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First Draft: Understanding the Promise of the Premise Through Nocturnal Animals, Groundhog Day and Black Mirror

First Draft: Understanding the Promise of the Premise Through Nocturnal Animals, Groundhog Day and Black Mirror

First Draft

Next comes the unsettling world of internet bullying and cyber hate crimes. (And any fan of Black Mirror knows they go after computer technology in paranoia-inducing ways that will make you wish you never owned a phone or a laptop!)

How to keep that thread consistent with the bees? Brooker comes up with a premise so dense with theme that it practically thickens on the page (or screen).

A disgruntled former worker at the cyber-bee factory has hacked into the “hives” and found a way to direct an individual bee into the brains of unsuspecting victims, causing their excruciating deaths. And these virtual murders are chosen by the public, who, joining in on a Twitter hashtag, are targeting the next victim based on how unpopular they have become on social media.

Thus, a reporter who wrote a heartless piece about a disabled person blows up the internet with anger, and becomes the first victim. A rapper who disses a tiny tot causes a storm of outrage on the web, and he’s next.

But how does the former worker at the cyber bee factory know how to direct the robot bees to their intended victims? Remember the government surveillance theme mentioned at the outset? It turns out the government has been secretly using the bees to spy on its citizens, using facial recognition software.

Faye Marsay as Blue Colson, Jonas Karlsson as Rasmus Sjolberg, Esther Hall as Vanessa Dahl and Kelly Macdonald as Karin Parke in Black Mirror‘s “Hated in the Nation.” Photograph by Laurie Sparham/ Courtesy of Netflix

In a slam-dunk, triple-threat thematic outburst, “Hated in the Nation” has also fashioned a thrilling detective story: the protagonist is the cop charged with investigating the murders and following the breadcrumbs left behind by the hacker. Not only does this never lose sight of its premise’s promise, but it makes sure to embed it into every scene, not just the “Fun and Games” part.

And so, by never losing sight of the power behind the premise, the plot ratchets up the tension by adding one new layer at a time to the mystery. And it is a mystery of which the author already knows the outcome, so the beats of the plot are simply waiting to be deftly inlaid into the ramifications inherent in the premise:

  • The first victim is discovered and treated like a traditional murder.
  • A second victim reveals the source of his death—the mechanical bee. This sets the investigation off on a new course.
  • It is then discovered that the murders are the result of a hashtag game, and so steps are taken to prevent the death of the next intended victim.
  • They fail, and as a politician awaits his potential fate as the next to be eliminated, the identity of the killer is discovered, even as the depth of the government’s use of the bees as surveillance tools is made chillingly clear.

As an audience, we can see the stepladder of consequence unfolding, but we still sense there is something being held back from us. And then the premise delivers its coup-de-grace.

While we watch the eerily familiar depiction of cyber hatred unfold, we realize not only that any one of us could fall victim to it, but also that any one of us could engage in it under the guise of a playful dig at a public figure. And that is when the final act twist in this 90-minute episode nails us to the wall with yet another permutation of the premise.

The disgruntled former worker was not after the public figures he helped disgrace on the internet. He was after a larger game: those who joined in on the hatred. Motivated by his unrequited love for a co-worker who attempted suicide after being cyber-bullied, the object of this bad guy’s anger was not a few random 15-minutes-of-fame phenoms. The object of his anger was us.

This is the kind of knocks-you-back fulfillment that can happen when you play out your premise to its true, thematic end, instead of dropping it just when we were coming on board. “Hated in the Nation” is a deeply satisfying dark vision precisely because it follows through on the ideas that fueled it.

In Ramona Zacharias’ interview for Creative Screenwriting with Charlie Brooker and Black Mirror co-creator Annabel Jones, the two cogently bear out this analysis:

Brooker: But it’s interesting that you say there are lots of different ways of looking at it, because that’s how we’ve approached the series. It’s like we’re doing six, almost different genre, films. We’ve got a comedy, we’ve got an outright horror episode, a police procedural, a coming-of-age story, and so on. So hopefully we’re tackling it from different angles.

Jones: It all starts with the central dilemma, and then you have ideas as to what is the most interesting way to explore that. There’s an episode with a detective and it’s quite complicated at the same time as it’s a really fast, gripping tale. There are quite a few layers to it, and it fit into a detective story.

Brooker: It started as a what-if story about online anger. There was a weird idea we’d had and wanted to see how we could play it out. We thought of a police procedural, which we had never done before. And it lent itself to quite a techno-noir pace.”

And, to close with another brief quote from the episode’s author, here Brooker drives home perhaps the key factor in making sure your premise stands on its own, working in tandem with the stakes of a story rather than overpowering it:

Brooker: Well, we don’t try to moralize within it, because generally I don’t think we know what the answer is!”

A writer’s job is to pose questions, not answer them. Staying true to your premise is a sure way to do exceedingly well at that job. MM

This article originally appeared on the website Creative Screenwriting. Creative Screenwriting is “the best magazine for screenwriters” (The Los Angeles Times), publishing daily interviews and craft articles from the foremost writers in film and TV.

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