When I write stories that take place in a modern era, I am loath to utilize phone conversations or email as a storytelling mechanism. There are many writers out there who do use these mechanisms in their stories and they absolutely make sense. If you’re writing a story that takes place in the present or even the future, your characters would have the benefits of the contemporary technology at their fingertips and it would feel weird to deny them these things. But, at the same time, there’s something about using a cell phone or an email in a story line that really drives me batty.
I tend to view phone calls and the like as the modern equivalent of deus ex machina—it’s an easy way to twist the plot without much effort. Where’s the fun in that? “And then the phone rang…” and other such drivel. Deus ex machina, in case you are not familiar, is Latin for “God as the machine.” It is a storytelling mechanism that relies upon coincidence or the influence of God or the gods to drive a story in a certain direction. This sort of thing was very popular in the times of the Greek gods and goddesses because people believed that these figureheads actually influenced and took an active role in the lives of individuals. It is still a popular construct today and absolutely has its place. Things in real life can happen by chance, but you have to use this device sparingly. Otherwise, your audience won’t believe you.
Personally, I don’t look favorably on a story whose turning point relies upon a key phone call. I find that to be lazy writing. But maybe my dislike of the use of telephone calls is more tied to my lack of confidence when it comes to writing dialogue which is all a phone conversation is, as opposed to my having an issue with the use of the device itself.
I’m not sure what it is about all other technology that I am averse to in my writing, but I do everything in my power to avoid using them. Perhaps it is because I like to write to get away from modern life and the part that technology plays in it (which is odd because I write on a computer. Perhaps that makes me a hypocrite!). But I have certainly read and enjoyed my fair share of stories that utilize technology.
Regardless, I think that there is something about reading a phone conversation is rather droll, in my opinion. It is probably very limiting to me as a writer to avoid writing stories with scenes that involve cell phones. But I think it disrupts the timelessness of a piece of writing.
Oddly enough, my current work in progress, Withered World, takes place in the future and thus requires the use of modern and futuristic technologies. Instead of phones, people have PIDs (personal implanted devices) which are basically mobile phones that have been implanted into a person’s skull just behind their ear. I also have a character who rips his out of his head (you’re supposed to have it surgically removed) in a very Van Gogh gesture.
The use of these and other technologies are limited to the CITY dwellers and are not a part of the lives of those who live on the FARMs. Even so, it’s been an interesting—and difficult—challenge navigating technology as a writer. But I’ve found that including it is necessary. Otherwise, the story feels unbalanced.
As I foray into this new territory as a writer, I try to do the following (and I have no clue as to whether these are conventions or even good writer decisions. But I’m only in first draft mode):
- Keep conversations short or have characters receive voice mails instead of resorting to full-blown conversations.
- Plan out your technology before you try to write. It helps keep you and your world in check.
- Give enough detail so that your reader can get an idea of what’s going on and how things work, but don’t try to do too much. You’ll bore your reader or just get yourself into trouble.
So far so good. But I’m still struggling in the nettling weeds of draft #1. Do you have any tips for working technology into your stories? Please share in the comments!