On June 5th, Netflix released the new season of the science fiction mind bending thriller series Black Mirror. In preparation for it, I went back and re-watched the past four seasons(minus ‘Bandersnatch’). I did it in reverse chronological order, watching each of the episodes in the way Netflix has them posted. It was an interesting experience that yielded little to no results, but I digress. Black Mirror has a lot to offer viewers but even more to offer storytellers. While watching, I kept my eye on different elements of storytelling that the creators employed to knit such tight stories. Each season, I picked one episode and one element that I focused on to see what it can teach me and other storytellers.
Creating a Perfect Villain
Villains are how we know who the heroes are. They teach us about the dark lurking deep within ourselves and those around us. We interact with them in our daily lives to some degree. Bullies, gatekeepers, tyrants, and assualters are all real world villains. In stories, we can use villains to represent a whole group of people in the way Black Mirror has been doing for years. By doing so, we make the horror and fear more real for the audience. We make it so the readers and viewers know what is truly at stake for the characters.
‘USS Callister’ is Black Mirror‘s fourth season opener that takes a shot at gaming and tech culture for its overt sexist practices and behaviors. It’s funny, scary, and beautiful all wrapped up into one space epic package. When the hero of the episode begins working at Callister Inc,, they meet one of their coding idols. They express fangirl energy like anyone meeting an inspiring person in their field would. The villain takes a disturbing interest in the new hire, and when he feels that she has disrespected him, he steals her DNA and uploads it into his own personal Star Trekesque computer game, Star Fleet. In this world, he controls everything. After many attempts to get free from the game, the characters inside-led by the hero-make one last fight and break free into the real world game that the company makes.
When introducing a villain, there are a lot of different routes storytellers may take. Some start with a strong introductory scene where the villain is performing some dastardly deed that shows how evil they are. Then there is, of course, saving the big reveal until the end so that the audience is constantly wondering which of the characters is the evil one. The creator’s of Black Mirror decided to introduce their villain by showing him operating in his own fantasy world. There, he is commander and ruler. After having his subjects praise him for his heroic feats, things quickly flip to the real world so that we can see how he is treated in his everyday life.
The real world villain is quiet and reserved. He is often picked on by the people he works with and over looked by others. In a way, you start to pity him. Feeling bad for the fact that his genius isn’t being recognized and appreciated by those around him. After watching him suffer through his day at work, being yelled at and ridiculed by his co-workers, he returns home and to his world where he is the hero. This is when things take a disturbingly sinister turn and we realize that he is using his video game program as a means to torture the people in his everyday life the only way he knows how, by writing them as living code within the game. That way he can see their true suffering as he avenges all his daily quarrels that he could not fight in his actual life. This introduction to the episodes villain does a lot for the story, but the main thing that it does is show us who the villain really is.
The creators could have had him mistreat his replicated coworkers right from the beginning, but instead, they show him being treated poorly by them in order to build sympathy for the character. Having a villain that elicits any form of sympathy from the audience adds tension as the events unfold in the story. Each time the audience thinks that the villain can’t get any worse, that he’s not that bad. Until the final act or revelation of how deeply disturbed and rotten the villain is. At that point, the audience takes any sympathy that they have and bury it while they cheer on the hero. They won’t listen to that voice inside asking them, ‘Could I do something that evil?’.
Links to Writing Advice about Villains
Designing an Unreliable Narrator
Unreliable narrators are POV characters that should not be trusted. Sometimes they are aware that they are untrustworthy and other times its just human error. We are all unreliable narrators by default. Emotions, biases, and past experiences all cloud our memories and views of the world so that it’s hard to tell who is being honest and what is the truth. Sometimes storytellers use this to add tension or depth to their stories. To do so, takes skill and a bit of subtlety.
Black Mirror‘s third season has many unreliable narrators-in general, Black Mirror frequently turns the black mirror of technology onto its viewers to show them that the lives they create online are unreal and not true to self-but none as unreliable as Kenny from ‘Shut Up and Dance’. Like many of Black Mirror’s character introductions, we are made to relate and feel a little bad for him. He’s living with his mom, constantly has to deal with his little sister getting into his stuff, gets bullied at work constantly, and is painted to be a commonplace ‘loser’. After he’s caught masturbating on webcam by hackers, he finds himself being driven to acts he would never otherwise do unless his life was on the line. If he does all of the tasks the hackers ask, then they promise they will delete the footage. After all is said and done, it is revealed with only about five minutes to spare in the episode that Kenny is a pedophile and was caught masturbating to children. Then the episode ends with him being arrested for all of the crimes he committed trying to make sure his secret didn’t get out and having it be revealed anyway.
The thing about using an unreliable narrator is it allows storytellers to control the flow of information. Most people will believe the narrator telling us the story until given a reason not to trust them. Subtlety and a slow build up to the truth always amps up the drama due to the fact that as an audience we’ll search the text for the odd feeling we have. And an attentive audience is a captured audience. At the beginning of the episode, Kenny is shown as a hapless individual and that’s pretty much all we are given. But if you look closer at the opening sequence of scenes we see that he shows an interest in two things: kids and privacy. These are all shown in his actions, most of the time he keeps to himself, but will interact with children at his fast food job. Later when he is describing what he is being blackmailed with, Kenny appears to be overly pained by the truth of his actions. At the time we don’t really get what it is that he is holding back. Then we begin to piece things together by the final task of him being asked directly how old the children are in the images he was caught masturbating to. This revelation comes as almost no surprise to the audience because they were prepped by Kenny’s behavior to expect more from his story to come out later.
