The other night, Ian and watched the great Robert Redford thriller, Three Days of the Condor. After discovering that his fellow employees have been murdered while he was down the block picking up lunch, Redford flees the gruesome scene in an understandable panic, dashing through traffic in search of a pay phone and hides himself inside as he makes a desperate call for answers…
Now if that movie had been made in today’s world…Well, we all know the answer: Good luck finding a phone booth, Mr. Redford. Sure he have could slipped into an alley and pulled out his cell phone, but let’s be honest. It’s just not the same. There is simply something gripping about a phone booth, something inherently nerve-wracking and suspenseful in seeking out that singular closet of safety, something that cell phones and their infinite accessibility can’t match.
How about the countless other examples in film where crucial scenes would never work with modern technology? Think of Keanu Reeves at the beginning of Speed, and the faint, mocking ring of the pay phone in the distance as he’s watching a city bus in flames. Or what about Harrison Ford in the Fugitive, narrowly escaping the ticking clock of the phone trace every time he slid into a phone booth?
And thrillers aren’t the only genre that used phone booths as key plot devices. What about Thelma and Louise? Without pay phones, the leads would never have needed to pull over at a variety of settings to make their calls, but merely phoned from the road, (or even, gasp, texted!), a convenience that would have dramatically, and unfortunately, ruined the movie’s all-important pacing.
Now granted these are examples in film and not books, but I think the point is clear. The removal of phone booths from our landscape, and the subsequent addition of certain technologies in their place, has had a dramatic impact on the writer’s world.
So as technology advances, do storytellers retreat?
I recently read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which is the story of a graduate student pursuing the truth of a mythical spell book that may or may not link her to the horrific events of the Salem Witch trials. Now what struck me right away was that the author, Katherine Howe, had chosen to set her story in the summer of 1991, and as I read on, I could understand why. With the advent of the internet, most of the detective work the intrepid student did might not have required her to visit the very locations (musty archives, creepy historic sites) that gave Howe’s novel its sense of place and underlying spookiness.
For my current WIP, I am faced with a similar issue. My novel takes place on the Maine Coast, but if my characters have access to the internet and cell phones, it will surely detract (not to mention all-out prohibit) certain plotting choices and key revelations. I could set my story in the pre-internet age, but do I have to do that to achieve a sense of remoteness? I don’t think so. But how much longer will readers be willing to accept that there are still places on the planet without cell phone towers?
As a result, will we all find ourselves compelled to write in earlier eras simply to avoid the pesky interruptions of technology?
So tell me: have any of you writers and readers found the advance of technology has impacted your plotting or enjoyment of a plot?