Monday, November 29, 2010

No Signal

A thread over at Absolute Write discusses how to handle plot complications that are easily solved with technological devices such as cell phones.

Some of the posters there are of the opinion that the easy solutions to these problems can be circumvented with plot contrivances like these:

I disagree.

The cell phone dead-zone is a lazy device and a dumb cliche.  A problem that can be solved with a cell phone is a stupid problem to have in a contemporary setting, and a character who is unequipped to solve such a trivial problem is unworthy of reader sympathy. It is sloppy and artless to have a plot that relies on the unavailability of a commonplace object.   You owe your readers better than that, and agents and editors aren't interested in working with lazy people who write stupid stories.  If that is the best you can do, why even bother?   

There are no cell phone dead-zones.  Cell phone networks have blanket coverage throughout the developed world, and widespread coverage everywhere else. Your cell phone will work on top of a mountain in a snowstorm. Cell phones are used in remote parts of Africa where there are no conventional phone lines, and people charge their cell phone batteries with generators because there are no power lines. I think the Amish keep a few cell phones around in case of emergency because their religion forbids being connected to the world through phone wires.

Children have cell phones. The elderly have cell phones. Homeless people have cell phones. Everybody has a cell phone.  If your character implausibly broke or forgot his cell phone or the battery died, everyone else in the world still has one.

The only places cell phones legitimately don't work are in subway tunnels and other underground spaces (unless there are signal repeaters built into them), in hospitals, and inside casinos (for some reason). A phone plausibly might be unable to get a signal in an enclosed space with thick walls, like a bank vault or a bomb shelter.

Anywhere else, you should assume every character is carrying a phone in a contemporary story, because readers will expect them your characters not to behave implausibly or stupidly. In fact, you should assume everyone has a smartphone with a camera and GPS and access to the Internet, and you should not fabricate problems that are easily solved with devices that people commonly carry in their pockets.


  1. I agree that any plot problem that can be solved with a cell phone is a stupid one 100%. But the dead zone thing is totally real! I live in Western Mass and about 80% of my small rural town is a cell phone dead zone. We are only two hours from Boston. I can only imagine it's worse in other more rural places.

  2. I find that most of my problems tend to happen when I've forgotten to fully charge my phone, or that I've got the wrong type of charger(europe/asia), so I don't find it that lazy. I watched the youtube video and some of them are, but if people have experienced that situation they actually identify with it. I used to have to make phone calls by placing my phone on a bookshelf in my freshman dorm room, and I'm only 30 minutes from a major city.

  3. The casino thing is just due to the fact that they can be utilized to cheat the house. So they block signals inside the immediate zone of the casinos to prevent it, I believe.

    I agree that the dead zone thing is a little too conveniently used in most situations, but as I do live in one, I agree with Perri, they do exist. ;) I have signal in the house, but as soon as I leave to go somewhere, it's dead till the highway, five miles away.

    Ahh, country living.