Black Mirror Season Four Storytelling Takeaways

Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology series exploring a twisted, high-tech world where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide. Each story says something about our relationship to technology and how technology affects our relationships with others.

SEASON FOUR: USS CALLISTER

LOG LINE: A virtual woman wakes up on a Star Trek-esque ship where the crew praise their all knowing and fearless captain.

Think Inside Out but for adults. As in the Pixar film for children, we have two separate plot lines running in parallel but intricately linked — one taking place in the ‘real world’, the other an ensemble cast of characters who exist only in one of the real world characters’ heads. The ‘main character’ of the ‘real world’ layer is different from the ‘main character’ in the fantasy layer, though I talk more about character function below. As is the case in Inside Out, I feel USS Callister does lag a bit in the middle, but I know this opinion isn’t shared by all types of viewers. Unlike Inside Out, one of the storylines in USS Callister is a happy ending, the other a tragedy.

USS Callister

I’ve seen approximately five minutes of Star Trek in my life, which was enough — given its pop cultural status — to know that the game spoofed in this episode was Star Trek. There’s nothing subtle about that. This genre spoof was the source of its humour — the buttons where it doesn’t matter which one you push, it’s all the same, to the smooth crotches sans genitalia, which is a comment on the sexlessness of Star Trek, but also a comment on the inhuman asexuality thought to be a defining characteristic of the show’s super fans. Continue reading “Black Mirror Season Four Storytelling Takeaways”

Opening With Action or, In Medias Res

Have you ever been told by a teacher, or by someone in your writing group, that your story must open with action, not description? If they’re being fancy about it, they might advise you to begin in medias res.

lights-before-action

 

But as John Truby says, certain genres demand the establishment of a norm, e.g. The fish out of water story. (A fish has to be ‘in water’ before s/he can be out of it.)

It’s tempting for a short story writer to open the story right in the heart of the action. Crash, bang, guns blazing, lovers screaming. It’s an easy way to hook readers, right? Place them right in the action, and they’ll be forced to keep turning the pages to see what happens next.

So page one has fire. Page one has promise. But what happens when you get to page two?

This is the short story writer’s dilemma, says two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee David Lavender in the August 1942 issue of The Writer. So your main character is in peril. So what? asks the reader.

The finest fight, the dearest love in all the world means little to the reader” until he or she knows the characters and the motives behind their antics.

David Lavender: The Short Story Writer’s Dilemma

Don’t start with action. Start by making establishing what your character wants. If this happens to occur in the middle of a big action scene, so be it.

What’s really meant by starting ‘in medias res’

Definition Of In Medias Res

In medias res is a Latin phrase used by the poet Horace; it means “in the middle of things.”

(Poet Horace was describing the ideal epic poet.)

In Medias Res In Film

There is … a problem in beginning a movie with such major dramatic scenes. It is axiomatic that drama is structured around rising action, that as we move through the real time of the film the tension increases, emotions rise, and the pace often quickens until we reach the climax. If the first scene is intensely dramatic, it sets up the expectation that the film will reach even higher levels, which can be a problem when it doesn’t.

— Howard Suber

In Medias Res And The (Modernist) Short Story

The modernist short story, which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, begins in medias res, replacing “once upon a time” beginnings. Ends were foreshortened to meet middles and also separated from they by silences that frame epiphanies.

— MARY ROHRBERGER

An example of a modernist short story is The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield.

Further Examples

Hamlet begins after the death of Hamlet’s father. Characters make reference to King Hamlet’s death without the plot’s first establishment of said fact. Since the play focuses on Hamlet and the revenge itself more so than the motivation, Shakespeare utilizes in medias res to bypass superfluous exposition.

Modern novelists known to extensively employ in medias res in conjunction with flashbacks include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison.

Well-known films that employ it include Raging Bull and City of God.  Star Wars IV: A New Hope starts in medias res: it opens in the middle of a chase and battle scene.

The guidelines are different when it comes to novels vs short stories. Ansen Dibell writes in Elements of Fiction Writing: Plot,

My strong advice is that if establishing a pre-existing norm isn’t absolutely vital, skip it. Leave it out altogether, if you possibly can. Instead, start in médias res. In general practice, that means starting your actual narrative just before, or even during, the first major conflict or confrontation: the point at which things start to get serious, when they start moving toward final crisis.

Specifically, that means starting a short story just before the main crisis which will provide the story’s resolution. Start a novel during the first crisis, because you’ll have time to draw back and explain how things got that way later in the first chapter, or even in chapter two.

