Thursday, 1 May 2014

Tackling Technology in Teen Fiction (ROYA #24)

Referencing technology in fiction is a tricky affair. No matter how loosely an author describes an electronic device, they reveal its functional capacity whenever their characters interact with it. With technological advances progressing as rapidly as they have over the last two decades, this means the author is essentially slapping a date on their book whenever a character uses a phone or a computer, and so on. While this isn’t necessarily a problem, there are certain aspects that must be taken into consideration when planning your story.

The mature reader is capable of overlooking the use of antiquated items in a novel and is more adept at syphoning from the book that which gives them gratification. Teens and young adults, on the other hand, are a different type of audience.

Writing for Teens and Young Adults

It’s generally understood that successful novels for teenagers are ones that address their needs in some way. This is achieved by reflecting age, experiences and creating characters they can identify with. Tackling contemporary and/or cultural issues is another way to engage teen readers.

The main problems that affect youth have remained the same throughout generations: the angst, torrid emotions, social politics and peer pressure, sexuality, parents, and the affliction of self-consciousness, to name a few. Outside influences, on the other hand, change all the time. While there are trends that can be altered to suit your story, for instance fashion or music, when it comes to referencing technology that’s currently in use, you run the risk of dating your book, and subsequently distancing your readership.

Generation Gap

Are you a technophobe? Click the image to read an insightful article on YouInc.
Are you a technophobe?
Click image to read an insightful 
article on YouInc

I grew up in a different era to my target audience. The computers I used in my teens were chunky, plastic affairs with monochromatic screens. Cameras had to be loaded with a spool, or you paid £6 for a disposable one that would invariably produce sub-standard images. Telephone numbers were exchanged via paper, which could conveniently be “lost” should either party require the excuse. I got my first mobile phone when I was twenty one. It didn’t have predictive text, internet connection or touch screen, but if you lobbed it at somebody you’d do some serious damage. Technology has advanced considerably since then, and while I embrace the movement, I can see how other authors may feel daunted by how different things are now to when they were younger. Teens have always been driven to utilise the latest gadgets, however, and we authors must learn to keep up.

The social rituals that existed when I was a teen have morphed into an author’s technological minefield. One wrong step and Boom! Your reader disconnects. It becomes crucial then to consider the psychological effects you may be imposing on your readers.

They Did What?

You’re reading a book. You picture a red sunset reflected on a flat lake. On the water sits a solitary rowing boat which barely moves. You must cross the lake or die, and you’re going to swim, even though it’s three miles wide. Wait, what? Why would you do that when there’s a perfectly good boat? Is there a problem with the boat? Are you a champion swimmer? Will there be an explanation as to why you’re not using the boat? No? Oh. Well, that doesn’t make any sense.

This is the kind of stumbling block presented to a young reader when they encounter outdated methods or technology as a plot mechanism in a modern setting. Instead of immersing themselves in the book, they are sent off on a thought process that ultimately halts the flow of the story. Giving a reader cause to stop and think can work exceptionally well in some circumstances, but you want them to be thinking about the book, not questioning its credibility. This is why it’s important to think carefully about how to approach using technology in your story, but also why it’s your responsibility to research what’s popular with your target audience.

In Development

Unless you’re planning on setting your story in a different era (and if you do, be sure to make it clear to the reader) it’s worth exploring the generational differences and similarities between you and your characters. What do they like? How do they go about doing that? What is their relationship to technology? This can be done through brain mapping, note taking, drawing pictures, and other character development techniques. My advice is not to leave it until the writing stage. It’s easy to get caught up in the bigger points of the story when you’re crafting your prose. Little things like clocks, phones and exchanging contact details can often be passed over completely.

Let’s put this into perspective. We’ll pretend I’m writing an urban coming of age novel about a girl that is having trouble fitting in. She’s at the museum and wants to take a photograph of the building. If she uses a camera, then I must explore the possibility of her being keen photographer, otherwise why wouldn’t she just use her phone? Our girl then goes on to meet a potential love interest. The notion of exchanging numbers via paper would seem archaic and a tad wasteful to these characters. It would make far more sense for them input the numbers into their phones straight away, text one another, or more simply, to touch phones together. If they don’t, then I must make it completely clear to the reader WHY the characters have chosen not to do this.

Beat ‘em or Join ‘em
As an author of teen and/or Young Adult fiction, you have to either get with the times or learn how to sidestep the issue of modern technology altogether. Avoiding it can be as simple as using a fantasy or science fiction backdrop, or, as mentioned above, setting your story in a different period. There are plenty of ways to get around it, if you don’t feel up to tackling the subject. A good example of this is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which is set 1991-98. It’s saved from becoming outdated because the author replaces technology with magic.

The problem is this approach limits what writing you can produce. Tales of fantasy and alternate universes can be fun, but if you want to write about more than make believe, it’s far better all-round if you adapt to the technological changes reality presents. That way, if or when one of your old books becomes outdated, you can write a brand new one that’s all up to date and ready to resonate amongst your target audience.
It’s not difficult to observe modern technology. If you’re reading this now then you already have access to a computer of some sort. Even if you don’t have the most up-to-date handset or notepad, the chances are one of your friends or their children do. They’re given them in high school instead of jotters now.
Research is what you make of it, and to use a cliché, you only get out what you put in. Films, television, reading, surfing the web; all can be used to your advantage. Taking time out to scroll the internet on teen fads and issues is most definitely a valuable use of your time, as is playing the latest console games, listening to new music, even trying out new sweets (or candy, for those of you in the states). Really, there are ways to make researching technology and youth culture a lot of fun. It’s not all psychoanalysis and poll-reading.

As for how you choose to interpret technology into text, well, that is down to you. You don’t need to wait to see how other authors have done it before you to start writing. Just go for it. This is one of the advantages of tackling an ever-progressing subject matter. After you’ve had a few tries and done some research, you might not end up with the same style of conveying instant messaging you began with, but you’ll never get there if you don’t start somewhere. Play with it, experiment, but above all try it. You never know, you might find you are a natural.

Of course, there are negative sociological aspects of technology with regards to human interaction, but I won’t get into that here. However, think on this: if you believe too many people rely on social media to communicate, figure out a way to say it with your books. If you think teenagers spend more time talking online than in actual conversations, translate this somehow into your plot, or create a situation where this isn’t the case. What’s essential is to have a good grasp of the subject. That way it will come over in your writing. This is your duty as a storyteller. If you’re having trouble thinking of how to execute your ideas, there are plenty of exercises and writing tips available online. Alternatively, join a writing group, enrol in a class that tackles plot development, style and structure, or, if you have the cash, employ the services of a reputable tutor.

Don’t Be Afraid

It’s okay to get it wrong, so long as you do so in the early stages of drafting your manuscript. If
you’ve got it wrong on technology or social constructs in the past but were published, then good on you. This isn’t a cut and dry scenario. It’s about you taking a pragmatic approach to understanding your ever changing readership in an age of accelerated technological advancement. It’s also about honing your skill as a writer. Whatever you do, don’t resist change. You’ll find you’re more susceptible to comprehending technology and its uses in society if you are willing to learn. Remember, your readers are important. It’s vital that your writing connects with them in ways they recognise. To achieve this, you must make time to get to know what it is that makes them tick. Technology is a huge part of youth culture. Embrace it, or face losing touch with the people you write for.


  1. That's a great post.
    As long as my fingers rest on a set of keys, I'm good. :-)

  2. I aspire to be as fresh and adaptable as you. That sounds really sycophantic, but I mean it, honest!