Wednesday 25 November 2015

Smartphone: Destroyer of Plot Lines!

Though a convenience for most, the smartphone can be a big inconvenience for writers of fiction.

Writing a good novel and getting it to press is a long process. It took less than five years for the smartphone to go from fantasy to everyday reality, altering almost every aspect of daily life. Novels written five years ago, need to be updated. What might once have been a present-day action adventure story, must now be declared to have taken place in the past, if the characters aren't glued to their smartphones. Something written 10 years ago, is now a "period piece."

The first novel I ever wrote is still unpublished, largely because of this. It's a science-fiction action story about a high-tech detective who is physically wired to the internet. I finished writing it in 2004 and started shopping it around to publishers. No takers. About five years ago, it became obvious that technology had evolved and my story needed updating. On my first re-read, I became depressed, realizing that I might as well replace every occurrence of my protagonist's name with the word, "smartphone." Also, I'd need to rename it: "A Smartphone Called Intrepid."

Beyond their frantic evolutionary cycles, Smartphones challenge authors in that they are too convenient and remove too many obstacles. Scenes like exhaustive research in a library, or flipping through a phone book for leads have been contracted into a couple of swipes on a screen. Having immediate and private access to everything also isolates your characters, reducing the opportunity for chance encounters and unexpected twists. As simple a plot device as being lost has become a complicated event to arrange, with any realism.

In order for a protagonist to get in to a real jam, an author has to deprive him of the ability to call for help. But now that phones are actually pocket computers, he also has to lose the ability to look things up on the internet, use GPS and maps, camera, email and social media, which means that somewhere in the course of the story, the author must set aside time to have the smartphone lost, destroyed, damaged or electronically blocked. As a last ditch effort, a writer can arrange to have the battery run out, but that often makes the hero look like an idiot for not having charged it; similar to tripping over a tree root or choosing the up-stairs to escape a crazed killer.

Outside of books, I really notice the effect in recent Bond movies. James spends far less time with Q than he used to, because otherwise we'd end up with scenes like this...

Q: "You'll want to keep this close, 007. It's a communication device, but also a set of encyclopedia, universal translator, GPS, minicomputer and plumb bob."

BOND: "It appears to be an iPhone."

Q: "Quite right. Mind you don't get it wet."

BOND: "Couldn't I just use mine?"

Q: "Ours is on AT&T."

BOND: "Verizon: 100 Megabit, unlimited roaming."

Q: "I see. Best use yours, then."

And, of course, the obligatory capture scene would also need to be brought up to speed...

DR. EVIL GENIUS: "Mr. Bond, the reason I have just spent the better part of a half hour revealing to you all the intricate details of my plan for world domination is that you won't be around to stop me, as you'll soon be quite dead. This death ray is pointed directly at your genitals, strapped as you are to this operating table I conveniently keep in the middle of my living room. When the candle breaks that string, a ping pong ball will fall out of that cup and roll along this ruler until it reaches that set of dominoes. As the dominoes fall they will strike a match which will, in turn, light a fuse detonating a fire cracker launching a lead fishing weight into that rolling pin, causing it to hit this shiny red button thus activating the completely redundant timer which will fire the death ray in precisely 13 seconds. Pity I can't stay to enjoy the show. Oh, and by the way, no sense trying to escape: I've jammed your cell provider. Also, my wifi network is password protected."

BOND: "You've wasted a lot of effort, then, Dr. Genius. My battery's dead."

If smartphones are ever updated to include explosives and oil slicks, it's all over for Q and evil geniuses.

And, if I ever see James Bond take a selfie, it's all over for me, as well.

On a more serious note... 
check out my time travel/action-adventure/literary novel

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