writing

Danger, Danger!

Picture the scene; you’re reading a brilliant book, with a plot that twists and turns more than Nemesis at Alton Towers. The main character is in mortal danger…you’re not sure if they’re going to make it…they’re stranded miles from anywhere and the villain is closing in…then they whip out their mobile and call their mum. Straight away, the tension deflates like a balloon with a puncture and suddenly, you’re not sure this is such a great book after all.
 

The kind of sign my characters ignore...

In the olden days, it used to be so much easier for writers to put their characters into dangerous situations. Look at The Famous Five, forever falling down abandoned mines and catching smugglers in the act. How much fun would it have been if Julian had pulled out a phone and called 999 instead of exploring murky tunnels? Or if instead of carrying on through the wardrobe into Narnia, Lucy had texted Edmund to come and find her?

That’s why writers are always looking for ways to escape from the tyranny of modern technology. Historical novels don’t have a problem, obviously; nor do fantasy stories.  Science-fiction brings different challenges but it’s easy to invent some future catastrophe to wipe out the network.  It’s writers of stories set in the modern day who have it worst. Most come up with ingenious plot devices to give reasons why mobile phones aren’t available to save their characters; in My So-Called Afterlife, Lucy is a ghost and can’t text the living (but I took pity on her and gave her a ghostly mobile to keep in touch with other ghosts). In Dark Life by Kat Falls, the characters spend a lot of time underwater, with no way to keep in touch. It gives the more dangerous scenes a real edge, especially when you know there’s no help around the corner.

The mobile phone you are calling is unavailable...

So, next time you’re reading a book and start wondering why the main character doesn’t just phone a friend, have pity on the poor tortured writer. They’ve probably spent ages thinking up reasons why the mobile isn’t working. Because let’s be honest, a flat battery isn’t impressing anyone.

22 thoughts on “Danger, Danger!

  1. Well, my mum is keeping me away from mobile phones for as long as possible! Technology can be great but it can ruin the atmosphere in a book or film. However, I recently watched a film called ‘Picture This’ and the main character had a video phone. Her dad kept checking up on her whilst she went against her dad’s rules. If she got rid of the phone then the film would be pointless

    Great Post!
    Cat x

  2. I never really thought of it like that before! So interesting! I guess it would ruin a gripping adventure scene if the character got their phone out!

    Mobile phones can be great, can be awful! I love mine, but there are times that I hate it and wish I didn’t have it! Although a lot of people pity there parents and grandparents for not having phones as a child,I think they’re lucky! They didn’t have to worry about having the best phone, replying to texts etc! I don’t have the best phone, or the worst! Which I think is a good balance!

    Brillianly interesting post!! xxxx

  3. At least two of my favourite writers just haven’t given their heroines mobile phones (because neither heroine can afford one, I think).
    And one book I loved when I was younger had main characters who were children from 2000 transported to 2099 to overthrow a dictator, and they did have mobiles – which had a secret button that released a trigger, turning them into tranquiliser-dart-guns! (But sometimes they weren’t able to call people because the enemies used jamming signals, and other times they had to stay quiet so couldn’t go phoning people).
    Oddly enough, in Doctor Who the characters can phone home from anywhere and anywhen – not that it’s usually much help, except when one had to answer a load of trivia questions to unlock a door and called her mum to ask her to Google them!
    I hardly ever use my phone (which is cheap but functional, no camera though) and it has a distressing tendency to accidentally dial 999 from my pocket! *blush*

    • Oh no, I hate it when my phone dials 999!

      I bought a very cheap phone to use for writing calls and only realised when I got home that I’d forgotten how to text on a non-qwerty keyboard. It takes so long when you have to press a key three times to get one letter!

  4. In my books, I find that having a ‘no mobile phones allowed in school’ rule means that my characters aren’t able to text/call each other when they’re in school – not exactly a dangerous situation, but it might lead to a character not being able to find her friends…

  5. Great post!

    I don’t have a mobile phone, but I kind of wished I did. The only problem with mobile phones is that if you have a really great phone, like an iphone, there’s so many apps on it that you can play on, and you end up getting obsessed with it and not really spending any time doing other stuff.

    I agree that books are better without phones. Like in the Percy Jackson books, the characters (apart from a few) don’t have phones because if you have one and use it, it’s like sending up a flare to monsters, and they’ll catch you etc. I wonder how long it took Rick Riordan to think that up…

  6. Hikma: “books are better without phones”: well, I guess you don’t like mine, then! My stories are set in the present (or, in the case of Silk Sisters, the near future) so in order to be realistic (my characters are not poverty-stricken), my characters do have phones. It sets the bar a bit higher in terms of creating perilous situations they can’t get out of, but if anyone thinks I’ve failed to rise to the challenge, they’ve not said so yet (not to my face, anyway!) If you’re underground, the chances are you won’t have a signal. Ditto if you’re somewhere remote, or hiding somewhere where you – and your phone – must remain silent. If you’ve been kidnapped, your phone will of course have been taken away from you. And if you’re somewhere you’re not meant to be, doing something you’re not meant to do, you might just be brave and single-minded enough not to wimp out and call for help. It isn’t impossible to do plausibly. The problem facing us now is the new generation of android phones; if your character has one of those and is lost, they can just consult the map app on their phone. Kinda kills the tension, doesn’t it? I also find computer access is something I have to limit for my characters, so being able to google anything, anytime, on the go, is out. But to have no computer access at all? Not realistic.

  7. I love these kind of posts that explain how writers think!
    I think thats really interesting, because I never thought about that.
    I agree that we have too many phones and rely too heavily on technology in modern society, so I like a book not to be too focused on this, but I think with books for teenage girl (that sort of girly genre), you need to have something like a phone to make it realistic. Its sad but nowadays everyone has phones, and that’s just how it is – that is life, and that is what you need to include in a book for teenage girls.
    Still, I’d love to read a book about a teenage girl who perhaps lives in modern times but sadly is not up to date with blackberry’s and iPods and whatnot.
    I only got my phone when I moved to secondary school, but it looks like even that was quite late!
    In my school we’re not allowed our phones on at any point in the school day, and only recently have I found out that at most schools this is not the case. I’m happy that our phones aren’t allowed at break because if someone texted me, and I forgot to turn my phone back off, if it came through late, I would get my phone confiscated. It could also be used for bullying.
    Sorry, that was off subject!
    Its so interesting how something, like a tiny detail, such as phone, can have so much thought by a writer – how to make sure that they don’t have a phone, why they dont have a phone, etc etc….I think thats really cool!
    And I think the genre mystery would be completely different if it had been invaded by technology – you make a great point about Enid Blyton – if Julian or George just dialled for help, as you say, the books would not have been quite so gripping and exciting!
    Thanks for yet again another fab post!
    Orli
    xxxx

    • Hi Orli

      In our school we have to give in our phones (switched off) at the beginning of the day and we get them back when school time is over. Is that the same as yours?

      Most schools get to use their phones at break and lunch.

      • I sometimes get texts sent in the middle of the day by people allowed there phones at lunch! It freaks me out because there are so many what ifs… I have to tell the people never to text me during the day!

    • Thanks, Orli. Great comments about phones – I think you’re absolutely right about the potential for bullying. Blackberry Messenger means a rumour or nasty story can spread around school in less than a minute – how horrible! It gets used for nice things too, of course, but overall, I’m glad we didn’t have Facebook and BBM when I was at school!

  8. I agree: having a main character who can solve a problem without ringing someone up is great! But I also think that the techy parts of books add something as well. It’s much easier to ring someone up rather than writing a letter, visiting them etc.

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