Deb Erika Watches Plot Devices Go the Way of the Dodo and Wants to Cry

Recently I was chatting with a group of fellow writers about how many of our favorite plot devices in movies could no longer be used in modern cinema because the technology has changed, and while I’m not sure you could make the same argument for novels, I thought it would be fun to make a list of those plot devices that could never fly today.

The Plot Device: The guy who has to race from phone booth to phone booth to receive life-saving information for a friend/stranger in peril. (I figured we could start with an easy one.)

Why It Would Never Work Now: No more phone booths. (I know. I’m bummed out, too.)

The Plot Device: The answering machine goes off, revealing all!

We all know this one: suspicious lover comes in to his/her lover’s empty house and just as he/she’s about to leave, the phone rings and the answering machine picks up the call—and who could be it be, but none other than some smoky-voiced stranger who leaves a squirrelly/suggestive message. Or maybe it’s the investigating detective who just happens to break into the house when the answering machine goes off and reveals the perfect clue.

Can you hear me now, Keanu?

Why It Would Never Work Now: Let’s face it—the tape answering machine plot devices were already pushing their luck with the advent of silent and private voice mail, but now with cell phones, those twists will be truly extinct.

The Plot Device: The ole switched photos from the One-Hour PhotoMat.

Why It Would Never Work Now: While one-hour photo places are still alive and well, a lot of people don’t bother getting prints made—and most likely those of a dubious nature (which, let’s face it, are always the ones that amazingly fall into the wrong hands in these situations in movies) wouldn’t be sent to corner one-hour places to be made into prints. Unless, I suppose, they were in a poorly-written film.

The Plot Device: The heroine doesn’t realize the killer is in the house with her, and when the hero (who has figured this out!) tries to call her to warn her, she doesn’t pick up which leaves the hero no choice but to race through traffic to reach her in time! Gah!

Why It Would Never Work Now: Well, he’d still speed but he could at least be trying to call her cell phone on his way. (This one might still have teeth, but the urgency is unquestionably reduced.)

The Plot Device: Any kind of widespread news bulletin that the hero/heroine somehow isn’t privy to, leaving them oblivious enough to, say, let in the recently escaped convict who comes by posing as the cable guy.

Why It Would Never Work Now: The internet makes it somewhat impossible to go five minutes without knowing crucial (and non-crucial) information so a plot that depends on a character’s ignorance (with the exception of someone living REALLY remotely) could now be considered a big fail.

The Plot Device: Man-on-the-run sneaks into the hospital locker room, dons a Doctors uniform and proceeds to, you know, wander the halls (and diagnose patients) unnoticed. (Ditto for security guards, bus drivers, museum curators, etc.)

Why It Would Never Work Now: Again, I’m not saying it would never happen, but with modern security methods, it’s highly suspect when it does.

The Plot Device: The hero/heroine pores over the microfiche reader, the tension building with each swishing slide, until the answer is finally revealed.

Why It Would Never Work Now: Now this one really hurts. I LOVED the microfiche/microfilm reveals. (See The Amityville Horror)

The Plot Device: The hero gets off at the wrong exit/gets lost/whole world unravels

Why It Would Never Work Now: One word: GPS


 I know I’ve missed a bunch, so help me out, friends—what plot device has technology ruined for you in storylines?

12 Replies to “Deb Erika Watches Plot Devices Go the Way of the Dodo and Wants to Cry”

  1. Oh, great idea for a post, Erika! I love these. And I share your sorrow at their loss. Though I suppose, technically, we could still use them if we write historicals. *grin*

    I’m trying to think of some others, but you’ve hit the highlights so well I can’t right now. Maybe after more caffeine.

    1. Linda, there is the answer right there: historicals! I won’t lie when I say that writing LITTLE GALE GUMBO allowed me the joy (in parts) to relive a cell-phone free world…and I have a feeling you might say you “Fix”ed that problem a bit when you wrote the adventures of IN A FIX’s aura adaptor, Ciel?

      1. Well, even with a contemporary setting–and the accompanying modern technology–the aura adaptors’ ability to look like anyone they choose does provide loads of opportunity for the “mixed-up identities” plot device. Which, of course, I employ to full advantage. 😉

  2. I love these — and it’s so true. One that I feel sad about is the plot device where two people meet or are separated and need to stay in touch with letters which means a delay while the postal service/pony express/mail boat delivery system runs its course, leading to all kinds of disappointment or anticipation or twists. These days with emails let alone texts and skype and Facebook, this could never be a problem. It’s sad because I love letters by mail (as you know).

    1. Julia, that’s a wonderful one!! How could I have forgotten that one? Thank you!

      Indeed, there can be no more of that same level of angst, no more of that longing and wondering and fear and doubt and all those emotions that go along with the courtship rituals of letter-writing. Just makes me think of how that will change the whole pacing of a love story now–used to be you had to fill a good chunk of time between exchanges but now, a romance can unfold in a matter of days thanks to the instant gratification of texts and emails–or can it? Technology can’t really speed up the human heart–but then, maybe it’s technology that has finally caught up to the speed in which we fall in love? Tail wagging the dog or vice-versa? I’ll ask the developmental biologist and see what he says? 😉

  3. Technology ruins so much, doesn’t it? Ha. It does make us work harder, that’s for sure. And I bet putting the perfect murder in a book is getting harder and harder with the whole DNA thing. Forensic technologies have made mysteries so much more interesting, but so much more difficult to write, I’m sure.

    1. Another great point, Joanne! I can’t imagine how hard it must be now to be a writer of mysteries, especially those that deal with hardcore forensics–everyone of us who watch one of the gazillion CSI shows considers ourselves experts, I think!;)

  4. My how life has changed… Microfiche… How we miss you! I’m not even sure I’d know HOW to operate in today’s libraries :-). And I have to confess to being one of those “don’t bother getting prints made” kind of photographers which is rather sad, really. Sometimes progress isn’t always progress, is it? Or is it? Sometimes it just makes our writing difficult!

    1. It really does make me weepy, I’m serious! I wonder if many of us will move into writing in pre-cell-phone eras (wouldn’t even have to be too long ago!) to regain that innocence–not to mention, beloved plot devices 😉

  5. Wow! I never really thought about this but you’re so right. It’s so much harder to write the communication blunders of missed connections with cell phones, caller id, internet etc. Though I guess these advances in technology have given way to a whole new set of plot devices. No one back then was writing about romances found online, through Twitter, Facebook etc…

    This reminds me of how I was watching You’ve Got Mail this weekend and thinking how dated it all was. Chatting via AOL, first of all. But of course, also, the idea that Fox Books was the big bad guy and the Shop ARound the Corner was the struggling store. If they remade it today the online retailer would be the bad guy, and Fox Books would be the struggling brick-and-mortar!

    1. Oh, that’s a GREAT example, Rachel! (It has one of my favorite lines in it though: When Greg Kinnear is obviously smitten with the interviewer and Meg Ryan accuses him of “sweating and touching himself”–hysterical!)

      AOL–oh, the days!!

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