Monday, July 15, 2013

Cell Phones in Fiction

I've been a beta-reading, critiquing fool the last several weeks. I've read through a total of five complete manuscripts, one partial, and I'm partway through another. Of those seven, six have been YA or NA contemporaries. And I've noticed a trend that is making me bonkers.


Or, rather, the lack of cell phones.

Young Adult characters tend to be fourteen to nineteen, and New Adult picks up around age eighteen and goes to twenty-five-ish. According to this research, 91% of American adults have a cell phone, 67% of them check it constantly without waiting for alerts and notifications, half sleep next to their phone, and a quarter say they "can't live without" their smartphone.


Now, this post is not to discuss the virtues of mobile technology. Nor is it to discuss the decline in human interaction or the increase in brain cancer or anything having to do with whether or not we SHOULD have this kind of connection with our smartphones. Rather, it's to discuss how fiction should be reflecting reality.

And the reality is this: If your character is between the ages of fifteen and thirty, there's a twenty percent chance they'll use their smartphone during sex. During. Sex.

If they use their phone during sex, I can guarantee they use their phone for everything else. Here's a list of things your character should absolutely, positively not do, under any circumstances.

(Note: This only applies if you are writing YA/NA Contemporary. And please do not write YA/NA set in the 80s or 90s or early 00s. It just tells the audience what age you are, it doesn't fix the problems in your story)

Your character should never: 

- Use a map. And by golly, they don't even know where to buy a map. Maybe, if they're handed one, they'll take it. But they'll probably talk to Siri about where they're going anyway.

- Use the yellow pages. Or an encyclopedia. Or dictionary. If you can google it, don't replace it with a paper version.

- Watch the news. Weather, sports, current events, trivia, local stories, everything the "news" gives you is available immediately via your smartphone.

- Listen to the radio. Pandora, Spotify, iTunes... there's no reason to listen to anything that's not 100% personal.

-Pull a camera out of their purse/pocket. If they aren't using their phone camera, then they're using a big, fancy SLR.

- "Press buttons" on their phone. Tap. Touchscreen. Swipe. Slide. Not press, no clicking, no beeping. If you're writing your book now, it won't hit shelves until 2014 or 2015, and since 80% of the under-thirty-five crowd have smartphones today, it's a pretty good bet that 90% or more will have smartphones by the time your book comes out.

- Pass up a chance to text. Recent research shows that teens send fifty to one hundred texts per day, and 75% send texts everyday. Only 39% make even one phone call per day. Read that again: About one-third of teens admit to making one phone call per day, but sends up to one hundred texts per day. They are literally texting about three hundred times as often as they make phone calls. Don't give your teen or young adult character a phone conversation unless it's absolutely necessary. They'd text it instead.

Speaking of texting:

Since the advent of smartphones and autocorrect, the "text speak" is not as common, nor is it as annoying as it used to be. In 2001, it was easier to say "wat r u up 2 2nite" because we were all using whatever technology came before T9. But now? To get to that numeral 2, you have to switch keyboards, and that's harder. It's faster to stay in your qwerty keypad and just type words.

Or use voice texting, which on the iPhone, is more accurate than you might think.

Also, with large screens and full conversation displays, people text in full sentences and paragraphs. I have texts that look like emails.

I use my phone to communicate, sure. But it's also my bank, my weather service, my radio, my map, my list-maker, my note taker, my calendar. I use it to order lunch, make dinner reservations (without ever making a phone call for either), find nearby restaurants, theaters, buy tickets. It's my boarding pass when I fly, it's my coupons when I shop, it's my groupon deals when I go out. It's my receipt when I need to return something, and it's my direct connect to customer service when I need help. All without making a phone call.


I'm not even one of the phone-call-phobic kids you're writing about.

It's true you don't want to integrate technology into your story too much, lest it become dated. But the truth is mobile technology is here to stay. Whether it's in the form of a phone, or we stop calling it a phone altogether, or it's Google Glass, whatever. And young people will be the first adopters of technology, and your characters need to reflect that fact.

There are ways to write this stuff out of your story.

- You can avoid mentioning methods. "I looked up a place for dinner."  or "Emma said she'd meet us there." or "I made a reservation." without saying how it was done allows the reader to fill it in with their imagination.

- You can make your character deliberately anti-phone. Technophobes or ultra-hipsters or ... Amish kids. I dunno. Find a way to make it work. One writer I read for found a totally brilliant way to eliminate her character's phone. It made sense for the story. It made sense for the character. And it eliminated the need for explaining why there wasn't a phone later in the story - and then gave the character a lot of opportunities for phone-less interaction. (which again, worked for the story in a really great way)

- You can avoid all this stuff altogether. I'm shocked by the number of books I've read lately that have young people getting maps, but then never referring to them (as far as we read). If you don't mention it, but it's an obvious thing, we'll fill in the blanks ourselves. Your character has a phone. Your character is not dumb. Your character found her way from one city to another. I assume she used her phone. You don't need to spell it out, and you don't need to introduce a paper map to the story.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Storytelling Tips Gleaned from HIMYM

I love the show, "How I Met Your Mother" for a lot of reasons. I love that it doesn't paint marriage as a death sentence, I love that they balance reality with ridiculousness, and I love that they plant a dozen Easter eggs every season. 

