What You Can Learn From Black Mirror – Part 1 (Writing Tip #5)

Black Mirror is one of the most successful shows today. With its often pessimistic technological view, plot-twists that surprise you at the end of the episodes and with all the social criticism, the show has become a meme on the internet. Irony or not, the fact is that Black Mirror has conquered millions of fans and deserves to have some of that success explored here.

So I chose five episodes from Black Mirror to briefly review the elements behind their success and what we fictional writers can learn from it.

Ready?

San Junipero

It is impossible to talk about Black Mirror without mentioning San Junipero. In addition to winning the Emmy for Outstanding TV Movie and Outstanding Writing for a TV Movie, this is the favorite episode of many fans of the show. It stands out for the contrast it creates with everything we’ve seen so far, an episode that for many has a happy ending (something that others disagree with, though). The ’80s atmosphere, the homosexual drama and the wonderful soundtrack also mark San Junipero as one of the Black Mirror jewels.

The plot follows Yorkie, a shy and withdrawn girl who is visiting the city of pleasure, San Junipero. Yorkie meets Kelly at a party, an outgoing woman with whom she ends up creating a relationship. In the course of the narrative, we find out that San Junipero is actually a kind of Paradise in the Cloud where you can upload your consciousness and live forever (or until some shit happens on the servers, at least). Yorkie is already dead and Kelly is an old lady who lost her son and her husband. As the two didn’t have the chance to go to San Junipero, she also refuses to go, but ends up changing her mind because of Yorkie. The episode ends with the two driving happily together in the car… if living forever in the cloud can be considered something “happy”.

It’s interesting to note that even the sci-fi theme, as well as the past of the characters, is gradually being revealed during the episode, creating in us an urgency to know what is actually happening. At first, it sounds like a ’80s story and there’s no way to suspect that it’s just a virtual simulation. Similarly, Yorkie’s past, the pressure she suffered from family on account of homosexuality, and Kelly’s own past are brought to us only when we care about the characters. I talked a little about this technique in my essay about Orange Is The New Black, by the way. So go read it.

In addition, the homosexuality explored in San Junipero is an essential ingredient for success. You see, stories about homosexuals almost always end tragically. In this episode, however, Kelly and Yorkie live a kind of happily ever after. Seeing this homosexual theme so well explored together with the idea of virtual reality is something extremely rare in science fiction, a male-dominated genre. No wonder San Junipero is such a special episode.

What can you learn from Sun Junipero?

– Reveal information about the plot and characters slowly. Make the reader care about your characters and then ask themselves, “What’s going on here?” This will trap them in the plot.

– Consider breaking paradigms. In the same way that San Junipero has placed two female protagonists and exploited homosexuality within a science fiction show, you can also approach different topics within your genre.

Shut Up And Dance

This is one of the most insane episodes of the show, no doubt. And not only because of the masterfully written screenplay by Charlie Brooker and the precise direction of James Watkins, but also because of the acting of Alex Lawther, who had done a great job playing Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and was in the British show, The End Of The Fucking World.

The character played by Lawther is Kenny, a seemingly ordinary young man with a common family and a common job. Kenny’s sister infects his computer with a virus and despite using an anti-virus, the boy is hacked and shot on the webcam while masturbating. After that, hackers force him to complete missions for the video not to be released, leading Kenny to even commit crimes.

First, Shut Up And Dance differs from the rest of the episodes by not being necessary futuristic. Having your computer or cell phone hacked by someone who wants to take advantage of your personal stuff is a fear that we need to live with. This creates a greater connection with Kenny and the suspense created by the episode, after all… Kenny fears the video because he’s just masturbating, right?

Wrong. In fact, Kenny was masturbating for child pornography. He was a pedophile instead of being the cute, sweet boy we imagined throughout the episode.
Never trust a protagonist, that’s the first thing we can say about the episode. And never trust Charlie Brooker, by the way.

What can you learn from Shut Up And Dance?

– Fool your reader. Create a character whose motivations always seem to point to one path, when in fact they are going to another. Get the reader to see the facts one way and then come up with a fact that shows that he was guessing wrong all along.

– Deal with real fears of people. For this, you can even do a search. A post on a Facebook group, who knows? Understand what makes people afraid and incorporate this into your story.

Nosedive

Nosedive is one of the most “Black Mirror” episodes seen in Black Mirror. Imagine a world where you are constantly being judged by the way you act, how you relate to others and who you walk with. Mistakes can make you poorly rated and lower your note, which will make everyone treat you indifferently. The solution, then, is to fake appearances and sympathy as much as possible, to maintain the good view others have of you and make your note stay high. That, my friend, is Nosedive.

Lacie lives with her brother and is excited to find a new house to live. However, she’s a 4.2 user and there is a special discount for 4.5 users. To get this discount, Lacie decides to go to the wedding party of her ex friend, Naomie, where she’ll find several users with a good reputation. Impressing them through forced sympathy might mean to Naomie the 0.3 points needed to get the house discount.

But as we are talking about Black Mirror, obviously things don’t go that well. First, Lacie misses the flight and is poorly rated at the airport when she almost losses her mind. She needs to go by car and on the way is poorly rated by other people too. She’s put in so many bad situations that her rate reaches such a low level that Naomie tells her not to attend her party, after all, it could attract bad looks to her.

Now that Lacie is at rock bottom and with nothing to lose, setting herself free from the dictatorship of that society, she decides to invade Naomie’s marriage and say everything she truly thinks. She ends up being dragged by the security guards and eventually arrested. She faces the cell of another man and yells at him, enjoying the freedom of the act.

What makes Nosedive one of the most fantastic episodes from Black Mirror is that reflection of our own reality. As cliché as this sounds, but we also live under a dictatorship of likes. Every now and then someone shows me the profile of someone else who gets few likes in the posts, laughing at that person. I imagine they did this to me as well, after all, I was practically invisible on Facebook when I was on it. And the most interesting thing about it is to imagine that I even felt bad for it at certain times. Is it a reflection of Nosedive or not?

What can you learn from Nosedive?

– Create a bridge between fiction and reality. This will cause a kind of shock in the reader as they realize that certain elements of your story are intertwined in our society. You can do this with fantasy as well, giving a historical air to your story, in the same way that George R.R. Martin did with A Song of Ice and Fire.

Part Two soon…

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