Black Mirror and the Future of Storytelling

blackmirror

Black Mirror is the future. I don’t mean the dystopian technological prophecies in the show will come true (though many of them might). I mean the format of 50 to 70-minute self-contained stories are the future of film and television storytelling.

We are in the age of peak TV. Between cable networks like AMC and FX, HBO, Showtime, Starz, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, there are literally hundreds of great shows to watch. At first, I loved the new serialized storytelling that television allowed. Series like The Wire and Breaking Bad were like novels, allowing for more nuanced characterization that you simply don’t have time for in a two-hour movie.

The problem (if you can call it a problem) is there are now too many great multi-season serialized TV shows. There’s no way I can’t watch them all; I’ve given up trying. I can only afford to watch a select few shows. I devote most of my watching time to movies, which I prefer because I can get a complete story in one sitting, with a beginning, middle, and end.

Then again, even movies are starting to get too long. Whereas most movies in the past tended to be 90 minutes, now they average two hours, with many exceeding that, closer to two and a half. Perhaps this is in response to TV. Movie studios feel they need to justify their rising ticket prices by having a longer run time, especially for the big tentpole blockbusters.

But that’s a warped view of value. Time is the most valuable commodity, especially in today’s leisure economy where there are so many things to do. Therefore, the best movie or TV show is the one that doesn’t waste your time—that tells a complete, rich story as succinctly as possible.

Which brings me back to Black Mirror. It’s an anthology TV show, meaning every episode is self-contained with a new cast and story, but all the episodes revolve around a common theme: the dark side of technology in the near future. Essentially, each episode is a mini-movie, but they are better than most movies because they are so tight and lean. There’s no excess or fat. No time is wasted.

Why can’t a movie be one hour long? Or 50 minutes? Or 75 minutes? Why must a movie be at least 90 minutes? That goes back to ticket prices and people feeling cheated if the movie is too short. But with streaming services like Netflix, movie/show length doesn’t matter. In fact, shorter is better. Because time is valuable.

That’s why I think Black Mirror’s format of one-hour stories are the future of film and television. Maybe it’s just a personal preference, but that’s my favorite format. (A close second are miniseries like Chernobyl because again, you get a full story with a beginning, middle, and end. Serialized shows are great, but you have to wait years for an ending that may ultimately disappoint. My least favorite types of TV shows are procedurals because they’re too repetitive. Every episode is the same.)

I think we will see a similar trend in the book industry with a revitalization of the novella. It was a format that never took off in the past for the same reasons that movies needed to be longer than an hour. If someone bought a book that was too short, they’d feel cheated. Plus, because of printing costs, a novel had to be a certain length to justify the cost of the ink and paper. But with ebooks, that doesn’t matter anymore. A book can be any length and will cost the same price to reproduce: nothing.

My reading time is just as valuable as my watching time, which is limited, so I want shorter works, told as succinctly as possible. It seems antiquated and backwards for publishers to still pay writers by the word. Where’s the incentive to be concise? How does a system based on $/word value the reader’s time?

Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily easier to write a short story as opposed to a novel. In many ways it’s harder to fit in full character development, theme, and plot in such a short amount of time. But good short story writers are able to pull it off. The short story I published last year (“The Simulation Test“) is an exception in that it was a flash fiction story (around 400 words) with no characters or plot, per se. Full short stories tend to be longer, in the 3,000 to 6,000-word range.

The novelette (7,500 to 17,499 words) and novella (17,500 to 39,999 words) seem to be the perfect length for a story—a happy medium between short stories and novels. They afford you just enough time to develop a full plot and characters without dragging on too long with excess description and unnecessary subplots. They are short enough to read in one sitting, which I think is beneficial. Something is lost when you take day-long breaks (or more) in the middle of reading a story. But with many novels being 12-plus hours long, it’s almost impossible to read in one sitting. On the other hand, a novella that takes 1-2 hours is perfect—just like an episode of Black Mirror.

Of course, I don’t think everything should be condensed to a short story or novella, nor should writers sacrifice character and important details just to make their work shorter. Really, I’d just like to see more novellas in addition to novels, not in replace of. In my own writing, I’ve been gravitating more towards short stories and novellas as opposed to novels and series. Of course, there will always be a place for longer works in both film and books. Certain properties and authors deserve the length (like Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin). But I think today, most stories should be shorter, and in the future, they will be.

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