Some of the Difficulties Facing Storytellers in a Time of Rapid Change

(The following article is based on episode 9 of the Review the Future podcast, available via iTunes or your favorite feedreader.)

Times are changing fast, and new technologies appear in our lives with increasing regularity. Such an environment poses numerous challenges for storytellers.

If you want to set your story in the present, you are in a particularly difficult position because the present is very much a moving target. Films and novels can take a rather long time to complete—four years and even longer is not unusual. With times changing so quickly, if you plan incorrectly, by the time your piece is done it may already show signs of being obsolete.

New technologies have a tendency to undermine old sources of drama. How many stories of the relatively recent past would make no sense in today’s world of ubiquitous cell phones, internet access, and GPS positioning? Many stories used to rely on characters being lost or separated from each other by time and space. It is a fun game to watch old movies from the pre-cellphone era and point out all the situations where a problem could have been easily solved with a simple cellphone call. In order to engineer this same sort of drama today, modern writers often have to employ excuses such as “the battery is dead” or the action is taking place “in a dead zone.”

For a recent example of this, one need look no further than Breaking Bad, in which the writers justify the plausibility of their train robbery sequence by first having a character explain that the robbery will be taking place in a specific part of the desert where cell phone service does not reach. This type of narrative contortion is minuscule when compared to the problems such crime stories will face in the future. I fully believe that five to ten years from now, due to the continued spread of surveillance technologies, the entire storyline of Breaking Bad will seem quaint and historical. And future writers of contemporary crime dramas will find that they have to work a lot harder to create similarly dramatic situations that audiences will accept.

A lot of our daily lives now is spent staring at screens and looking at interfaces. Unfortunately interfaces go out of date rapidly, and showing too much of an interface is one of the surest ways to date your story. Movies have slowly learned this. Remember in the nineties when movies didn’t even photograph real interfaces? They would often show a simplified and cartoonish screen layout with awkwardly big typeface that said things like “hacking system…” and “error detected!”. Eventually movies got wise and started photographing real interfaces, but this option poses its own problems since OS updates come fast and frequent. The current trend (and best solution) seems to be to avoid showing interfaces completely. The new British show show Sherlock chooses to reveal the content of text messages by simply projecting a subtitle at the bottom of the screen.

So how does a storyteller combat the problem of staying relevant in a time of rapid change? There are three often-used solutions:

(1) Set your story in a specific time period in the past. Traditionally this would mean writing a historical period piece about some real event or person—such as the Kennedy assassination or Julius Caesar. But there’s no reason you can’t just set your story in 1998 simply because that happens to be the appropriate level of technology for your completely original work of fiction. By committing to a time period and making that choice clear to your audience, you are completely dodging the issue of rapid change. William Gibson took this idea to its logical extreme with several recent books. His critically acclaimed novel Pattern Recognition was set very specifically in 2002 and yet was published in 2003.

(2) Set your story “outside of time” in a fantasy or anachronistic environment where normal rules don’t apply. Typical swords and sorcery fantasy stories fall into this category as do Wes Anderson movies, which have a tendency to pick and choose their technologies for seemingly aesthetic reasons, thereby leaving the exact time period of the movie unclear. The key is to let your audience know that the story is operating outside of the scope of normal technological reality.

(3) Try to tell an actually speculative science fiction story set in the near future. This is not for the faint of heart. If you think you have a reasonable grapple on current trends, you can attempt to “over shoot” the mark. Although your story may eventually appear obsolete once time catches up to it, by setting your story some amount in the future you are at least buying yourself some number of years during which no one can definitively say your story is “dated” or “not believable.”

Given the increasing pace of change we might expect to see an accompanying increase in the use of all three of the above methods. And indeed, subjectively I already feel like I am seeing more period, fantasy, and sci fi stories then I used to. These are natural and rational responses to a present moment that is increasingly hard to pin down.