The creators of Black Mirror use the world around Kenny to show us who he really is, a coward and a pervert. The bullies at work could easily be thwarted if only Kenny would stand up for himself and say something to them. Honestly, getting caught masturbating is embarrassing, but most people do it so it’s not that bad of a thing to be revealed to the public. If the audience knew from the beginning what Kenny was, there’s a good chance many people would not have followed the rabbit hole down to the conclusion. It really wouldn’t have been a good story had we, the audience, known. ‘Shut Up and Dance’ would have been about a pedophile trying to hide who he was from the world by performing crimes and odd tasks which is sort of what happened in the episode just without the audience really knowing. The way they created it makes it more about us as humans feeling the need to step outside our lives and do the taboo, even though it may ruin our lives and turn us into people we don’t even recognize.
Links to Writing Advice Surrounding Unreliable Narrators
Benefits of a Dual Narrative within a Frame Story
A dual narrative is when two different stories are told by two different characters. They can be the same story told from multiple perspectives or different stories that are related in some way that it takes two people to piece together. When storytellers use this technique, they want to show who the POV characters are on the inside. How they view the world and what they deem as the truth. A frame story is a story that contains another story. The two are usually related in some way or become related by a blurring of the plot lines.
Season two of Black Mirror closes with a Christmas movie special called ‘White Christmas’ that uses different literary devices to tell one complicatedly good story. The episode focuses on two people in a snowed in cabin on Christmas Day. It’s obvious from the start that they have been there for a few years and that they don’t talk much. In an attempt to get the other one to open up, one character goes into a story about what got him sent to the cabin. It’s another great example of using an unreliable narrator, because the story the character tells is a very edited version of the real events. Eventually, the other character opens up about himself and his own journey to the house. Again, the words that the character uses makes him seem like a reasonable person, facing obstacles in his way the best he can (and in a way, that is what the story is about). The stories each character tells seems to have no real connection besides being the reason that they are there. Once the second main character reaches the end of his tale, we learn that he is a murderer who caused the death of a toddler. After he admits what he’s done, our talkative character vanishes, giving us more information about the frame story that the audience may have forgotten about while being taken down the road of each character’s story.
Setting up a dual narrative within a frame story is a hard task to do without losing information or getting the audience confused by what information is important to the overall story and each individual story told within it. The creators of Black Mirror kept their stories straight by telling them each in order. One of the first things that the audience is introduced to is the cabin in which the two characters are housed in. Then we get our first character story followed by our last. All of this is set within the house which turns out to be the frame story around all of the narratives.
To build something this complex, storytellers must first plot out each separate story so that they can find where each part overlaps. There would be no frame story if there wasn’t a connecting narrative between the two characters that makes the frame story possible or relevant and vice-versa.
Why would anyone choose to do such a complicated story? With one like ‘White Christmas’, it would still be a great story if we took out the dual narratives and only got a one sided view of cabin life and the characters main motivation for being there. Or if the audience was only given the frame story of a future prison interrogation, we’d still be enthralled by the narrative. But by choosing both dual narrative and frame story techniques, the creators ramp up the tension and gives the audience all the answers by the end. We aren’t left wondering why or how, and instead, feel like we are being given the lion’s share of the narrative.
Links to Writing Advice About Dual Narratives and Frame Story
Crafting Believable Background Characters
Background characters are different than other types of secondary characters because they have no bearing on plot. They are just the people moving around in the background of a story. Like the bagger at a grocery store or the random person that crosses the street in front of your character’s car. Storytellers need to fill their world with more than just the important people to make it a believable world. They don’t have to have lines or special moments, they can just sit in the background filling space, unless you want a more realistic world than you should use them for more.
In the first season of Black Mirror the episode ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ has interesting main characters that are all captivating on their own, but the creators of Black Mirror use the background characters to make the future closed-in dystopia real. The episode follows a love-obsessed person while they attempt to woe another that takes them both down unimaginable roads. All while the two main characters try and pursue dreams in a world where nothing is free, the background characters play their roles to a T.
Though each is a stereotypical version of the people they are supposed to represent, (the people-pleaser, the unnoticed love interest, and the obnoxious jerk) the characters are all the worst parts of those people. The people-pleaser follows the crowd so much that they express no remorse or feelings of their own that aren’t what the majority feels. There are moments where they seek out acceptance from others, unprompted, and show a small glimpse of their true sad selves. Sitting constantly in the background gazing at the main character, the person who pines never does much more than stare with lovesick or jealous eyes. They express a wide range of unrequited love emotions without even speaking. The background jerk is the most vocal out of the trio and for good reason. In real life, that person truly has no filter or volume control.
By only focusing on these three stereotypes and allowing the audience to follow them as the story progresses, the creators of Black Mirror layer in real world effects that make the audience feel a part of the world. The audience wants to roll their eyes at the pleaser, verbally shake the love interest and tell them to move on, and punch the jerk for their fat phobic commentary. When storytellers use these techniques to add texture tot their world, it invites the audience to truly feel what it is like in that environment.
Links to Writing Advice About Background Characters
A Short Close to a Long Post
Black Mirror has so much to teach us as storytellers. The way the creators design the plots and build the characters speaks volumes on our world and the dangers that we are facing. When we strive to produce art that does more than just entertain, it does wonders to learn from the greats that are making the type of content that we want to make.