If we’re going to admit that new media and technology are intricately woven into most of our lives, we’ll need to show that on the page. So how can writers do it?

The Roll-up!-Roll-up!-See-The-Freak approach

Sarah entered her username and password by moving her finger over the phone’s on-screen touch keyboard, and her Instagram page loaded up on the screen in front of her. She looked at the number of Likes her latest photo had garnered. She gasped. Over a hundred!

This is a fake example (duh), but I’ve struggled through books in which the character’s use of social media is presented so painstakingly, every step described, it’s if the writer thinks no reader has ever heard of such things. Ironically – because the writer thinks they are incorporating new media – this approach holds the new-media aspects of the narrative at a distance, as if with tongs; something not quite normal, perhaps a little malodorous, to be inspected, suspected, kept away from the rest of our lives.

The Look-How-Obsessed approach

This is a way of making a point about how deeply embedded new media and technology can get, in our lives and in our psyches. Which I applaud. Better than pretending it doesn’t exist. But if it’s done through repetition – character checks all his sites, notes new numbers of likes and follows, character re-checks, worries, posts, checks, worries again… interminably – unfortunately, it ends up as entertaining as a real-life evening with a friend who can’t stop telling you every five minutes how many likes/follows/reactions they’ve got.

This is the trouble. Virtual interactions – especially other people’s – aren’t that interesting to hear about on their own.

Finding the human in the virtual

The fundamental problem of virtuality has given me big problems in the novel I’m just finishing. Much of the important action takes place through the main character’s use of an Augmented Reality app. There’s also a lot of texting/non-specific “messaging”, as well as voicemail, a virtual currency, Spam as a plot device, and an almighty social network everyone loves. (Almost everyone.)

I’ll admit, it’s been a challenge to keep the narrative interesting, especially as I never set out to write sci-fi, or tech-fi.

In my attempts to find some solution, I returned to basic narrative rules.

The hierarchy of reader engagement is like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (thanks to my mentor Jacob Ross for this). Physical danger for the protagonist will grip a reader. If her basic needs – to secure food and water, shelter, and be safe from serial killers or earthquakes – are not being met, that’s properly gripping. Severe emotional peril and heartbreak are pretty good, though less gripping than imminent death.

Image Credit: Saul McLeod

Above that in Maslow’s pyramid, the character’s need to belong can certainly make for a good story situation in the hands of a good writer, but if a whole novel is about the character’s need for self-actualisation (top of Maslow’s pyramid) and there’s never any other kind of danger for them, you’re going to have to be a truly great writer to keep most readers interested. In other words, for all we’re entangled in virtual experiences these days, we’re still wired to respond to the more basic, physical threats a character can experience. Real ones.

With the AR aspect in particular, the problem is that much of the main character experiences is by definition, not real. So how the hell do I keep a reader interested when there’s always that “get out of jail free” card?

It seems obvious now, but I had to find the “realnesses” of the character’s experience. Although AR is not “real”, the effects it can have on us are real. My character’s experience of it is. The full immersion of the AR, experienced through face-worn hardware, and the relationships she has because of the AR – genuinely affect her. She gets addicted. And she runs into the physical risks of being out in the real world while her mind and senses are telling her she’s elsewhere. In other words, I found ways to make her genuinely imperilled, which – I hope – results in a more gripping experience.

Punctuate to alienate

In the process of incorporating virtuality into this narrative I kept, unhelpfully, wanting to remind the reader that the character’s experience wasn’t real. This meant I compulsively employed quotation marks whenever my character experienced AR. As a result, my page ended up covered in crumbs:

I “followed” Lambert “down” his “corridor” to where a door was “set” in the “far” “wall”. I “went” “through” the “door” and “floated” “along” a “tube”, “arriving” eventually in a “spacious” “chamber”.

I mean – no.

So I made myself drop the quotations, reminding myself to trust the reader. As a reader I’ve already signed up to the fact that this isn’t a real thing, because it’s fiction I’m reading. Duh! Not using quotation marks keeps it neat, keeps it normal. Setting it apart with quotation marks is like using those tongs again.

There are other typesetting options writers can play with, particularly for showing texts and messaging. Italics look okay – or two different fonts (I think two at most) – but in my view, our technological interactions don’t need to be framed any more than that. Embedding it on the page de-alienates it. If our fiction looks familiar, the unfamiliar elements won’t have such a sting.


Ruby Cowling was born in Bradford and lives in London. Her work has won The White Review Short Story Prize and the London Short Story Prize, and been shortlisted in contests from Glimmer Train, Short Fiction, Wasafiri and Aesthetica. Recent publication credits include Lighthouse; The Letters Page; The Lonely Crowd; Unthology; the Galley Beggar Press Singles Club; I Am Because You Are (a Freight Books collection of work inspired by the theory of General Relativity); and Flamingo Land and Other Stories (Flight Press). She is Associate Editor at Short Fiction and The Writing Disorder, and is a Spread the Word Associate Writer.