Don’t tell how the protagonist decided to go out and buy fireworks, how much they cost, how he brought them home, how he stored them, what his wife said. Begin when the fuse is lit and the reader sees a bang coming any minute.

Levels of Detail In Literature

writing the detail

In storytelling, not every detail is necessary for the plot. In which case, what on earth is it doing there? As you may have guessed, there are multiple kinds of fictional detail, performing different functions.

James Wood has his own taxonomy of detail:

On-duty and Off-duty Detail

There is a conventional but modern fondness for quiet but “telling” detail: “The detective noticed that Carla’s hairband was surprisingly dirty.” If there is such a thing as a telling detail, then there must be such a thing as an untelling detail, no? A better distinction might be between what I would call “off-duty” and “on-duty” detail; the off-duty detail is part of the standing army of life, as it were–it is always ready to be activated. Literature is full of such off-duty detail. […] Nineteenth-century realism, from Balzac on, creates such an abundance of detail that the modern reader has come to expect of narrative that it will always contain a certain superfluity, a built-in redundancy, that it will carry more detail than it needs. In other words, fiction builds into itself a lot of surplus detail just as life is full of surplus details.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

There’s a great danger inherent in a writer’s choice of ‘telling detail’. The detail might ‘tell’ the writer’s own prejudices. Be mindful of the detail chosen to ‘tell’ the reader a character is:

  • poor
  • disabled
  • not white

In these cases, it’s generally safer to tell rather than ‘show’ via ‘telling detail’. Stereotypes are a useful shortcut between writer and reader, but only when writer and reader are complicit in their own privilege to the point where they don’t even see it themselves.

Barthes’s Referential Illusion

Wood touches on this. He goes on to explain that although surplus detail feels like it’s meant to denote what’s ‘real’, all it does is signify it.

Realism in general, it is implied, is just such a business of false denotation. […] Realism offers the appearance of reality but is in fact utterly fake–what [Roland] Barthes calls “the referential illusion.” […] those laurel-leaf haircuts worn by the actors in Hollywood “Roman” films signify “Romanness” in the way that Flaubert’s barometer signifies “realness”.

— How Fiction Works

‘Random’ Detail

No detail in fiction is ever truly random.

Therein lies the difference between fiction and real life; if I walk down a street I’m obliged to take in everything my mind registers, whether I want to or not, but the fiction author picks and chooses the detail most relevant to the reader.

When choosing detail, the storyteller:

  • evokes an atmosphere
  • paints a much wider setting with minimal clues to reader
  • might introduce or reinforce imagery (e.g. a stormy sky in the gothic novel foretells calamity)

In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes of the ‘Flaubertian Randomness of Detail’.

So the modern reader accepts a few things without question:

  1. The narrator notices stuff that ordinary people walking around would not notice, and can even make imagery out of mundane detail.
  2. For some reason, the narrator has gone to the trouble of writing it down.
  3. The narrator is able to pick and choose the detail which is relevant, unlike the rest of us, who walk down a street and take everything in, without any context for story. What we see when we walk down a street may well set off a chain of thoughts, but we’re not in full control of that chain.

‘The reader is happy enough to efface the labor of the writer in order to believe two further fictions: that the narrator was somehow “really there”, and that the narrator is not really a writer.’

– James Wood, from How Fiction Works, p55

Telling versus Lifeless Detail

Rose Tremain’s categorisation is simple:

Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one.

– Rose Tremain

Lavish Backstories

Novelist Donna Tartt endows her characters, however minor, with lavish backstories. No detail is too small. ”Not everything has to serve the plot,” Tartt says. ”Dickens digresses. I like books that are big, busy and bustling. Novels are capacious. Those casual walk-on parts create the illusion of life, which is baggy with people you never see again and get to know fleetingly.”

from an interview with Donna Tartt, Sydney Morning Herald

Leave Out The Unrealistic Memories

Think of a significant moment in your life. Maybe you heard the Twin Towers had been bombed. Maybe someone died. Maybe a stalker chased you through a park.

Which of the details do you remember from that moment?

I’m thinking of one. I remember:

– What I said

– How I felt at the time

– Sequence of events

– How I felt afterwards

What I don’t remember:

– What he looked like, much

– What he said

– The colour of his eyes!

– His rippling forearm

– The sweat across his brow.

And this, fellow writers, must have consequences in fiction. When our viewpoint character looks back in time, don’t get too specific. Memory doesn’t work like that.

