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, why keep it? Writers are told to cut, cut, cut. But don’t cut everything, just because it doesn’t advance the plot. There are multiple kinds of fictional detail, each performing different functions.

Here are some factors to bear in mind when creating rich and detailed scenarios:

  1. Not only too little information but too much creates anxiety.
  2. Humans value useful rather than necessarily true information.

If storytellers aren’t careful about detail, the effect can be unpleasantly disorienting:

Literary narratives present readers with dynamic environments that typically contain representations of fundamental features of the external world, including a physical place rich in inanimate objects and living beings. Among the latter, other humans with a distinct set of social relations are often particularly salient. Yet even though the fictive world must have sufficient dimensions of real-world environments for readers to navigate within it, so to speak, it is at the same time a highly artificial environment whose aspects have been carefully selected, unlike those of actual places and spaces. In everyday experience, organisms filter out an abundance of actions and entities that have no relatively meaningful claim upon their attention. Stepping into the street, a person will attend to oncoming traffic rather than the dead worm being eaten by ants or an inexplicably brilliant flower lying in withered leaves by her feet. In the moment before she crosses the street, these objects do not strike her as important stimuli or opportunities for action if a car is barreling rapidly down the street, and she does not attend to them. But a work of fiction is an intentionally produced, cognitive artifact, and if a writer describes each of these features of the environment as a character crosses the street, readers expect those features to have some relevance to the ongoing construction of meaning in the text. (The real woman crossing the street is likewise continuously producing meaning, but her priorities and the bearing of her environment on her well-being are rather different.) In offering itself to our attention as a meaningful, humanly constructed cognitive object, a literary work leaves us unprepared to filter out extraneous elements.

— ‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

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

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, because the writer has chosen to include it, starting from nothing.

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

An excellent example of remembered detail can be found in the aptly named “What Is Remembered“, a short story by Alice Munro. In this story, an older woman looks back at a time in her life when she was unfaithful to her husband. The details she remembers in the close third person narration are signifiers — they have stuck in her memory after all else has faded.

It was in a small, decent building, three or four stories high, inexpensive rather than cheap-looking. All that she would remember about it would be the glass bricks around the front entrance and the elaborate, heavy hi-fi equipment of that time, which seemed to be the only furniture in the living room.

[…]

She remembered his hazel-gray eyes, the close-up view of his coarse skin, a circle like an old scar beside his nose, the slick breadth of his chest as he reared up from her. But she could not have given a useful description of what he looked like. She believed that she had felt his presence so strongly, from the very beginning, that ordinary observation was not possible. Sudden recollection of even their early, unsure and tentative moments could still make her fold in on herself, as if to protect the raw surprise of her own body, the racketing of desire.

— Alice Munro

Robin Black is another short story writer who understands that memory has holes in it. When describing an event which happened 13 years earlier, here’s how she writes it:

Jeremy could only ever remember bits and pieces of those two weeks, the ones when [his daughter] was gone. Merciful amnesia, a friend once called it — except it wasn’t very merciful, because only the worst of it stuck with him. Or so he assumed. Like the first shock at her absence, as too many hours passed for it to be benign teenage tardiness; like walking the streets of London, night after night, as though she might have become a nocturnal creature waiting to reveal herself in the dark; like the dawning nightmarish realisation that he himself was a suspect in her disappearance.

— A Country Where You Once Lived by Robin Black

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

Detail in Children’s Literature

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead won the Newbery Medal. A large part of that was because of her choice of detail. Stead makes every small detail matter. The Newbery judges chose the novel for making the small details important to the plot. Publishers Weekly added that even the smallest of details—Miranda’s name, her strange habits and why she carries A Wrinkle in Time with her—have a reason for their inclusion by the end of the novel.

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”