Technology: Plot Inconvenience For Writers NPR's Scott Simon speaks with novelist Thomas Perry and TV producer Marti Noxon Bynum about how to make fictional plotlines believable in a time of rapid technological development. How does a storyteller create tension when characters can sidestep traditional obstacles with a simple cell phone call or text message?

Technology: Plot Inconvenience For Writers

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

There's said to be only a few basic plotlines in the Western narrative tradition. What do storytellers do when technology makes old plots seem implausible? I mean how do you do a story about star-crossed lovers, like Romeo and Juliet when these days Juliet could text message Romeo? Just napping. Don't drink the poison.

How do you write a scene with a character talking on a mobile phone when you know before it's even shot that the next series of phones will be even smaller? How do you avoid technological obsolescence and refresh old plotlines in popular storytelling?

Well, we've called two storytellers. Joining us from our studios at NPR West is Thomas Perry. He's written several novels about a Native American guide named Jane Whitefield who helps people take on new identities. His most recent novel is "Runner."

Mr. Perry, thank for being with us.

Mr. THOMAS PERRY (Novelist): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And, we're joined on the phone, where she's in the middle of a production, by Marti Noxon. She's a consulting producer for "Mad Men."

Marti, thanks for being back with us.

Ms. MARTI NOXON (Consulting Producer, "Mad Men"): I'm happy to be here.

SIMON: "Mad Men," of course, famously takes place at a Madison Avenue ad agency in the 1960s.

Ms. NOXON: Right.

SIMON: Now...

Ms. NOXON: Right.

SIMON: ... I'm going to assume it's safe to say that a large part of your writing staff might not have been around in the 1960s.

Ms. BYNUM: Right, it's true for the most part. You find yourself constantly wanting Don to reach for his cell phone or jump on the Internet, and it's pretty sobering when you realize how different things have gotten so fast. Xerox wasn't around, so there's lots of plot opportunities with things like there's only one copy of something. It's hard to imagine now.

SIMON: Hmm. Tom Perry?

Mr. PERRY: Yes.

SIMON: Is it easier to do something from your point of view that's set in a vintage period? Because at least that's static, that's not changing. When you give someone a mobile phone in your story, a year from now when that story's read, a mobile phone might be doing substantially different things.

Mr. PERRY: Yes. Yes, that is, you know something I do consider. I do try to keep things from being too cutting-edge. I really sort of want to make people feel comfortable. I want to make them feel like this is reality and I think it helps.

SIMON: Now, Tom, you published the first book in your Jane Whitefield franchise more than 10 years ago. Was it easier to write it 10 years ago? Has the pace of technology made it more difficult for you to keep up with things?

Mr. PERRY: Well actually, I've always thought that technology was a great opportunity to, you know, use the things that we have become use to in our lives and turn them into weapons of one sort or another. And I think, you know, it's necessary now, as we do it. In my latest book, "Runner," Jane does at a certain point decide to eavesdrop on some people. And what she uses is a simple electronic baby monitor. Well, you know, that technology is very old but people still use it.

SIMON: Yeah. Hmm. Now, Marti Noxon, in the late '90s and early 2000, you were a producer in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"?

Ms. NOXON: Right. That's right. Yes.

SIMON: Which is modern times or contemporaneous universe, if we might put it that way. But did it help you that you could use the occult, and monsters, and magic, that sort of thing?

Ms. NOXON: It's different than the book you're discussing because we didn't make it a world in which the viewer was seeing something that reflected their life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NOXON: It was easy to do because, of course, there were the monster of the week and she was a vampire slayer. But cell phones obviously are something that most teenagers have and we just never gave into our characters. And we could get a way with that, because having cell phones really would've been real problematic for us, in terms of characters being able to tip each other off to monster right behind them or - so we just acted like they didn't exist.

SIMON: Hmm. And, of course, correct me if I'm wrong, Marti. But I mean a huge part of the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, and for that matter any other television show, is made possible by the reruns, by the fact that these things are shown for years thereafter.

Ms. NOXON: Right. I find, at least, maybe it's true with the fantasy genre, that your audience is much more willing to go where you want them to go. I mean, even now, those reruns are extremely popular. We never hear, well, why didn't just call each other? You know, I often find television shows, people show up to have conversations that they could easily make over the phone. You know?

SIMON: Oh, yes. Well, see, that's true of soap operas, right? Where they're always...

(Soundbite of knocking)

SIMON: Oh, I just came by to tell you that apparently it's going to be 62 and rainy tomorrow.

Ms. NOXON: We do that all the time, though. We still do it. It's like, why in the world wouldn't that person just pick up the phone to tell them, you know, a small thing which turns into a giant argument? But I think that there is that the view is complacent to the agreement that something will just go by the wayside.

SIMON: Thomas Perry at NPR West, author of the Jane Whitefield series of novels. The most recent one, "Runner." And Marti Noxon, consulting producer for AMC's series "Mad Men." Thanks very much.

Mr. PERRY: Well, thank you.

Ms. NOXON: Thank you.

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