Friday, December 16, 2011

Technology in fiction


The following is a rough draft of a piece I previously submitted to a national writing magazine. While they ultimately rejected it after much hemming and hawing, I decided to post it here because I think the subject is interesting. I'd like to hear how you use (or don't use) technology in your fiction and how it's changed how you structure a story.

Ready? Here we go:

In his 1977 classic horror novel “The Shining,” Stephen King used a family’s isolation in a snowed-in Colorado hotel to create spine-tingling tension and a creeping sense of impending doom. And brother, did it work. Let’s face it, being alone is scary. That’s why it’s been a common theme in fiction for decades.

My, how times have changed. Today, it seems we’re never quite alone. Blame it on technology, which has changed our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a decade ago. Think about it. Facebook tells us our sister is having a latte at Starbucks, our mother is playing Café World, and our boss is looking for us. Want to know what everyone from the president to Lindsay Lohan is doing right this second? Check Twitter.

A recent CNN poll shows a whopping 92 percent of Americans now have access to the Internet. More than 95 percent have a cell phone and 53 percent own a smart phone. All these doodads are not only changing the way we live our lives, but the way we’re reading and writing fiction.

Technology can be an extremely useful tool for authors. But it has to be used correctly, or it can end up creating more problems than solutions. Let’s look at a few ways to use (or not use) technology in your novel.

Isolation. Like King’s snowed-in family in “The Shining,” isolation is an effective way to create suspense. But with today’s technology, it’s hard to get your characters really alone and off the grid. Short of dispatching your hero to the Sahara Desert, the best way to achieve this is to find a clever way to either disable their gadgets or put them in a place where electronics won’t function. Bestselling author Chevy Stevens pulls this off in her new thriller, “Never Knowing,” by having her main character’s fiancé travel periodically to a remote wilderness lodge to conduct tours. It works, and more importantly, it’s believable since that’s what the fiancé does for a living.

Can you hear me now? One of the best ways to add tension to your novel is creating situations where the characters don’t know where their loved one is, or what they are doing. Young adult author Kirsten Hubbard, in her debut novel, “Like Mandarin,” weaves an affecting tale of two high school girls and their burgeoning friendship. Part of the book’s tension comes when the two girls go days without seeing each other, leaving Grace, the main character, to wonder if there’s a problem with her beloved Mandarin. The novel is set in the present, and Hubbard pulls it off by leaving technology out of the book altogether. If they had cell phones, they would’ve been texting constantly and the novel would have lost much of its emotional firepower.

Out of touch. Conversely, one way of using technology to create tension is to have someone who is usually in touch suddenly go missing. There are few things more ominous than being unable to reach a loved one who is always available by cell phone. Used sparingly, this device can be highly effective.

Don’t date your work. We often feel the need to cram our work full of the coolest high-tech gadgets available. Really, who wants to appear 3G in a 4G world? But be careful. Technology moves so fast that what’s cool this week can be a dinosaur by next Friday. Imagine the poor writer who, three years ago, started her Great American Novel about a murder mystery revolving around a relationship on MySpace. Oops. Remember, a great song is a great song, no matter how old it is, but a flip phone is just plain silly in this day and age.

Avoid contrivance. No one needs to be told that readers today are savvier than ever. One too many contrived plot devices and they’ll drop your book like it’s on fire. Think twice before conveniently disabling a character’s cell phone just when he needs it most or taking down the Internet right before she can read that all-important email. Be wary of the high-tech deus ex machina. If you must remove technology in order to make your work more suspenseful, do it in a way that’s believable. Your readers will thank you for the extra effort.

What’s in a name? Quite a bit, it turns out. Avoid using too many brands, which can be off-putting to some readers. Instead of saying a character has a BlackBerry, use smart phone. Skype can become video chatting. Use e-reader rather than a specific device. General terms come across as less elitist and can be especially useful if the brand is outdated before your book is published.

Ever-evolving technology has clearly altered the fiction landscape. Used intelligently, technology can add tension and atmosphere to any manuscript. Use it poorly and your work can fall flatter than unleavened bread. Remember, the Internet isn’t just a place for writers to waste time. It’s a wonderful research tool if used wisely. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a hot game of Angry Birds waiting for me.

4 comments:

  1. Meh. Set your book in the mountains with peaks tall enough to block signals, no local wi-fi, internet by dial-up only, and phone cables that have to be trucked in on the back of a pack mule.

    :-D

    I have no cell phone, and only use Facebook for Bejeweled. I don't like people knowing everything I'm doing.

    I also saw someone using a circa 1996 cellphone/floatation device at Disney last week. The cousin-kidlets wanted to know if she was an actor with a joke prop. :/

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  2. Oh my goodness....I absolutely love your header.

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    ReplyDelete
  3. So true about technology. I just read a friend's manuscript and she used not knowing someone's phone number, not knowing another person's address, not knowing how to use email--each of these three things--to create conflict, resulting in scenes that were TSTL. (Too stupid to live.)

    I do, however, live in an area that, while we have satellite internet, it is annoyingly slow. It took hubbie 36 hours to download all of the nation's aviation sectional charts into his IPad at home. Had he done it at the library where I work, and where we have fiber optic cable or some such, it would've taken a fraction of the time.

    4-G is still 2 years away from being available where we live.

    And yes, there have been times where our satellite internet connection has been totally blanked out due to weather.

    Interesting article, though. Good points.

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  4. I ran into this problem with my novel set in 2138. If everyone could communicate so easily, as one might expect at that time, then it makes so many things not work for the writer. I had to find logical ways for people to not be able to instantly communicate in order to be able to create tension and mystery.

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