Let’s talk about the use of cell phones in fiction, shall we? We writers often need to put a character in some sort of peril, and in that context, cell phones are extremely inconvenient. Your hero is stuck in a dank, dark basement? There’s a car chase in progress? Or someone is being hunted? Those are exciting moments, but these days, help is never more than a phone call away! What is a writer to do?
If you’re telling stories, sooner or later you’ll need to handle cell phone negation. An unused cell phone requires explanation, and extraneous explanations are as boring as heck. Cell phone negation becomes a narrative chore, a hoop that every character-in-peril must explain away. And there are many ways to handle this.
Negating a Cell Phone in Fiction
Oh no! You have no signal here. - You’re deep in the mountains or in a boat out at sea.
The killer can hear you. - They’re already in the building. You can’t risk the noise or light.
You forgot your phone. - Bummer. It’s back on your desk!
You ran out of battery. - And now you’re going to die.
The killer took your phone. - They’re thinking ahead. Good for them! Bad for you.
It’s just out of reach! - Ack! You’re trapped, and you can’t quite get at it!
Your hands are literally tied! - And by the time you get loose, you’ll be too busy fighting to call for help.
Calling for help isn’t helpful. - You’d call the cops, but they’re working for the bad guys.
Your signal is being jammed. - Oof! Your enemies have tech!
Your location data is being fed to the bad guys. - You can’t turn your phone on! It will give your position away.
You can’t call for help because you ARE the police - Sorry, pal. This fight can’t be delegated.
Cell phones don’t exist yet. - Ah, the joy of writing fiction set in a different time!
The Cell Phone in the Pudding
My all-time favorite example of cell phone negation comes from the 2018 horror movie Halloween. There’s a scene where Jamie Lee Curtis’s character’s granddaughter is at a party, and she’s staring at her phone instead of paying attention to her boyfriend. He gets frustrated, snatches her phone out of her hands, and throws it into a big bowl of pudding on the snack table. (The guy was a dick, so this was believable.) My writer-sense tingled! I was excited! That girl was going to need that phone at some point, and now she wouldn’t have it! And when that cell phone blooped into that big brown bowl of pudding, I silently high-fived the writers in my mind.
YEAH. THROW THAT PHONE IN THAT PUDDING, BABY! NEGATE THAT PHONE!
When you’re telling suspenseful stories, and when most stories require a gimmick for cell-phone negation, it’s tempting to use the same trick over and over. We’re all familiar with the classic “no signal” error shown in horror movies. Does it work? Yes. Is it exciting or fresh? Nope!
Cell phone negation interests me because what we’re really talking about is orginality. When I’m writing, there are times when the solutions to my narrative problems feel way too predictable. So I sit for a while and try to come up with my very own ‘bowl of pudding’. Something unexpected, fun, and entirely believable. Something I haven’t seen anyone else try before.
Being original is difficult, and I don’t always succeed. And we don’t want to twist ourselves into knots moving small and inconvenient objects out of the way. Sometimes the easiest path is easier for everyone, our readers included. But the memory of the cell phone in the pudding trick reminds me to look for better solutions. Whenever possible, it’s best to handle standard problems in non-standard ways. Otherwise, all stories begins to look the same.
And where’s the fun in that?