories, we shouldn’t fill it with info dumps and mundane activity. The beginning of the novel should be treated just like the first few minutes of this show — introduce the main character, show us a snippet of their normal life, and then get to the inciting incident.
It Focuses on Character
As science fiction authors (or fantasy ones for that matter) it’s so easy to get swept into the world building. What the spaceships look like, how energy blasters work, how long it takes to travel from one planet to another — playing God in our stories is crazy fun. But for a reader, our eyes glaze over at all of the information presented more like a textbook than a story. Worse, it brings the story to a grinding halt. And, in the midst of all that fun, the characters are nothing more than cardboard cutouts. Black Mirror, on the other hand, feature rich and deeply complex characters who are affected by the world and technology around them. That means, the tech only matters if it affects the character’s behavior. As writers we should take serious notes on this because our story can’t be a good one without memorable characters.
It Knows How to Nail an Ending
I am a big fan of cliffhangers. However, there is nothing worse than relying on tactic or shows with no followups. Or even worse, reading a book that ends on a big cliffhanger, coercing me into buying the next one. The key to a great ending isn’t tying everything up in a neat little bow. It answers the big question posed in the beginning of the story. Sure there were things I wanted to know more about at the end of each Black Mirror episode. But I got the major answers I wanted and, for the most part, I wasn’t expecting them. As writers we have to do that too. Don’t leave readers scratching their heads as to what they just read. Deliver on the promises you made in Act 1. Resolve the major conflicts your fans spent all those weeks reading about. Don’t sucker them into reading Book 2. Not only will they NOT buy Book 2, they won’t bother with anything else you write.
Are you a writer? Have you checked out this show on Netflix? Let’s talk in the comments!
A little warning: The first episode of Season 1 was way out there. You should skip it if you’re easily grossed out.