But most of all I love they way they tell a story. Not just the big, overarching story of how he met his wife (which we are just barely getting to, eight seasons in), but the little stories, the ones encapsulated in a season, or a few episodes, or sometimes in a single episode. I've been watching the entire show, from the beginning, and I've collected some storytelling tips. 

Don't start at the beginning. Some of the best episodes start at the end. One episode starts at the end, showing a disastrous end to a party. Then the story jumps back five minutes and tells what happened in the living room to lead to disaster. Then it jumps back and tells what happened in the dining room, then the kitchen. They could have told us, start to finish, what happened, but it would have taken five minutes and been much less interesting. 

Another episode shows the entire gang at brunch, smiling for a photo. As soon as the camera snaps, they all snarl about how they hate each other. Ted then goes back several days, and explains each person's problem, leading up to the brunch and explaining a lot of character stuff along the way. It it much more interesting to see how Marshall's calves are part of the story or why Ted is mad at his father after seeing how it had an effect on everybody. 

Skip over the stuff that sucks. Several times, Ted tells the audience something along the lines of: "nothing interesting happened all summer... let's skip ahead to the autumn of breakups." If it's not interesting, skip it. I don't care if it makes you feel good to tell us how blissfully happy your main character was before she found out her boyfriends cheated on her. It doesn't matter. Skip the stuff that sucks and get to the stuff that's entertaining. 

Some details aren't important. Ted is telling a story that's about twenty years old (he's narrating from the future), so some details are forgotten. People's names, what order things happened in, what day the goat was really in the apartment, etc. Some of it just isn't important. In the show, of course, they fill in the gaps in a comedic way - her name was Blah Blah, for instance. But in our stories? We can just skip them. 

Give your characters genuine flaws. Lily is manipulative. Marshall is childish. Robin is selfish. Ted is kind of a pompous douche. Barney is cold, callous, and manipulative. And yet you root for every one of them. Those flaws, though real and truly terrible, are also wrapped up in a package that we can identify with. Who hasn't wanted to step in and stop their friends from making mistakes? Who hasn't wished they could slap somebody for being stupid? Or wished that they could put themselves first? Or that they were able to recite stuff in Italian? Or... no. I've got nothing for Barney. But aside from his flaws, he's a loyal and generous man, and he changes his tune by the time we start really rooting for him. 

Tie it all to the main conflict. The show is about how Ted met his wife. Obviously, eight seasons in, we've talked about other stuff along the way. But just when you start thinking, "What does this have to do with him meeting his wife?" it all gets tied together. We learn about the yellow umbrella. Or the roommate. Or the rock band. We see how this string of events pushed Ted into doing something he wouldn't have done otherwise, and it put him on his path to meeting his future wife. It might be related tangentially, but it's all related to the main story. 

Be consistent. The producers of this show are obviously obsessive about continuity. The show does an incredible number of flashbacks and flashforwards and flash-to-this-is-how-it-could-have-gone-but-didn'ts. And they remain thoroughly consistent. Little things that don't really matter to the scope of the show (Lily's hair color, Barney's tie, Ted's sneakers) are all consistent. If Lily had bangs two years ago, and we're flashing back to two years ago, Lily will have bangs. Which means the girls end up wearing a lot of wigs and the wardrobe department must be a nightmare ("We need a designer dress from four seasons ago, in a petite size!" ... yikes) But it serves the story, and I salute them for it. 

Make your character do something stupid. In the very first episode, we learn that Robin is not going to be Ted's wife. Yet he tries to make it work with her. Repeatedly. And every single time, I feel like I'm yelling at Anakin Skywalker to just choose a different path. We know how it's going to end. But it's entertaining. And it's realistic. So Ted keeps trying, and we keep shaking our heads. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Good fiction is made of bad decisions. 

Give your character a rich backstory, but don't talk about it until it matters. Robin was a pop star, Ted and Marshall were stoners, Lily has a bi-curious streak, Barney doesn't know who his dad is. These things all matter, they drive our characters, but they aren't touched on in the first episode. Or even the first season. The details of their past aren't brought to light until they matter - but once they're there, they are consistent with who the character is. 

Motivations are important. Ted wants to get married. Marshall wants to be an environmental lawyer and save the planet. Lily wants to be an artist. Barney wants to get laid. Robin wants to be a journalist. All their decisions point them in the direction of their goals. Always. Well...

And motivations sometimes change. Sometimes Marshall just needs a good paycheck, so the environmental stuff gets put on hold. Robin questions her independence. Barney falls in love and wants to be treated with respect. And Ted... Ted loses faith. He loses himself. But despite the changes, the characters still make decisions with an eye toward the ultimate goal. Marshall takes the corporate job, but it's so he can save money for his future and eventually get the job he wants. Ted dates girls who are obviously not "The One" but they are necessary to his growth and development. The story is always written with the end in mind. 

What else, friends? Any other great story telling tips from How I Met Your Mother? I'm sure there are more...