A Cell Phone Ate My Plot


Great piece in the New York Times about how technology is ruining classic plot devices. You know the sort of thing – a missed connection, one character not being able to get hold of another at a vital moment…All of this is particularly applicable to thrillers and, as I’m currently writing one, I couldn’t agree more.

It’s hard enough to achieve and maintain tension without having to factor in GPS and phone technology, all of which mean that effectively your protagonist need never be out of touch.  The trouble is, vulnerability = danger and unless you expose your protagonist to mounting peril your levels of tension will be more flaccid than the average ex-banker’s excuses.   Better perhaps to follow author MJ Rose’s lead and set your next book in an era where such devices did not exist (in her case, 1948).

Then again, some writers – notably Stephen King – use technology as a main plot device.  Those of us who have read Cell may never look at our phones in the same way again although I prefer the more visceral kick of the book/film Misery which illustrated all too clearly that human depravity outstrips that of any machine.  Of course, it’s the humans behind the machine who are responsible for what unfolds.  As writers, we need to embrace technology as a necessary part of a contemporary plot without running scared from it.  After all, phones can be turned off and Wifi doesn’t work everywhere.

Believe it or not, there are places on the planet where you still have to trek up a steep hill to get a signal.  I should know – my Bulgarian cottage is one such retreat.  It’s the perfect place to kick back and relax (or write) simply because there are so few distractions.  Even the ancient landline chooses when and how it will deign to take calls.  Closer to home, I’ve experienced dead spots when training SAS-style in the Brecon Beacons.  Or maybe it was a cunning plan to isolate us so we couldn’t go soft and call for help and home comforts…

For a fiction writer, there are so many choices.  You can use technology to provide key plot points or you can simply nod to it now and then.  Rather than bemoan the fact that we cannot rely on sometimes hackneyed plot devices, we should embrace the new and use it.  Writers are, after all, magpies, picking and mixing whatever works.   The trick is to make it serve you, the writer, and the story.  If your plot hinges on a missed connection it can still happen.  Although if that was all my plot hinged on I might start to take a long, hard look at my characterisation and ability to create a rich narrative.

New York Times piece:

http://tinyurl.com/c8ul4q