Black Mirror: Writing Stakes

If there’s anything cyberpunk nouveau Twilight Zone TV show Black Mirror is good for, it’s tension. I binged the first two seasons yesterday, having intended to just watch one episode. Edge of my seat, standing and shouting, creeped the hell out.

So how did they do it?

The first episode hits you with major life-and-death-and-the-crown stakes in the first minute and doesn’t let you go. Seriously tense. The conceit is so wild it’s almost gimmicky, so how to keep this going in future episodes? Raise them stakes.

[SPOILERS]

The Entire History of You: In a world where you can play back any memory, what happens when you suspect your wife of having feelings for an old friend? Higher – maybe they slept together when you stormed out for a week. Higher – And doesn’t the timing match the conception of your child?

Be Right Back: Your husband dies in a car accident. Higher – you just moved into his family’s old farmhouse, miles from anywhere. Higher – Oh, and you’re pregnant.

Brian Staveley lays out three kinds of literary tension as psychological, social, and environmental in this post (A LOVER, A PIGLET, AND A DEEP HOLE; OR, THREE TYPES OF TENSION), and they can certainly be applied to these episodes.

The Entire History of You:

Psychological: The main character has trust and jealousy issues. This has led his wife to be less than honest about her past relationships.

Environmental: And memories can be played back. Harder to lie now.

Social: Throw his wife’s rakish former lover in the mix.

Be Right Back:

Psychological: Martha is a social person. She prefers to be actually present in her life, rather than sinking into social media and her phone.

Environmental: She is utterly alone out in the countryside, and soon to be a single mum. A friendly voice in the dark sure helps….

Social: And now she can talk with an AI that talks just like her dead husband. She reminds herself he’s not real, and eventually hates “him” for it,.

These are episodes which mainly feature people sitting around and talking, and they shook the hell out of me. Every new layer of tension got a verbal “oh shit”. Good stuff.

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