Technology in Fiction

Technology exists. Writing a novel without referring to it can be done but isn’t easy. I have just completed the first draft of a novel which could be classified as crime fiction and there was no evading it.

In those chapters involving mobile phones, computers, tracking devices and so on, I went into far too much detail.  Why? I was making sure that what I was describing would work. For my own reassurance, I had to follow through on all the moves.

But technology in itself is tedious. (I have sometimes found this in novels by Patricia Cornwell and others.)  The real interest in narrative fiction lies in what people do and why they do it. So now that I have begun revising, I find I am paring down technology references to the bare essentials to avoid falling into a deep sleep.

This may be what I should have done in the first place – it would have saved me a lot of work – but I had to know that what I was describing was possible and found an amazingly inefficient way to do it.

And what is true for technology may well be true of other areas as well – including the amount of detail devoted to post postmortems and the exact specifications of the handguns, rifles, bazookas and crossbows which caused the body to be on the slab in the first place.

So why do some authors do this? Not to reassure themselves but to convince the reader of their expertise. And also to give an authentic feel to the story – this is exactly the way it was. And if their readers like it, who could quarrel with that?

18 thoughts on “Technology in Fiction

  1. Your post struck a chord. I was looking at the latest journo senior qualification (which isn’t too different to when I sat mine in the Dark Ages) and, reading an assessor’s report, I was amazed to see one of the same comments that was around back when.

    Trainee journalists were criticised for referring to a post-mortem rather than a post-mortem examination. Although technically it’s an adjective, dictionaries now cite it as a noun. But that clearly doesn’t wash with the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists).

    Interesting, I mused. Does UK journalism not move with the times? Or are dictionaries wrong?

    • I have noticed people in business circles using metric as a noun, which jars with me since I think of it as an adjective.
      Maybe I could apply for a seat on the NCT?

  2. Congrats on finishing your first draft!

    I’ve gone to ThrillerFest a couple times (an annual writing convention for thriller authors), and one of the things often preached is keep the details limited to what the reader needs to know. Too much detail and their eyes will gloss over. Of course, knowing how much detail is the right amount is the tricky part. I guess that’s where beta readers come in.

    • I have often heard mention of beta readers but have never had any. Where do they come from? I hadn’t heard of ThrillerFest but the advice you mention seems good.

      • You just ask people to read your book and offer their thoughts. Some beta readers are other writers; some aren’t writers but would be good for you to have read it. For example, since there was a lawsuit in my last book, I had a lawyer read it. Plus he was a former journalist so that came in handy too. Was good to have him point out flaws or inconsistencies related to those areas.

        I don’t tend to beta read because of the time factor, but there are writers who reciprocate beta reading for each other.

  3. I include lots of technology and science in my books and have the same problem. I need to include enough to get the reader’s trust, but not so much they get bored. It’s a balancing act.

    • You have the knowledge to do this well and have given a lot of thought to the craft of writing – an excellent combination when it comes to dealing with technology in fiction.

  4. Rod, first congratulations on completing the first draft on yet another novel! Well done! Now down to the nitty gritty and your post highlights an interesting issue. I can well understand the temptation to put lots of detail in regarding technology but I agree it can flood the main narrative and detract from the flow of the novel. They do warn on historical novels to do lots of research but to use it sparingly, resisting the urge to prove ones new-found knowledge.

  5. I am fairly sure you found the right balance. I don’t know if there can be rules of having too much or too little. Does a good book adhere to anything much? In your ‘Time to Talk,’ both Mr Frei and Miss Faith seem to be able to dance a nice little narrative, weaving in and out with some very witty situations and observations. It is hugely entertaining. Good writing. I look forward to the next one.

    The technology badly failed in Gabriel Garcia Marguez brilliant novel ‘Clandestine in Chili.’ There was nothing wrong with the Bazooka trained on Mr Pinochet while in his office at the Santiago’s Plaza de Armas from the opposite building. The Bazooka fired but the photographer’s tri-pod on which it was mounted, tripped back on the instant re-coil, and the device exploded not even having left the room.This writer knew enough about a Bazooka and could easily have bored us with all sorts of details. In a strictly technical sense it might not even have been possible. Who cares? The master writer avoids all that out of instinct, not out of following rules.

    After finishing reading ‘Time to Talk,’ I look forward to reading Hilary Green, ‘Border Line.’

  6. I agree. I get fed up with writers whose research is always showing. I do think the changing pace of technology has been a real challenge for writers. Being a very slow novel builder myself, I would find that technology had changed between the beginning and the end (as my children pointed out). With my last novel, I found that when I wrote mini CVs of my characters, it helped to include their level of IT skills and possessions and then, as you so wisely point out, forget most of it unless it is strictly pertinent to the plot. Look forward to your next book.

    I just glanced up at the comments and saw Border Line mentioned… thank you.

    • One solution is to have a deus ex machina character who knows everything there is to know about technology.
      The ‘hero’ contacts him with his problem and the geek gets back to him having solved it. Naturally, he doesn’t say how he/she did it. That way anything is possible.

      I liked Border Line a lot.

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