Feb 27, 2012

Is Tech the Villain of Your Story? Guest Post by @wonderoftech

By Carolyn Nicander Mohr
Carolyn's Blog | Twitter | Google+

As a devoted fan of both tech and fiction, I'm sorry to report that the two rarely play nicely together.

Personal technology has become a factor that fiction writers can’t ignore. As portable technology pervades our everyday lives, making them easier and more efficient, writers must deal with the ever-changing world of tech while keeping the focus on the story.

Tech as a Plot Device

Few authors can effectively harness their imaginations to anticipate the future of technology efficiently enough to use it as a central plot device. The 1960s incarnation of Star Trek did a superb job of predicting tech that is emerging today. Though no one can yet be "beamed up" we do have communicators, commonly known as cell phones (see Top 10 'Star Trek' Technologies that Actually CameTrue).

  • Minority Report (2002) showed computer displays as holograms. That has not yet been widely adopted.
  • Ian Fleming, inspired by his espionage work during World War II, utilized tech gadgets effectively as plot devices to rescue Agent 007, James Bond, from dire predicaments.
  • Chester Gould, the creator of the comic strip Dick Tracy in the 1930s, envisioned cell phones that were wristwatches. (Many people still eagerly anticipate that device.)
  • Maxwell Smart, a character in the 1960s TV comedy series, Get Smart, used a cell phone in his shoe. (Not many people today would crave a shoe phone).

If you have a forward-thinking imagination, by all means share your vision with your readers. But if you find yourself getting bogged down with tech that takes away from the story, you may want to re-think your plot.

Don't Expect the "Wow" Factor 

If you're enamored with tech and think the latest-and-greatest gadgets will amaze your readers and be the key to a good story, think again. What seems like innovative tech today will look clunky and dated tomorrow.

Stories putting tech at the heart of the plot become outdated quickly as advances in technology make them obsolete before the ink is dry on the paper. In 2008, an action movie called Eagle Eye starring Shia LaBeouf utilized tech in its denouement. [Spoiler Alert!] The climax of this action film involves LaBeouf's character revealing video taken by his Palm Treo smartphone. A key plot point was that the villains didn’t know that a cell phone could capture video. Few people seeing this movie in 2012 would be shocked that a cell phone had this capability.

Avoid the "Giggle" Factor

The ideal for any writer is to have his story become a classic. But tech can mar an otherwise gripping tale, taking the reader out of the moment. If you watch a movie from the mid- to late 1990s, where at a critical point in the film a star takes out a bulky cell phone, you may be joined in giggles by those watching the movie with you. The tension of the scene is decimated by dated tech.  
Try to focus away from gadgets large and small. What appears cutting edge today will probably look funny or implausible to future audiences.

Dealing with Pesky Machines

Today, you need to think through the role of technology to move your plot forward. For example, in writing the story of a damsel in distress, an author must address the issue of the character's cell phone.  If a character is kidnapped and thrown in the trunk of a car, nearly every reader will be wondering why she doesn't just whip out her cell phone and dial 911 (or the emergency number of whatever country where the kidnapping takes place). Your choices as an author are:

           - Show that the cell phone is not in her possession
           - Show her battery is dead
           - Show that she cannot get reception
           - Show that the cell phone is damaged
           - Have the setting of your story occur 1995 or earlier, pre-cell phones

Ignoring the cell phone issue will distract the readers and either make them wonder why the character isn't using her cell phone or erode their trust in you as an author. You’ll make them wonder why you haven't covered all the relevant plot points.

Bottom Line:

Unless you're an inspired tech visionary, tech should be explained away or avoided so that the focus of the reader remains on your story. Gadgetry is too fickle to deserve a starring role.

[A couple of inspired tech visionaries. - JMB]

Have you ever been distracted by tech in a story? Have you ever watched a movie where people laughed at old tech? Let us know in the Comments section below!


Carolyn is a lawyer, wife and mother to three teenagers (including a set of twins). She's a polygadgetist who has been entranced with personal technology for over 20 years. 

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