Are Cell Phones Overused in Fiction?

Have you noticed the role that telephones play in our novels, TV shows, and movies these days? The next time you enjoy a piece of fiction on the screen or on the page, count the number of times a cell phone comes into the picture, with characters making or receiving calls. Add bonus points for texting or use of smart phone apps. Often those calls are plot-changers. In my almost-finished novel, that’s certainly the case. The phone interrupts what my protagonist is doing at a key moment. I did a search and discovered I had used the word “phone” 115 times in 350 pages. Doesn’t that seem like too much?

What did writers do before folks had easy access to telephones? When they had to write letters? When they had to find a phone booth and money to pay for the call? When maybe because they weren’t near a phone they didn’t know what was happening elsewhere? Does anyone reading this remember when you had to stay home and wait for a phone call that might or might not ever come?

Is it too easy to just say, “And then the phone rang.” Is this a modern version of the old deus ex machina, in which some catastrophic event suddenly ends the story with a plane crash, explosion, earthquake or other unbelievable device? Or is it just a modernized version of a letter arriving or a stranger riding up on a horse to deliver a message?

Maybe we’re just being realistic. Certainly we have all noticed how many people walk around staring at their phones. And why not? They’re so entertaining. My new smart phone is really a small computer. It does everything but make my lunch. But have I gotten any life-changing calls on it lately? No. Just the usual nonsense about work, a few wrong numbers, and Verizon wanting to sell me more apps.

We seem to be creating a generation of zombies who can’t look away from their screens—phone, tablet, computer—for more than a few minutes without going into withdrawal and who don’t know how to look directly at the world around them and the people in it. But does that make for an interesting story? A horror story maybe.

Gina Denny, a blogger who’s half my age, has a different opinion. In this post, “Cell Phones in Fiction,”  she scolds writers doing books about teens for NOT putting enough smart phones in their fiction because kids do everything on them. It would be unrealistic, for example, to have a teen character study a paper map or look up a word in a print dictionary; he would use his phone.  It’s something to think about. It’s important to consider who your characters are and how they use their phones.

So here’s my challenge. Write a story that has no cell phones. Put your characters in a place with no service if you have to. And while you’re at it, put your own phone down. After all, you can’t type with a phone in your hand. Although I suppose you could write the story ON your phone.

Humor me. Just power off. Now go write.

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One Comment on “Are Cell Phones Overused in Fiction?”

  1. drew myron says:

    That’s funny. I don’t write fiction but today I wrote a poem: “Why I Didn’t Call You Back.” : )


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