The Obsolesence of Plot Devices

Last week, I watched an episode of the old TV series Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett.  It was “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty“, in which Holmes’s client is a secretary who was copying a top-secret treaty, which gets stolen from his desk when he leaves his office for a moment.

I started thinking about the new “Sherlock” series and wondering how they could adapt the story to the modern day if they wanted to. In the age of word processing software and copiers, there’s no need for clerks to sit around copying lengthy documents for hours.  Conan Doyle’s story simply could not occur in the present day.

Then, a few nights later, I saw an episode of the show Bewitched.  In it, the witch puts a spell on household objects to make them respond to voice commands, e.g. windows opening and closing by simply saying a command.  When they made that show in the ’60s, that must have seemed fantastic; now it’s eminently doable.

I’ve often seen Cold War spy thrillers where a big problem is finding a phone quickly, before something serious happens.  Again, nowadays that’s obsolete–cell phones eliminate that problem.

It’s funny to think of how people in those days wrote these stories, probably never thinking that there would be technology that would one day make the whole scenario they had constructed obsolete.  It doesn’t make the story any less enjoyable, of course, but it just gives you an idea of how much technology has changed.  Makes you wonder what people will look at in our modern films and television programs  and think “if they just had…”


  1. I’ve seen a quote from a fiction writer who has said that writing good novel plots is more difficult these days, because keeping secrets is a common plot device, and in the age of social networking, secrets get shared on Facebook and Twitter 🙂

    Still, I think there will always be a way to do quality writing, no matter what kind of world we live in.

    1. I agree. And I think the thriller/mystery genres are definitely the ones that are the hardest hit by this problem; in other types of stories it would be less of an issue.

      And then, of course, there’s always the option of writing historical fiction to get around this.

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