A friend of mine has recently written a novel set in the mid-1800s. Not a very exciting period to pitch your plot in, you’d think. But when you really go into the matter, you’ll see it’s a very smart move. That’s because ever since cellphones happened to humankind, it’s become impossible for a story set in contemporary times to have even a halfway-decent plot.
It’s no coincidence that Agatha Christie, Alistair Maclean, Shakespeare and Wodehouse all wrote in times BC (Before Cellphone). You see, in order for a plot to develop satisfactorily, it needs to twist a bit and take unexpected turns every now and then. And since the advent of cellphones, unexpectedness and surprise have dwindled into extinction.
Look at our lives: before we walk into a meeting, we know exactly who is going to be late and by precisely how many minutes –because they all texted in from their traffic jams and bus breakdowns. When the doorbell rings, we already know who it is – because they called from the car to say they were on the way. Having such information may be a great convenience if you’re a regular person with normal nosiness, or a husband conducting a little nooky on the side who doesn’t want the wife to drop by unexpectedly; but if you’re a writer you’re dead.
When everyone knows where everyone else is and exactly what they’re up to, what then remains to be written except for ‘They all talked happily ever after’?
Romance? Forget it. Classic canoodling is customarily conducted in clandestine conditions (otherwise the moral police will have the author booked for promoting public immorality). But can the lead characters really expect their trysts to remain secret when their Facebook statii clearly reveal them to be sharing a matinee at the local PVR?
And in any case, with so many tweets to follow about the love lives of so many exciting film stars, the very idea of someone conducting their own personal romance seems far-fetched and overly egoistic. You’re not hotter than Bips, are you?
Murder? Not bloody likely. Far too many bullets meant for the heart are being deflected by touch screens in shirt pockets. And besides, you do need a bit of privacy to commit a decent murder. When you’re sneaking up behind a prospective murderee with knife raised to strike, you don’t want your wife calling your cellphone to check if you’ve picked up that kilo of bhindis she’d asked you to. Kind of spoils the surprise for the murderee.
And as for Adventure, you remember the stories about Hansel and Gretel getting lost in the forest, and Robinson Crusoe being marooned on a desert island for years? Well, fat chance of those happening now. “Hansel, switch on the GPS this instant or I’m calling mummy.” You need to have exciting situations for characters to fall into. It’s no good if the heroine calls up Daddy every time her car breaks down on a lonely stretch of road.
The problem with life, as it is lived currently, is that cellphones have taken out all the excitement from it. Earlier, authors had such a vast and multi-hued plotspace to write in. Today, they’d struggle. Insert the merest Blackberry into any classic tale, and watch the story disintegrate:
Paul Revere – The Ride That Wasn’t Imagine Paul Revere parked astride his trusty steed, eyeglass trained unwaveringly on the tower from which an accomplice will signal how the British forces are approaching. “One if by land,” he repeats to himself. “Two if by sea,” he mutters. “One, land. Two, sea. One, land. Two, sea. One land to see.” He’s confusing himself nicely, when lo! From aloft the darkness of yon tower, a lantern shines forth. And, before he can catch his breath, another. Paulie pulls out a Nokia from his posterior pocket and types as follows: ‘Dey’s comin’ in boats, da filthy swine. Go gettem.’ Then he selects ‘Send to all’ and schmoozes around to the nearest inn for a glass of rye. Sorry, Longfellow, old chap, but no ride tonight.
A Failed Murder Attempt Little Red Riding Hood (on cellphone): “Hi Gran. I just stopped off at the store for a recharge card. Will be with you in five.”
Granny: “You will? Then who’s this hairy chick with big ears and bad breath, knocking on my door claiming to be you? I think some skullduggery is afoot.”
Wolf: “Damn! Foiled again.”
Author: “Damn! Foiled again.”
Meanwhile, On A Certain Balcony In Verona Juliet (lovelorn): “Oh Romeo, Romeo. Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”
Juliet (annoyed, repeats): “Oh Romeo, Romeo. Wherefore art thou, Rom… Damn, forgot to press the ‘Call’ button.”
Tales That Almost Were Scene: Camelot, the court of King Arthur. King Arthur is sitting on the royal throne, exchanging a couple of cozy texts with Queen Guinevere who is in her rooms. Enter Sir Launcelot.
Sir Launcelot: “Sire, what about the Search for the Holy Grail?”
King A (annoyed at the interruption): “Well, what about it?”
Sir L: “Sire, we must seek it.”
King A (exasperated): “Oh, alright.” He googles Holy Grail on his Blackberry. “Ah, there it is. Go ask Dan Brown. He’s found it, it seems. And take that damn round table with you…”
Sir L (muttering): “The old order changeth already. Damn.”
Sherlock Who? 221B Baker Street. Holmes: “Hark, Watson. Footsteps ascending our stairs. The irregularity in the sound indicates that the heel of one boot has worn down more than the other. A young man, I’d say, fond of playing hopscotch…”
The door bursts open to reveal a dishevelled young man holding a hopscotch trophy.
Young man: “Mr. Holmes, you are the only man in England who can help me. I am Jack Benimble, the national hopscotch champion; perhaps you may have heard something of my successes? No? Well, never mind. My career is just about over anyway unless you can deliver me from this terrible trouble. Jimmy Jumpover, my doubles partner has been mysteriously missing since yesterday. The World Tournament is nigh and I fear he has been kidnapped to prevent our partici… oh, hang on…”
He pulls out a beeping mobile and reads a newly arrived SMS. His brow clears and he breathes a very large sigh of relief. “It’s alright, Mr. Holmes. It appears my partner was practicing with three bottles of Scotch at a pub last night and overdid the training… But he’s woken up now. I’ll just hop along and see how he is.”
Holmes: “Well, Watson, there goes another mystery. It could’ve got us into the headlines. Damn!”
You get the picture. It’s a bleak one if you’re attempting a novel with a contemporary setting. The only person who’s pulled this off successfully is Steig Larsson, and you’ll notice he made damn sure that his characters conveniently kept their cellphones switched off whenever it was time for the plot to move forward.
I think there might be a lesson for us hidden there somewhere…