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Setting Details—Mastering Technology

August 3, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 3, 2013

Technology has changed beyond recognition in just the past couple of years. As it did in the five to ten years before that. And in the decade before that. We are living in a world of fast-paced technological advances, changes that happen one after the other and often before we fully appreciate or understand the previous change.

And our stories should reflect these changes as well as our characters’ expectations that technology will continue to change rapidly, at least for the foreseeable future.

No, we don’t have to include every technological advance and every gadget in our books—doing so would certainly date those stories since changes piggy-back on one another and what was new yesterday was already old this morning. But do remember advances in technology as you write, especially if you write contemporary fiction of any genre. And do consider how characters deal with not only the technology itself, but with the challenges that changing technology brings.

Not only should characters deal with new gadgets in your books, but with a world that grows closer—maybe both smaller and larger—with each new gadget.

If your stories are placed in the past or the future, you no doubt already include setting details that reveal the technology of the day. But if you place your story in today’s world, you’ve got to remember what’s happening today and imagine what might happen tomorrow. Don’t bring the technology of the past—from your youth or the world of your twenties or thirties or fifties—with you into today’s stories. This is a new world, with different emphases. Your characters will react in a way different from the way you would have in the same circumstances 10 or 20 years ago.

Your characters don’t need to be up on every new high-tech advance, but they do need to live in their world. They need to use gadgets as a matter of course, if that makes sense for their locale and background. They don’t have to know how they work, though they might. But they should know how to use many of the objects familiar to most of us.

In most societies and countries today, people have TVs, cellphones, computers, and other trappings of the age. Some people use more advanced versions of these objects, but most know what they are and what they’re capable of.

I once read that it’s hard to logically write a modern character who doesn’t have a cellphone or access to one in an emergency. While that may be true, there are still places without cell coverage. And some of us, wanting a break from technology and the intrusion of others, don’t always carry our phones everywhere we go. So you can write around technology. But you shouldn’t ignore it.

You need to consider today’s technology as part of your setting when you write.

If a character loves all the new gadgets, it’s not likely he’ll be caught without a working cellphone. So maybe the bad guy not only has to disarm your detective but relieve him of his phone as well.

And even if a character doesn’t own an example of the latest technology, those around him will. So characters who allow themselves to go wild in public will likely find themselves featured in an online video that’s gone viral, complete with embarrassing subtitles, or on closed circuit TV that the police take an interest in.

Privacy is hard to come by in this age; finding a place to be alone without being interrupted by man or machine is harder still. So keep this in mind when you write a modern story.

People snap pics, send texts, film others, all very easily and often without thought or fuss. What we do is seen and listened to and recorded.

People brag. They love to show off what they’ve done and are doing. They might not shout about their actions in the town square, but they shout them from and to the virtual corners of the earth. They taunt their friends and family, their enemies, and even the authorities by means of social media. And some are called out for it while others are caught by the very technology they think will shield them.

Technology touches all of us. We may use it purposely or be subject to its use by others, but it’s hard to avoid or escape.

Technology can fuel demonstrations and wars and coups. It can be used to reveal or to conceal, to confuse and mislead. Technology can make the weak strong and the strong seemingly invincible.

How to Make Technology Work
Use technology to advance your plot or, if you don’t want it playing a major part in your stories, find logical ways to neutralize its reach and influence. But don’t ignore it, as if it doesn’t exist. Unless you hide your contemporary characters in caves, it’s likely that they will use the technology of today.

Yet you’ll want to build in references to technology without going overboard; you don’t need to identify every make and model of every gizmo on the market. You don’t need to explain how a product works or what it can do. Treat the objects we use every day as everyday objects. Don’t think that you need to explain some new device simply because it’s new. That kind of attention can date a story. We don’t explain the use of objects we’ve become accustomed to, objects such as chairs and pencils and cars. We simply put them to use. Do the same with phones and tablets and i-everythings.

