Tuesday, January 10, 2012

iTrapped: Does Technology Kill Suspense?

Kate Burns

This is not bragging: I can solve quite a few mysteries in as little as ten minutes.

When a name pops up in the news, a shocking amount of information is already available about that person, especially if it is the first time that name has been dragged into public view.

Like the names of the mother, father, fiancé, workplace, home phone number, address, hangouts of the young man arrested for a drunk driving collision that killed three people.

Using Facebook, Google, Canada 411's reverse lookup feature, and Maps, it's easy to lock and load on an identity in the tiny space between a dude seeing his name in print, and calling his mom from the holding tank to have her take down his Facebook page.

And that's not all. Also not bragging: In an urban setting at least, it might be rather difficult to lose me.

Assuming you have a smartphone somewhere on your person (6 out of 8 people did this morning on my bus, I counted), and have some basic logic skills and full battery power, you could call, GPS or bluff your way out of pretty much anything, or nearly anywhere.

So. Am I a mentally unstable morally outraged vigilante stalker? Wrong question.

Actually, how do I, as a writer, get my heroine into grave difficulty, and how do I tease out suspense when any character could walk up to a computer and blow the whole plot wide open? How could she languish in a kidnap situation or chase the bad guys all over town, if all of the tools formerly possessed only by police are clutched in her left hand?

Some of the devices we brave new writers use involve taking technology right out of the equation. Power failures, low battery, downed cell network, rural locations and having your smartphone fall into a lake are all plausible means of getting this pesky novel-ender out of the way. And there are a million creative ways to introduce these obstacles.

Perhaps your hero or heroine is technologically addled. What's the Google, dear? But, as time and technology march forth, so too do our characters. Miss Marple herself would be scouring Facebook, I'm certain of it. Some seniors I know not only have no problem on the web, they have a lot of time to spend there and could run circles around me with knowledge gleaned from running knitting blogs and recipe circles.

In fact, very soon most of these literary machinations will be clichéd. That threshold may have already been reached. Remember when he's calling from inside the house could make the hairs on the back of your neck stand straight up? Writing that now would produce more groans than shivers. That's the last thing I'd want to do to my readers, who trust me to lead them by the hand into the darkness.

So, for me, one solution seems to be to fully integrate technology into the plot.

Let's talk about the world we live in for a moment: the technological world. Finding, gathering and compiling information used to be time-consuming and difficult. Now, it's trivially easy. Yet how misleading that easily obtained data could be.

Information is neutral, therefore it is still subject to human interpretation. And that can make for some wonderful, dangerous mistakes for a character to make.

There is also that other critical element in mystery writing: the mystery of why. That is, once you have the who, the what, the when and the how, the motive, or the why, is the real heart of any mystery. Any madman can put a elaborate electronic trap out. But no amount of technical hoo-ha can ever replace the fragile complexities of human behaviour -- and that will always be what readers turn the page to devour.

Now, when I say to use technology in your writing, I don't mean for you to plunk your hero at a screen and let them 'World of Warcraft' his way to a solved crime. Nothing is as dissatisfying as a hero whose butt has never left the home office chair, or who never faces real world danger. No. Our world is infused with technology, it runs through the bloodstream of human consciousness. Therefore, our characters must run the gamut of it.

Technology has every potential, like setting or weather, of almost achieving a level of a character in itself.

Writers need to behave like the technology itself. And to write one step ahead of it.

Your readers need to know they can depend upon a main character who's smart enough and quick enough to get by in this world. One who solves her mystery with moxy and ingenuity, who is human enough to be fooled by a red herring, but agile enough to recover, reinterpret the facts and use her unique insights to get to the bottom of it all.

Insightful writing, all.
Kate Burns

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