The Internet is making drama tougher to pull off

In many ways, the omnipresence of the net today has made writing easier: one can walk down a street in a neighborhood one has never been in and describe it in detail.  One can know what is going on around the world.  One can do what used to be days’ worth of research at the library in an hour without leaving the house.

But some aspects of our point-and-click world are tough on writers and dramas—particularly the fact that something we now do regularly, constantly, has no drama.  You’ll notice television and the movies—the two most common dramatic media—have been slow to take up the fact that everyone now lives and functions online.  On TV and in movies, people still arrange travels, buy merchandise, and  meet people face to face or over the phone.  They read newspapers and magazines and books.  They go to movies in theaters, or at most watch them on late night TV.  Regular TV.  Not some web-TV mashup.

Fiction has not caught up to reality.  Occasionally a character mentions meetings with someone on the web, but we almost never see them on their laptop or smartphone for hours.  In public places, people are reading—and not their Nooks and BlackBerries.  Characters driving late-model cars that surely have GPS get lost.

And of course let’s not even talk about all those young girls who wind up locked in creepy haunted houses with a serial wacko—and never think to use their cell phones to call for help.

The electronic devices that cocoon us today ensure we have as few mishaps as possible.  That’s their job.  They guide us to our destinations and call for help if we’re in an accident, even if we are bleeding and unconscious and can’t.  They organize our social lives.  They make it easy arrange for everything from pizza delivery to a full wedding reception from anywhere.  They permit us to order all sorts of merchandise without ever leaving the house.

And for the writer this is a deadly development, because it is dull.  Sure technology can backfire, but even when it does the result is dramatically not compelling.  What’s exciting about a 404 message?  I think the movie The Social Network was overrated—it merely stood out in a year of atrocious movies, even many “quality” ones—but one aspect of it I admired was how it made computer programming at least somewhat interesting on screen.  Showing fingers typing as characters fly across the screen is about as much fun as watching paint dry, even though we do it, most of us, practically all day, yet to its credit the movie managed to keep us interested.

The Internet and other recent electronic devices are constructed to weed out as much human interaction as possible.  Even Facebook is a manqué of ourselves and our relationships.  The net is not real; it is a (poor) simulation of reality.  Yet we now spend so much of our time on it that, in terms of outward drama at least, we are in danger of becoming extensions of it, rather than vice-versa.

So the challenge for a writer is how to write, say, a car rental scene when renting a car today mostly involves mouse-clicking or screen-tapping.  How to describe the musty, dusty stacks of an old library, with its centuries of history and architecture, when the question, “Why doesn’t he just stay home and search on Google?” hangs in the air.  Technology is designed to remove the bumps and quirks of everyday experience, to whittle transactions down to single and simple and brief interactions.  And this is bad news for writers.  Image Jake Gittes investigating the murder of Hollis Mulwray nowadays.  What a dull story!

I don’t think anyone’s really solved this problem yet.  Some write around it, some write about it in protest, and some try to make it dramatic in its own right.  None of these solutions works very well thus far, in my opinion.  It will be interesting to see how fiction in the 21st century is permanently altered by the World Wide Web.

One response

  1. Great post, John. Love the pic, too. I know what you mean, though. It’s like we’re writing “historical” fiction if we mention a character checking their answering machine!


    February 14, 2011 at 6:01 am

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