We've had quite a few heavy subjects in these posts lately, so today, I thought I'd lighten things up.
A few years ago, I went to an independent film festival at which several filmmakers gave lectures. One of those lectures contained an unusual piece of writing advice:
"Smartphones are your enemy—characters can do all sorts of things with them that would derail your story!"
It makes sense. In stories set before about 2012, if characters want to know something, they have to find it out themselves. This could require anything from seeking out a reclusive wise man/woman to trawling a vast library to finding someplace with a computer and an internet connection. These time-consuming quests provide opportunities to show character development, put the characters under a time crunch or other kinds of stress, add moments of humor, cut away to characters in a different location, and so on.
However, in a modern setting, practically everyone (at least in developed countries) has a smartphone. That's helpful if we need our characters to learn something right away, whether it's news or a specific piece of information. But what if we need to make things more complicated? Here are a few ideas.
Break the smartphone. This could involve having a character drop the phone, giving it a bug or quirk, or putting a key feature or app out of commission.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets came out a few years before smartphones became common, but it uses this tactic during the London car-chase sequence (about 1:38-2:16 in this clip). Ben's workaround raises the stakes by forcing the group to commit two additional crimes (running a red light and hacking into a police database) and leads to a nice moment of character development.
Have a character forget their phone at home. Everyone does this sometimes, especially if they're under stress or in a hurry. This technique works best if a character is alone or if only one character in the group would reasonably have a smartphone, such as in a group of one adult and several young children.
Have a character intentionally leave their phone behind. Sometimes people want to disconnect or do a hazardous-to-electronics activity. In the episode "Boys Adrift" of I Shouldn't Be Alive, two teenagers leave their phones in their car before taking a boat out on the ocean, because they think they'll only be gone a few hours and don't want to risk ruining their phones.
Disrupt the network. The phone itself might work fine, but if the internet is having problems, phone towers or satellites are down, the government blocks or censors certain websites (such as in China), or the user is in a place that doesn't get reception, the phone will do them little good.
Even high traffic can disrupt a cell-phone network, though this might not be as common now as it used to be. For example, in early 2008, I was attending a university run by my church. One evening, news broke that our church's beloved president had passed away. I tried to call my family, but practically everyone on campus was doing the same thing. If I remember correctly, I couldn't get a call through to my family until the next morning.
Kill the battery. Phones always die at the most inconvenient times anyway, right? We might as well take advantage of it. 😉
Make the information harder to find than expected. For instance, I had a surprisingly difficult time finding out what the Angelus bell sounded like for one of my screenplays. Though I ultimately found what I needed by trying different search terms, this doesn't always work. The characters might have to resort to more-time-consuming or riskier means to find out what they need to know.
P.S. Whom do you know that needs a distraction from COVID-19 or would like to level up their writing skills? Send them this link so they can subscribe to this email!
(Thanks to Ashkan Forouzani for sharing their work on Unsplash.)