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Top 3 Ways Technology Screws Up Your Story (And How Not To Let It)

Technology exists … And it’s creating ISSUES for us writers. How do I know? Because, in my notes for Bang2writers – screenwriters OR novelists – I frequently end up writing one of these three questions:

1) Why don’t they call somebody? Okay, okay … this one’s easy: they have no signal. Or credit. Yes, it’s become a cinema cliche, particularly in Horror movies as this fantastic montage demonstrates, but who cares, really? All we need to do is forget about the phone in a single, throwaway moment – “No signal” does that. But writers seem to want to draw attention to the phone as a “way out”, often asking the reader to believe the character will want to deal with the problem themselves for some “character building” exercise, rather than, say, call the police like a normal person would.

TIPS: So you don’t like “No signal” or even “no charge” – fine. Get rid of the phone another way. Any way. You’re a writer! You can do it. How you want to deal with it will depend on the situation in hand. In a Thriller, maybe your protagonist is afraid of the phones being bugged, so insists on only meeting people face to face when on the run. In a Horror, maybe your protagonist has a minor car crash that writes off his phone and various other stuff in the car (and strands them, too)? In a Rom-Com, maybe your antagonist wickedly diverts all the calls from the protagonist’s mobile to their own, so the protagonist never gets the call they’re waiting for? And so on.

2) Why don’t they look it up online? Here’s the easy answer to this question: BECAUSE IT’S NOT VISUAL OR DRAMATICALLY INTERESTING IN ANY WAY. So good on the writer for avoiding characters looking stuff up online. But usually I’ve asked this because for the writer has included a nod to the notion of the world wide web for *some reason*, then bringing the internet INTO the story – when you’re better off ignoring it altogether.

TIPS: Yes, that’s right! IGNORE THE INTERNET EXISTS. Don’t mention it. Don’t give it a nod. Pretend it’s not there. It’s a thorn in the backside of any writer, but especially screenwriters. Yes, *technically* you find anything and anyone online if you spend enough time surfing, but that’s BORING. Have your characters pounding the streets with photos, asking people if they’ve seen the people they’re looking for; who wouldn’t do this? Similarly, have your characters visiting libraries and big dusty bookshops and police stations and experts and museums and WHATEVER, just do not have them sitting in front of a screen, EVER. And you know what? Not one person in the audience will say, “Blimey, why didn’t they just go on Facebook?”

3) Don’t they have GPS on their phone? In this age of Blackberries and iPhones and Android phones, you’re never far away from a map, or even an App which will actually tell you where to go and how, even measuring steps for you and showing you which way North is, in case you’re really thick like me. BUT THAT’S IT! That’s the answer – not everyone knows how to use this stuff. So make it a character trait and suddenly – BOOM – you’re out of trouble. But when I read a character is a lost, but is nevertheless using their mobile, this always raises an eyebrow.

TIPS: So one of your characters has a phone with stuff on. Maybe the phone is super high tech and the character is not savvy with that type of stuff? Maybe whoever had it before was a Geek who’d done all sorts of shortcuts on it that makes it practically unuseable to a normal person? Maybe the phone has been set to Arabic, or German or Chinese and they bought it cheap?? You’re the writer. They can’t use the phone’s GPS. End of.


Never mention technology if you don’t have to – and if it stretches credulity that they wouldn’t use technology (especially in terms of life-or-death genre, like Horror and Thriller) then GET RID OF IT. Get rid of it literally – there’s no signal; the phone is smashed/underwater – or get rid of it because no one can use it for *some reason*, same difference.

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10 thoughts on “Top 3 Ways Technology Screws Up Your Story (And How Not To Let It)”

  1. Wise words, oh great one… but was I the only one thinking why would they not have their doctors on their phone? GPS…GPs. Le sigh.

