How Do Writers Deal With Phones In Fiction?

Phones have not been good for fiction. Phones counteract every storytelling guideline.

  • Throw your character into peril, we’re told.
  • Endanger their very lives, we’re told.

But if this character has a phone, or should have a phone, the audience asks, “Why don’t they just…?” and that is about the last thing you want your audience to ask.

As others have said, the phone shouldn’t solve the problem. In this way phones are like magic. Even before mobile phones existed writers knew that magic shouldn’t solve the problem.

The same few tricks get old pretty fast:

  • The character’s phone is out of range (legit if it’s the wilderness, maybe not so legit if it’s at our neighbours’ house even though they don’t get mobile reception for real — and we do.) The nice thing about horror movies is, ghosts can mess with mobile reception.
  • The phone is out of battery. This feels like an out and out hack.
  • The character is a hipster type who doesn’t carry a phone. An example is Juno McGuff in the film Juno, who uses an iconic burger phone.
  • The phone has just been stolen
  • Or broken

More believable:

  • The entire story is set in the past, before people had mobile phones
  • The main character is pre-adolescent, which means they wouldn’t necessarily be carrying a phone

PHONES IN STORIES FOR CHILDREN

MIDDLE GRADE AND OLDER

Even in stories for children, phones can make everything harder, as articulated by Robert Lanham:

I find it impossible to write fiction that’s set after 2002. Not because I’m a Gen-Xer waxing nostalgic about relaxing to Morcheeba on a distastefully stained sofa I found partially torn apart by a dog in an alley. (Oh, the glamour.) It’s just that it’s inconceivable to depict contemporary times authentically without including interludes where characters stare at their cell phones instead of advancing their plot lines – their lives – towards some conclusion. Which is, as a thing to read, mind-numbingly dull. Unless I write “and then his Galaxy 4’s battery died” no one can ever get lost, forget an important fact, meet a partner outside of a dating site, or do anything that doesn’t eventually have them picking up a phone. So I’m stuck writing about an era where Ethan Hawke was considered the pinnacle of manliness.

– from Your Phone Is Ruining You For Us at The Awl

A recently published middle grade novel struck me immediately for its heavy use of phones. The Carnival of Wishes and Dreams (2019) by Jenny Lundquist is about girl relationships. They pass notes in class, and the note feature is necessary because the entire point is that it is an anonymous note. But they also ‘pass notes’ via phone. This mixture of notes (‘pumpkin-grams’) combined with texting creates a storyworld which is partly grounded in reality, part magical.

You can check out the first few pages of The Carnival of Wishes and Dreams with the Look Inside feature on Amazon or similar.

PICTURE BOOKS

One privilege of creating picture books is that very young characters are not expected to carry phones or other connected devices. In contemporary fiction for adults, authors must now completely reimagine traditional plot lines.

In fact, reality looks slightly different for a lot of preschoolers, many of whom are using touch screens daily. Parents are also using phones a lot more than is depicted in the more utopian picture book storyworld.

PHONES IN MOVIES AND TV

Movies are a descendent of stage, and there’s absolutely an imperative for writers to put characters together in a single space.

A technique we see quite often now is a character who texts, and the content of the text appears across the screen similar to a subtitle. A film which does this is Lady-Like. Even in the trailer, you can see how much phones are a part of this story — an inevitability, given the age of the characters.

In the trailer alone you see:

  • Characters holding their phones while talking to others in the same space
  • A variety of screens, not just phones but use of laptops, even as part of a conversation in person
  • A character talks on the phone while another jumps around beside her in the background (on the bed) which means the phone scene is less boring for the audience. (A character talking on the phone is basically a Tea Drinking scene, and must be accompanied by something else.)
  • Little screenshots of the character’s phone superimposed on the main picture, hovering in 3D near the character

Jane The Virgin is a romantic comedy which satirizes the telenovela. Jane The Virgin was one of the first big hits to really play with the text messaging on the screen thing which has been much emulated since. I’ve heard some people saying they love this aspect of Jane The Virgin, whereas others have said it is used with ‘mixed results’. Satires can get away with more over-the-top elements than other genres, so I think it works well. In the scene below it is especially spoofy since the characters are sitting in the same room together.

ADVANTAGES OF PHONES

But am I being a negative Nelly?

Phones have huge advantages in real life, so they must have advantages in fictional lives, too.

  • Characters don’t get lost if they have GPS, but honestly if my GPS drops out I am in deep because I no longer have a map in my car. (Do they still print paper maps?) This can legitimately create some dicey situations.
  • Cyber bullying. Unfortunately the psychological aspects of bullying have been amplified by phones and the Internet generally. Unfortunately this needs covering in fiction as well. From a storytelling perspective, a character cannot get away from the villain. The Netflix series You wouldn’t exist as it does without phones (and social media). Often in these stories, the empathetic character knows something’s going down, but not exactly what. It’s the note-passing in class but amplified, 24/7.

RELATED LINKS

Things We No Longer Need Because We Have Smartphones from Laughing Squid

Oh, and what have Kindles killed?

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