We all have an ongoing narrative inside our heads, the narrative that is spoken aloud if a friend asks a question. That narrative feels deeply natural to me. We also hang on to scraps of dialogue. Our memories don’t usually serve us up whole scenes complete with dialogue.

– from an interview with Lydia Davis

Description Must Work For Its Place

Hilary Mantel is basically saying what Lydia Davis is saying, and demonstrates why writing in close third person is easier (and more modern-sounding) than writing in a truly omniscient voice, for what details would a god notice?

Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.

– Hilary Mantel

Detail in Short Stories

Detail in a short story has to carry a lot of weight. Even more than in novels, everything means something.

In the short story, detail is transformed into metaphorical significance. In a novel, on the other hand, the particular can remain merely the particular. It exists to make the reader feel he/she knows the experience — to create verisimilitude.

— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther

Raymond Carver offers a disclaimer: Even in a poem or a short story the language used to describe this detail does not, itself, have to be startling. Everyday words will still do the trick.

It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.

— Raymond Carver, On Writing

RELATED

Tips on writing memorable fiction with good use of detail, at Anne R Allen’s Blog

INTERVIEWER

Are you a constant observer, consciously looking for things you can use as a writer?

CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD

I think I’m a very unobservant person, one who goes straight to concepts about people and ignores evidence to the contrary and the bric-a-brac surrounding that person. Stephen Spender said an amusing thing about Yeats—that he went for days on end without noticing anything, but then, about once a month, he would look out of a window and suddenly be aware of a swan or something, and it gave him such a stunning shock that he’d write a marvelous poem about it. That’s more the kind of way I operate: suddenly something pierces the reverie and self-absorption that fill my days, and I see with a tremendous flash the extraordinariness of that person or object or situation.

— The Paris Review interview, The Art of Fiction No. 49, by W. I. Scobie

AUTHENTICATING DETAIL

If you hear the term ‘authenticating detail’, it’s not easy to Google so here’s a link.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This photo was taken when Charlotte Perkins Gilman was about 40 years old.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman; July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935) was a prominent American feminist, sociologist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and a lecturer for social reform. She was a utopian feminist during a time when her accomplishments were exceptional for women, and she served as a role model for future generations of feminists because of her unorthodox concepts and lifestyle. Her best remembered work today is her semi-autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” which she wrote after a severe bout of postpartum psychosis.

— Wikipedia

Read the story online here. 

Also important to know: Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a pioneer in the study of nervous conditions, urged Charlotte Perkins Gilman to treat her ‘hysteria’ by abstaining from her work as a writer, and to “never touch a pen, brush or pencil,” as long as she lived. Continue reading “The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman”

Out now — short story collection — How To Leave A Stranger

How To Leave A Stranger cover

iBooks Store Description

In this collection of 10 short stories you’ll meet a clairvoyant who struggles to live a spontaneous life, a woman who loves her weekly trips to the dentist, and a young man who is visited in the night by creatures of folklore. You’ll find love letters, thieves, unusual fantasies and ulterior motives. Apart from a general quirkiness, these stories are linked by brief encounters, abrupt desertions and permanent goodbyes.

Notes On Tall Tales

The ‘Tall Tale’ is a legitimate genre of story – not necessarily an insult. Maybe it sounds like one because as kids we were told to stop telling ‘tall tales’, when in fact we just thought we were ’embellishing’ real-life happenings. (If you’ve always been a writer than I expect you might identify with that!)

Ted Stone Tall Tales
a Canadian example

 

The following is from author Amy Timberlake, explaining her journey toward publication:

In 1999, after about eight publishers passed on “The Dirty Cowboy,” I sent the manuscript to Charlesbridge Publishing, and a few months later found a kind, personal rejection from Harold Underdown. His letter mentioned a few things he liked, and a few things he didn’t like, and then he said, “pacing is all-important in tall tales.” Tall tale?

Now here’s an embarrassing admission: I never thought of my story as a tall tale. Exaggerated? Embellished? Fanciful? Well, yeah — that’s the way we told stories in my family. But a tall tale? Like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox?

And then it seemed so obvious. I must’ve groaned then. Of course “The Dirty Cowboy” was a tall tale!

So I decided to take the rejection as a challenge.

– excerpted from this article.