  2. I had to smile (well, all right, nobody forced me, I chose to smile). I suppose it was about ten or so years ago that I started to notice how the long tentacles of mobile phone technology had gutted so much dramatic situation out of life. And you are so right/write. I started to lose count of the number of times a character’s mobile phone had “no signal” etc. I think it’s particularly noticeable when watching dramas – and especially true stories – either filmed in or set in the 60s & 70s, where there is so much tension and drama and awful consequences arising out of a delay in person A contacting person B about person C. Of course, computers and the internet (my God think of police work now and then) has thrown up the same issues. There have been entire dramas/true life stories whereby the entire case simply wouldn’t even have been an issue today.

    I speak only for myself but, I have to admit, I enjoy a good thriller/drama much more for being set ‘pre-technology’. That, or the complete opposite, where the entire film/drama only exists as a consequence of extreme modern technology. It’s either From Russia With Love or it’s Skyfall, but not too much of the in between.

    Good post, thanks.

  3. I do wonder if there is a limit to how long we can get away with not mentioning technology in stories, how long we can get away with the luddite protagonist as a get-out clause. Increasingly the generation behind us never knew a world without the internet, those that come behind them will not have known a world without smartphones and social media. I think we’re going to have to get used to the idea that the way we solve this problem will have to change.

    1. A good point Stephan, but I think it’s overthinking things TBH. After all, there have been masses of tech advances in the last 100 years since movies began – and yet most writing has zero need to make reference to them. It’s story that counts above all else, not the outside world. On this basis then, we must do what we have always done and concentrate on the world of the story and what the character would do WITHIN it so an audience can suspend its disbelief.

  4. The one that makes me pelt the screen with rotten veg is the CCTV / Camera footage blow-up. You know, protag is having a hard time securing a piece of information, and lo-and-behold, s/he presses a convenient ‘ENHANCE’ button on a computer, and an image / photo / piece of information comes to the fore in ridiculous clarity.

    *One* picture pulled this off with class, IMHO, and that was Blade Runner with the Esper sequence when he’s looking for the clues that point to Zora. You know why? It made Deckard work for it. It doesn’t just prevent (or deny) a free-pass to move the story on. He has to work the device in accordance with his research and his instincts – in other words, he has to *do something* / take affirmative action rather than be a passenger in his own story.

    My own is approach is: avoid the obvious techno-cludges and make the character’s actions beholden to themselves consistently; that is, to the story. Because the two are inextricably linked, innit?

    Besides, what are writing? A film, or an instruction manual 🙂

  5. UGH. I’ve been afraid of this. Literally, page 2 of one of my screenplays has a guy pinning articles to a cork board, then typing a file on his computer (only the title), after which he becomes distracted by something in the room. He minimizes the file on the computer, revealing a photo on his desktop, of him with his best friend, who’s been murdered (which we don’t know anything about at this point), and then reveals the thing distracting him, which is a black case by his bed. On top of this, I have the all hated V.O. happening, so that’s like two no no’s in one.

  6. By the way, I forgot to mention, the reason I have this happening, is a major part of the plot. He’s a retired hitman attempting to get revenge for his friend’s murder, at first without killing or violence. So, he attempts to write a book, exposing the secrets of the gang who used to employ him, to the public. I tried to keep the book writing stuff as brief as possible, but I had to show it somehow.

    1. Hi Phil, obviously *anything* can work and I haven’t read your screenplay, but from your two comments I wonder if having the book writing s what’s causing your issue? Maybe you should watch some movies in which the characters write books and see how the filmmakers do it. Good luck!

  7. How about using your imagination to make a character’s visit to the internet visual and interesting? you often see good use of news bulletins on TV – it doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of a movie. Use text messages in imaginative ways, as in Sherlock and Homeland where texts play a big part. I agree with Stephan – ignoring tech is like ignoring the elephant in the room.

    1. Absolutely, but the keywords there are ‘imaginative’ 😉 Also, you’d be surprised how little tech needs to play a part in the average story tbh

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