Whether the advanced technology in your story is a longbow, a microwave, or a nanobot, there are plenty of ways to take advantage of it. Plot complications are just the beginning (but we have to start somewhere). Here are some examples to look at when you’re trying to come up with ideas.
10 Ways to Use Technology to Complicate a Plot
1. Conflicting Technology Levels & Politics
What? The enemy has more advanced technology than our side? But that means that our heroes are going to have to be creative and go to extreme lengths to win!
Sound familiar? What about the good guys squeaking by to victory thanks to their almost-magical innovation? From movie conflicts to real wars, advanced technology can make or break a country’s power. Your characters will be on one side of the balance (either superior or inferior technology), which changes the direction and flavor of the conflict.
- Independence Day:
- The Battle of Agincourt
- WWII (A prime example of having to figure out how to beat superior technology)
- Young Miles by Lois McMaster Bujold
Then, of course, there’s the Cold War and all the spy movies where gaining the most advanced technology was the main goal/cause of the conflict.
2. Conflicting Technology Levels & Culture Shock
When conflicting levels of technology aren’t part of the main conflict, they can also be great for character-style complications (and hilarity). For example, if a character from 1 state has to deal with the other.
Thor is introduced to things like cell phones which he’s never seen before, Stitch is forcibly downgraded from spaceships to children’s toys, and The Fall of Ile-Rien by Martha Wells features characters dealing with the transition in both direction.
None of these examples are the main focus of the plot, but when the characters have to deal with unfamiliar technology, it often causes minor plot complications or helps make existing ones more difficult. Plus, it’s great for characterization and comedy.
3. Mis-use / In the Wrong Hands
What happens if the bad guys get their hands on our super-cool farming technology that would make an amazing weapon? We can’t let that happen!
Any sort of power can be misused, and like a kid playing with a new toy, mankind is fast to figure out how to make new technology into weapons. The traditional big plot complications are 1. keeping the technology out of evil hands and 2. saving the world after the bad guy gets his/her hands on the technology (usually by figuring out how to defeat it/destroy it).
Sometimes, writers bury the lead with this one by making the main character unaware that they have the amazing technology (it’s disguised as something else they picked up or inherited). Then, there’s the stories that start after the technology’s been misused. A lot of science fiction falls in that category.
4. Unexpected Consequences
Speaking of science fiction, unexpected consequences is an ongoing theme (A.K.A. a warning from authors who are afraid they’re prescient). It’s an idea that while not unjustified can also act as a shield/excuse for fear of change.
One interesting facet to remember (and use) is that not all unexpected consequences have to be negative. The internet is a perfect example: it has definite pros and cons that no one ever anticipated. That’s the one I’d think about if I was trying to create something an innovation with far-reaching effects.
5. Addiction / Obsession
Watch people walking down the sidewalk, and you’ll see plenty of them glued to their smartphones and other technology (distracted walking). Some science fiction stories have even proposed technology that would be able to take over minds in a very literal way.
- Cowboy Bebop (both with Ed’s distraction and the hypnosis episode)
- Computer Addiction (This is a real thing!)
- Pokemon Go
Computer addiction is often used for humor, especially with background characters: going to extreme lengths to take technology with them, missing other events due to their focus on their computers, or even stampedes of people chasing a Squirtle.
6. Replacing Humanity
Will AI and robots someday be indistinguishable from real humans? Are they already indistinguishable? Are you a real person?!
Once the kernel of this idea is planted, it’s hard to get rid of – it invokes too much curiosity and fear to go away completely. There’s also the fear of losing jobs to technology, which can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. If not farther.
- Chobits (showing that deep topics can be both dirty and silly)
- “Nine Jobs that Humans May Lose to Robots” NBC NEWS
With this idea, it’s important to remember to think about not only how the world would change if it were true but also what people would do to try to keep it from coming true. For many, that’s where the real meat of the story is.
Big Brother is watching you. Between the NSA, movies about stalkers, and the fact that there’s now a video camera and GPS tracking in just about everything you own, it’s easy to see why people start to think they’re being watched.
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Criminal Minds (for example, the final episode of season 1 or the one where Reed is kidnapped)
- Doxing (eep!)
And let’s not forget identity theft, corporate espionage, and other crimes that involve stealing secrets. After all, anything that connects you to something, connects it to you, too.
8. Social Interaction Evolution: the Anonymity Issue
One of the unexpected consequences of the internet (see number 4) has been the social atmosphere created. People do things online they would never do in real life or to an extent most people wouldn’t dare do in person: bullying, harassment, and pretending to be other people, for starters.
Communicating through technology makes it not only easier to lie but also easier to break the rules of society without facing consequences. That’s definitely something to think about when creating technology for a story.
Think of it as the needle in the haystack theory. The more information and technology that becomes available, the harder it will be to sort through it to find the one thing you want (as the NSA can attest). Until or unless someone comes up with yet another invention to make searches as nuanced as those in the human mind, there’s liable to be a lot of white noise involved in any search or project.
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (Looking for one stone in a vast room of treasure? Let’s face it. Bilbo got lucky.)
You could also take this the keeping-up-to-date route. A lot of people can’t keep up with social media now, but if the level of complication or integration increased, it’d get much more challenging.
10. Loss of Technology
Ever lost power for an extended period of time? It’s not until the power is out that you realize all the things you can’t access without it: cell phones (eventually), light, heat/cooling, water (in the country), gas stations, refrigerators, electric stoves, etc. Not to mention the internet. That’s the sort of thing that could complicate a story pretty quickly.
Even losing 1 gets complicated, and there are plenty of innocuous (and not) reasons for it to happen: The wireless goes down after a lightning strike, you can’t get a text out at a festival because the masses of people are overloading the tower, your phone got dropped/smashed, etc. It’s amazing how quickly and dramatically losing access to technology can isolate you.
It could be as simple as running out of gas or as complicated as an interstellar plot. Or the character could end up in the boonies where there’s no coverage. Or they could be Amish. The options are endless.
Mix ‘Em Up
You may have noticed that a lot of these complications are used together. Like most writing, mixing and matching often makes for stronger stories.
How have you used technology to complicate a plot? Got any tips for other writers? Feel free to share in the comments.