Can a Smartphone Ruin your Plot?

The mobile phone celebrates its 40th anniversary this year but its universal appeal has not been welcomed by some writers. A recent article argued that the smartphone was sending writers back into historical eras to enable plot devices such as developments based on misunderstandings, inability to reach others or be reached, things left unsaid or characters with secrets. One commentator suggested that having scenes in thrillers where mobile phones are destroyed, mislaid, stolen or out of signal range testify to ability of the mobile phone to render standard plot devices unusable.

Of course, writers could be writing about historical eras because writers follow trends and take inspiration from reading what’s being published. Most thrillers rely on their detective being thwarted rather than helped to solve the mystery. Having no obstacles to solving the crime (whether mechanical, electronic or an obstinate jobsworth) would result in a very boring thriller.

But what if rendering standard plot devices unusable was a good thing?

Smartphones come with an off-switch, are powered by batteries and there are geographical pockets where signal cannot be obtained, so no reason to drop the inability to reach someone yet. Users still have the choice not to take a call. Misunderstandings are easier without a character being able to read a second character’s facial expressions or body language. Even a video phone conversation can lead to misunderstandings if one character wants to mislead another or one character assumes that they are talking to someone with a shared cultural upbringing and experiences. Things can still be left unsaid.

It’s a big assumption that a character with several social media profiles can’t still have secrets. Search engines can’t reveal everything and they still can’t link profiles and create a narrative or explain why someone likes a restaurant on Facebook but complains about it on twitter. The ability to track someone’s movements via a smartphone and match that data to a credit card bill to build a picture of purchases doesn’t explain their motives. Discovering that a character visited a florist and bought a bouquet won’t tell the reader whether the bouquet was for a lover or a mother. Even a character who tweets every waking moment won’t reveal everything and certainly won’t consider that their words can be interpreted in a way that is different to their intention.

Perhaps the issue is that new plot devices will have to be devised. Characters will have fewer direct one-to-one conversations and more one-to-many ‘conversations’ via social media status updates. Instead of relying on dialogue, writers will have to turn to the written word of blog articles and text messages and discover how to make these media as nuanced as dialogue.

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