Hackers and Drones and Phones, Oh My: Using Technology in Thrillers

Last year, I decided to kill someone with a drone.

It was a crucial moment in the writing of my new book, “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps.” One of the protagonists, an Elvis-loving assassin with a penchant for fast food and navel-gazing, had to wipe out a pursuer from several hundred yards away, at night. Initially I considered having him deploy a sniper rifle, only to discard that idea: it seemed a little too, well, conventional for the character.

Stumped, I did what every author with a plotting conundrum does best: Olympic-caliber procrastination. And in the course of my random Internet wanderings, I uncovered something that not only moved my story forward, but convinced me once and for all that some people on this planet have way too much time on their hands.

My grand discovery? A YouTube video of a kid who wired a semi-automatic pistol to one of those smaller drones you can buy off Amazon.com:

I don’t know about you, but if I had that lad in my engineering class, and he built something like this, I would definitely give him an “A” for effort — right before I called the police.

A drone jury-rigged with a pistol is a treasure chest of narrative possibilities. A machine like that is hard to aim precisely; its engines are loud; it can break down at the wrong moment. I gave one to my assassin, and it complicated his life in interesting ways.

Technology can play a crucial role in mysteries and thrillers. It may serve as a MacGuffin (“We must find the USB drive with the incriminating photos on it!”), an effective Deus ex machina (“My hacking skills will let us escape this impossible situation!”), and a horrifying or hilarious way to kill people (I love you, drone).

But as with any tool, there’s a line between use and abuse. That scene where the plucky hacker with the pink hair and the really cool tattoos manages to hack into a highly secure data-center after fifteen seconds of pounding away at a keyboard like a monkey on meth? Not terribly realistic—although that hasn’t stopped that cliché from popping up in a thousand thrillers, advancing the plot in a tension-free way.

Or that scene where the survivor of a campground massacre (or similar backwoods calamity) struggles through the forest with phone held aloft, desperate for any sort of signal? It was effective the first few times someone did it; now we expect that isolated heroes will find their devices no longer work, just as something really bad happens.
Indeed, technology is messy; it’s often hard to use, and never quite does what you want. Instead of thinking about how a piece of technology will advance your plot if it works (i.e., your neon-haired hackers, those Houdinis of infrastructure), consider what might happen if it were to break down at the wrong moment. The resulting complications could be fascinating—provided they haven’t been done to death.

Somewhat related: it pays to keep in mind that technology evolves quickly, and today’s amazing doodads will end up gathering dust in warehouses a few short years from now. Flip through a mystery or thriller from a couple decades ago, and try not to laugh as the characters gush over a pitiful-in-retrospect computer as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

At its worst, technology can date a book badly enough to implode the plot. For example, I recently dusted off a trunk novel that I wrote in Ye Olden Days of 2006. Whatever thoughts I had about giving the narrative a light spit-and-polish, and maybe even sending it out, died an ignoble death when I re-discovered that my narrator worked in a music store that sold CDs. Even if I had managed to overcome that issue (which would have been difficult, given the store’s constant presence), I realized that the modern presence of smartphones invalidated the whole plot, which depended on various characters in New York City being unable to access the world’s information at any time from the palms of their hands.

The iPhone: that great murderer of trunk novels.

Forty years from now, when we’re absorbing all of our information via web-connected contact lenses or whatever comes next, we may read scenes involving smartphones and datacenters and laugh, the same way we chuckle when characters in books written in the mid-19th century rave about the speed of trains across Europe. But if the writing is good, the plot solid, and the characters compelling, a book will transcend any use of antiquated technology.

In the meantime, I had some fun with that drone.

Nick Kolakowski

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