Features Of Tall Tales

  • Tall tales are a classic form in Australia. If you travel in the outback, you’re likely to come across an old man who is particularly good at telling yarns. If he’s really good (and it’s often a ‘he’), he’ll have you believing him right up until the end, when he’s ‘gotcha’.
  • For an example of such a tale, listen to a master. This bloke (‘Bongo’) rang into an Australian radio station cracking on his story is true. If it’s true, I’ll eat every single one of my hats. Go to episode 404 of Mysterious Universe and, unless you want to hear all about sleep paralysis and trolls sitting on chests (which is also fascinating), you can skip straight to Bongo’s yarn at 51:25. Strange things happen in the Outback.
  • A type of tall tale is the ‘shaggy-dog story’. In its original sense, a shaggy dog story is an extremely long-winded anecdote characterised by extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents and terminated by an anticlimax or a pointless punchline. They are designed to entertain. They’re not famous for being elegant or realistic or psychologically insightful.
    • Shaggy Dog stories are also known in some Internet circles as ‘feghoots’. A feghoot is described as a short-short story (300 words on average, although 500-word examples exist), ending in a pun or a punchline that is pretty obviously the only reason for the story’s existence. The telling detail in a Feghoot is the groan emitted by the reader/listener when he hits the punchline. In essence, the feghoot is an Overly Pre-Prepared Gag in short story form.

      The Feghoot is named for the character Ferdinand Feghoot, created by Science Fiction author Reginald Bretnor using the pen name Grendel Briarton. Bretnor chronicled Feghoot’s adventures in the multi-year series “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot!”, in which each instalment was a short-short that ended in a horrific pun.

      When it’s told by an oral storyteller it tends to be called a shaggy dog story. When a science fiction writer does it, like Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, it tends to be called a Feghoot.

  • Mark Twain was a teller of tall tales.
  • Paul Bunyan told jokes about rural yokels and political heroics.
  • Gulliver’s Travels almost fits into the category.
  • The potboiler Western is a type of tall tale, full of braggadocio.
  • The tall tale seems to be a particularly masculine form. They are competitive — who can tell the best one? Tellers participate in ‘capping’ contests in which someone tells a tall tale, and others join in to make it even better — a kind of narrative exchange. The aim is to make the tales increasingly outlandish. Who can get away with the greatest exaggeration? The ‘getting away with’ is as important as the exaggeration itself. The Australian tall tale serves to reinforce ‘mateship’ (to reaffirm the solidarity of a group).
  • In a sense, tall tales are satiric. What do they satirise? Often themselves, or the art of serious storytelling. They make fun of people who would believe everything they hear. Tall tales are not meant to be believed.
  • But when it comes to tall tales, it’s not about the story content but all in the story’s telling. The sound of the voice is key. The storyteller speaks in the local vernacular (of men, particularly white men). Names are familiar to the audience. Tall tales require not a reader but a hearer. In this way, a tall tale is a type of exchange. The speaker’s face is also important. He might wink or show mock surprise or make an expression to convey that what he is saying is not true.
  • The main requirement of a tall tale is exaggeration: There are unbelievable creatures, huge fish, large distances, huge volumes. But hyperbole alone does not mean ‘tallness’. In a tall tale, the listener must both accept and refute. The listener has to know enough of the environment in which the tale is told to realise this can’t be true. The line between fact and fiction is hazy, and the humour derives from pushing that boundary. Which parts of this story are true, and which aren’t?
  • Tall tales have their origins in folk tales. The tall tale is a Eurasian form of story, and has its roots in The Canterbury Tales and similar.
  • In Australia, the celebration of the liar is a recurrent motif. Someone who starts rumours is called a ‘Tom Collins’. Tom Collins was the pseudonym of Joseph Furphy. A ‘furphy’ is a lie or a made up story. See also illywhacker.
  • But it’s worth making a distinction between ‘fictive’ and ‘fictitious’. In a fictive tale the listener knows what he’s hearing is not true. Not so in a fictitious tale, in which he’s genuinely duped.
  • What’s the point of a tale which is obviously a lie? Lies should not be read as simply an intent to deceive but as a strategy designed to invite closer attention. In this way, a tall tale can subvert.
  • A shaggy dog tale is similar to a tall tale. The aim is to keep the listener interested, then end abruptly with no real climax. The listener will be disappointed and the teller will take delight in having strung them along.

Tall Tales In Picturebooks

tall-tales

Dr Seuss loved Tall Tales. See And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street.

Tall Tales In The Classroom

Tall tales are very fun to write and free the imagination to perhaps go on to write something a little less fanciful later.

I once had a Year 8 relief teacher called Mrs Bray [insert unfortunate donkey pun], who actually did a much better job of teaching than my regular teacher, who really wanted to be a young adult novelist (and later achieved publication). Despite the fact Mrs Bray got lots of grief for not being ‘our proper teacher’ I secretly regretted that she didn’t stay on full-time.

