There are several web sites that detail how the plots of popular movies and books would not work at all today because of technology. Everyone has a cell phone and takes it everywhere. Almost everyone is on Facebook, or can be found thanks to Google and other search engines. No one talks on landlines anymore, and juicy conversations can no longer be overheard by quietly picking up an extension. Love letters can’t be intercepted; nor answering machine messages tampered with.
Of course, technology also gives us all new plot possibilities and complications. There’s revenge porn, caller ID, Facestalking, Photoshopping, group texts, etc. Last week I watched a high school romcom called The Duff, which had major plot points that could not have happened a just a few years ago. (I thought this a good thing, as romcoms more than any other genre are supposed to be a statement about modern life and love.)
On the minus side, technology has a way of dating our work more than any other kind of detail. Any book that mentions a character’s MySpace account (unless ironically) or Blackberry places its action in a very specific year. If the book is supposed to be present day, these details pull the reader out of the book and makes them think not about the characters but about this dead technology. A writer’s best solution to this issue is to avoid using trademarked names and technologies. Use “smart phone” rather than “iPhone,” and have characters communicate online with LifeLink or LightSpeed.
One trend I’ve noticed in unpublished manuscripts is writers setting their books in the early to mid 1990s solely to avoid more recent technology that would have made their plots obsolete. A woman looking for her college boyfriend can’t rely on Google or Facebook during that time period. But when nothing else about the story says 1993, it’s obvious that the time period is being used only to avoid the technology that would resolve the plot in a matter of paragraphs.
Any time a story is set in a time period other than present day, there needs to be a strong reason for it. A book that spans twenty years would naturally start twenty years in the past, for example. A character journeying to Obama’s first inauguration would be living in 2009. But most of these manuscripts I’m reading do not have these strong reasons for placing the story in the past.
Writers, if you’re setting your story in 1994 so that your main character does not have access to email or a cell phone, consider stronger ways to tell your story and put it in the present day. If you want to write historical fiction, that great. 1992 isn’t really history unless you’re writing about the first Bush/Clinton presidential race. Plots that can’t work if people have cell phones or Facebook pages are no longer going to resonate with today’s readers. It’s 2015. Embrace all the goodies we have today, and figure out a way to make your story work with them.