Unless you’re writing a techno-thriller, assume readers are familiar with most of today’s technology. They don’t need to be spoon-fed explanations. If you do need to show how a device works, put it into action, in a character’s hands, and make clear its purpose by its use. Resist the urge to include a detailed explanation that stops the story.

We live in a technological age, so put your knowledge of our gadgets to work in your fiction. Don’t ignore the realities and advances of today’s world. But use technology in a way that makes sense for the story. If a character is out in the middle of nowhere with no access to the Internet, that might be an emergency or merely a big frustration. It might mean a character has to rely on his wits or it may mean he loses millions in sales for his company. It might mean a missed message that sets another character against him.

Use technology—and its absence or failure—to stir up conflict. Technology doesn’t always work the way it’s designed to work or as a human wants it to. Use that reality for your stories as well. Use fritzed out technology to make characters unhappy.

Use technology as background, as part of the natural setting. Don’t ignore it. But don’t give it a bigger part than it deserves unless setting details are directing your story. A possibility, to be sure, but not the case for most of us and not for most stories.

Fold technology seamlessly into your fiction. Let it influence setting. Let it create authentic locales and situations for your characters. Have it affect mood. Make it work for setting and the story.

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

9 Responses to “Setting Details—Mastering Technology”

  1. Kent DuFault says:

    I like the writing technique of the television show, Firefly. it is set in the future with inter-galactic travel, yet, all the setting is old: costumes, weapons, language, set design…

  2. Kent, at my house we call Firefly Cowboys in Space. I love the blend of genres that make it work.

  3. I’ve been bumped several times by “recently published” ebooks in which the protagonist has to rush to a pay phone, look up something in an encyclopedia, etc. What’s your recommendation for writers who decide to publish earlier works? Go back and add a few “settings details” from whenever it was written? A note from the author? I’m curious as to whether or not I’m the only reader that’s annoyed by this…

  4. Julia, I’m certain you’re not the only reader annoyed by such oddities. Yet I’m of two minds about changing earlier stories.

    If a writer has time and a book hasn’t been published before and the story is supposed to be contemporary, I see no reason not to try to make changes. Yet an older story would probably need more than just a few little changes to update it, not only one or two simple ones as you’ve pointed out here. A writer could more easily change the setting to a date in the near past—adding a dateline as a subtitle for chapter one would do it—and the story would be era correct.

    But would readers enjoy an almost contemporary? I don’t know.

    I’d hate to see a story not released simply because a few contemporary references were no longer quite contemporary. Yet when details don’t match era, they can definitely mess up the feel for the reader. All the pieces should fit, otherwise none of the pieces fit.

    I think I would recommend changing such details, if possible, with a second choice of changing the story’s dates if reworking the story isn’t feasible. But release it as a contemporary novel with clearly out-of-date references? No, I couldn’t recommend that as a first or second option.

  5. eilonwy says:

    Love this. My policy at the moment is to avoid mentioning brand or model for tech, unless the character who’s speaking is a person who really geeks out on these things.

    The POV character, when looking at others’ belongings, says “last year’s trendy smartphone” or “a cheap phone,” along with using “a drugstore lipstick” or “a trendy little black suit” rather than providing brand or designer. Five years from now, the status of the iPhone and the Android may have changed, but “a person who buys the latest thing” and “a person who’s budget-conscious” will still have meaning.

  6. Eilonwy, those sound like great terms to use. While using specifics is often best, giving readers a clear understanding of what a character is handling, wording that’s too specific can date a work easily. Technology changes so fast that we can’t know what will be popular tomorrow. And too much emphasis on the proper words can often indicate not what a character thinks of an object but what the writer thinks of it. If we think some gadget is new and cool, we might have a character go gaga over it. But if it’s not cool to the character, we shouldn’t write it as if it is. After all, we don’t have them (for the most part) going wild over a laptop or a microwave or a minivan, items now common to us.

    Thanks for sharing your solution.

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