She had us write a tall story once, and for some reason, I have kept it. Here it is:

TALL STORY by me, aged 10 or 11.

I began on a Tuesday, because it wasn’t raining. Since I hadn’t enough money to go anywhere I thought I’d dig a hole to China. It took me about half an hour and when I got there, a whole lot of Chinese people ran up to me and attacked me with chopsticks. [This little bit of xenophobia earned me two ticks in the margin.] I flipped over them and ran to the Space Centre where I jumped in a rocket and flew to the moon. The brakes didn’t work and I was about to crash. It didn’t matter because the cheese was soft. I ate some, then flew back to earth. I landed in a desert and to get back home I had to cross water. I got some helium which managed to survive the crash and inflated a camels [sic] humps. I held on to its legs and told it to float to New Zealand or else I’d chew its toenails off. He told me he had no control over which way the wind blew and we ended up on the clouds. They were bouncy, like a trampoline. I slid down the north pole and landed on top of an igloo. The Eskimos [see above] were nice people [redeemed] who invited me in for tea. We had some Maggi soup. [‘soup’ made out of powder and boiling water, for the unlucky uninitiated] Then I swum [sic] to New Zealand. By then it was dark and I couldn’t see where I was going, but finally got home where Mum sent me to bed. But a monster peeked in the window and I hit him over the head with my bed. We had monster sandwiches for weeks afterward.

THE END

Great tall story!! [in red teacher biro]

It’s rather disturbing how well I managed to fill that brief.

Here are 30 other ideas for teaching writing, from National Writing Project

Two (or Three) Types of Short Story Closure

Narrative closure is not necessarily the same as thematic or ideational closure.

— Per Winther, The Art of Brevity, Closure and Preclosure as Narrative Grid in Short Story Analysis

  • This holds true even though for certain stories the two types of closure will seem inseparable.
  • Modern stories (20th C rather than 19th C) tend to bring the story line to a logical end point but point beyond the text itself to further developments, forcing the reader back into the text to ponder the meaning. In other words, modern short stories reward re-reading.
  • We might call the closure of plot a ‘narrative closure’.
  • We might call the other kind of closure ‘hermeneutic closure’. (Hermeneutic basically = interpretive.)
  • Susan Lohafer came up with a similar set of terms: Physical Closure, Immediate Cognitive Closure and Deferred Cognitive Closure. Physical Closure refers to the end of a sentence, a paragraph, a story itself. Immediate Cognitive Closure refers to that feeling you get as reader when you understand the surface meaning of a text. Deferred Cognitive Closure happens some time later when you realise more fully what the story was really about.
  • Hermeneutic closure tends to be deferred/delayed.

 

See also: Short Story Endings

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

“The Bloody Chamber” is a feminist-leftie re-visioning of Bluebeard, written in the gothic tradition, set in a French castle with clear-cut goodies and baddies.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Adult Tales

 

 

The title story of The Bloody Chamber, first published in 1979, was directly inspired by Charles Perrault’s fairy tales of 1697: his “Barbebleue” (Bluebeard) shapes Angela Carter’s retelling, as she lingers voluptuously on its sexual inferences, and springs a happy surprise in a masterly comic twist on the traditional happy ending. Within a spirited exposé of marriage as sadistic ritual, she shapes a bright parable of maternal love.

Marina Warner

 

The tale of Bluebeard’s Wife–the story of a young woman who discovers that her mysterious blue-bearded husband has murdered his former spouses–no longer squares with what most parents consider good bedtime reading for their children. But the story has remained alive for adults, allowing it to lead a rich subterranean existence in novels ranging from Jane Eyre to Lolita and in films as diverse as Hitchcock’s Notorious and Jane Campion’s The Piano.

— description of a different book, Secrets Beyond the Door : The Story of Bluebeard and His Wives

The descriptions of setting are evocative and eerie; the reader knows something terrible is about to happen — it’s almost given away in the title, after all — what we don’t know is how the girl is going to escape. This is a fairytale for adults, utilising the contrivances and coincidences of the fairytale tradition to tell a story which is otherwise modern in resolution: There is no white knight in shining armour. Who is really the most likely to save a girl from harm?

In the 1970s, Angela Carter was translating Charles Perrault from French, and she compiled two volumes of fairy tales from all over the world for Virago. So there you have it: French language, fairy tale and feminist expertise in one writer, which is all evident in this story…

Continue reading “The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter”