• Gina Denny

Cell Phones in Fiction

I’ve been a beta-reading, critiquing fool the last several weeks. I’ve read through a total of five complete manuscripts, one partial, and I’m partway through another. Of those seven, six have been YA or NA contemporaries. And I’ve noticed a trend that is making me bonkers.


Or, rather, the lack of cell phones.

Young Adult characters tend to be fourteen to nineteen, and New Adult picks up around age eighteen and goes to twenty-five-ish. According to this research, 91% of American adults have a cell phone, 67% of them check it constantly without waiting for alerts and notifications, half sleep next to their phone, and a quarter say they “can’t live without” their smartphone.


Now, this post is not to discuss the virtues of mobile technology. Nor is it to discuss the decline in human interaction or the increase in brain cancer or anything having to do with whether or not we SHOULD have this kind of connection with our smartphones. Rather, it’s to discuss how fiction should be reflecting reality.

And the reality is this: If your character is between the ages of fifteen and thirty, there’s a twenty percent chance they’ll use their smartphone during sex. During. Sex.

If they use their phone during sex, I can guarantee they use their phone for everything else. Here’s a list of things your character should absolutely, positively not do, under any circumstances.

(Note: This only applies if you are writing YA/NA Contemporary. And please do not write YA/NA set in the 80s or 90s or early 00s. It just tells the audience what age you are, it doesn’t fix the problems in your story)

Your character should never: 

– Use a map. And by golly, they don’t even know where to buy a map. Maybe, if they’re handed one, they’ll take it. But they’ll probably talk to Siri about where they’re going anyway.

– Use the yellow pages. Or an encyclopedia. Or dictionary. If you can google it, don’t replace it with a paper version.

– Watch the news. Weather, sports, current events, trivia, local stories, everything the “news” gives you is available immediately via your smartphone.

– Listen to the radio. Pandora, Spotify, iTunes… there’s no reason to listen to anything that’s not 100% personal. -Pull a camera out of their purse/pocket. If they aren’t using their phone camera, then they’re using a big, fancy SLR.

– “Press buttons” on their phone. Tap. Touchscreen. Swipe. Slide. Not press, no clicking, no beeping. If you’re writing your book now, it won’t hit shelves until 2014 or 2015, and since 80% of the under-thirty-five crowd have smartphones today, it’s a pretty good bet that 90% or more will have smartphones by the time your book comes out.

– Pass up a chance to text. Recent research shows that teens send fifty to one hundred texts per day, and 75% send texts everyday. Only 39% make even one phone call per day. Read that again: About one-third of teens admit to making one phone call per day, but sends up to one hundred texts per day. They are literally texting about three hundred times as often as they make phone calls. Don’t give your teen or young adult character a phone conversation unless it’s absolutely necessary. They’d text it instead.

Speaking of texting:

Since the advent of smartphones and autocorrect, the “text speak” is not as common, nor is it as annoying as it used to be. In 2001, it was easier to say “wat r u up 2 2nite” because we were all using whatever technology came before T9. But now? To get to that numeral 2, you have to switch keyboards, and that’s harder. It’s faster to stay in your qwerty keypad and just type words.

Or use voice texting, which on the iPhone, is more accurate than you might think.

Also, with large screens and full conversation displays, people text in full sentences and paragraphs. I have texts that look like emails.

I use my phone to communicate, sure. But it’s also my bank, my weather service, my radio, my map, my list-maker, my note taker, my calendar. I use it to order lunch, make dinner reservations (without ever making a phone call for either), find nearby restaurants, theaters, buy tickets. It’s my boarding pass when I fly, it’s my coupons when I shop, it’s my groupon deals when I go out. It’s my receipt when I need to return something, and it’s my direct connect to customer service when I need help. All without making a phone call.


I’m not even one of the phone-call-phobic kids you’re writing about.

It’s true you don’t want to integrate technology into your story too much, lest it become dated. But the truth is mobile technology is here to stay. Whether it’s in the form of a phone, or we stop calling it a phone altogether, or it’s Google Glass, whatever. And young people will be the first adopters of technology, and your characters need to reflect that fact.

There are ways to write this stuff out of your story.

– You can avoid mentioning methods. “I looked up a place for dinner.”  or “Emma said she’d meet us there.” or “I made a reservation.” without saying how it was done allows the reader to fill it in with their imagination.

– You can make your character deliberately anti-phone. Technophobes or ultra-hipsters or … Amish kids. I dunno. Find a way to make it work. One writer I read for found a totally brilliant way to eliminate her character’s phone. It made sense for the story. It made sense for the character. And it eliminated the need for explaining why there wasn’t a phone later in the story – and then gave the character a lot of opportunities for phone-less interaction. (which again, worked for the story in a really great way)

– You can avoid all this stuff altogether. I’m shocked by the number of books I’ve read lately that have young people getting maps, but then never referring to them (as far as we read). If you don’t mention it, but it’s an obvious thing, we’ll fill in the blanks ourselves. Your character has a phone. Your character is not dumb. Your character found her way from one city to another. I assume she used her phone. You don’t need to spell it out, and you don’t need to introduce a paper map to the story.


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