In Richard Kelly's latest film, The Box, a mysterious man offers a couple $1 million (Dh3.67m). All they have to do is press a button in a box. The catch is, if they decide to, someone they don't know will die. It's classic, Indecent Proposal-style stuff. So there is no particular reason why The Box should be set in 1976; it's essentially a modern thriller. Pressing a button is not so removed from clicking a mouse. Except Kelly is adamant that it had to be in a world of pioneering space probes (the husband works for Nasa) and period detail.
"Every time I tried to conceive of this as a modern-day story, the internet got in the way," he moaned toThe Times. "It's changed the dynamics of storytelling in ways that are frustrating. Everything is at our fingertips. To tell a modern story, you're doomed, at some point, to show a character at a computer." The inference was clear: for Kelly, technology is ruining modern storytelling. If his film were set today, there would have to be a scene in which the stars searched the internet for clues about this strange box and its even stranger owner.
That's exactly what happens in the smash-hit horror movie Paranormal Activity. When the terrorised couple reach their wits' end, the tension is lessened somewhat when the well-meaning boyfriend sits down at a computer and furiously Googles possible explanations. By this rationale, it's not difficult to see why many screenwriters, directors and authors are turning to stories set in periods before every answer was online, when people actually talked to one another rather than tweeted. The most enduring genre in television is period drama, while the current Booker Prize winner is a historical novel (Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall). These are times, after all, when there's drama in a 16th-century character having to wait weeks for a letter rather than minutes for an e-mail, where old-fashioned detective work is more gripping than a quick internet search on a police computer.
Late last year, I spoke to the Australian author MJ Hyland about her newest book, This Is How. It's a brilliant, claustrophobic novel in which the main character, Patrick Oxtoby, shocks everyone (including himself) when he kills a man in a boarding house. At the time, Hyland mentioned how strange it was that if Oxtoby had had a mobile phone and been able to speak to a kind, calming voice, he might have been saved from himself. But the story is deliberately set in the late 1960s. Oxtoby finds the only payphone in the hallway in use, and he returns to his room in a dark mood that he can't shake. Later that night, he kills.
"I don't like the sense that a book could be dated - and driven - by its cultural references," Hyland says. "Setting it in the 1960s was also a dramatic device: Patrick's story is more powerful because he's in this barren, awful prison cell. If I'd set it in 2009, he'd have probably had a PlayStation and flat-screen television in there. "I admit there are a few cultural references to the time in This Is How. Dr No is at the cinema and some of the cars are mentioned. And to be honest, looking at it now, I regret even those. What you're looking for is a sense of timelessness to fiction writing. I'm trying to write tragedy, and if it can't happen in a cave, I'm not interested. Seriously, though, writing is about what goes on between people."
Hyland's view that the people are more important than the technology they are using is shared by the Bafta-nominated writer of the hit BBC series Hotel Babylon, Tony Basgallop. The difference is, his stories aren't set in a 1930s art deco hotel. They're very definitely in a contemporary world where people use computers to check in and out. But when he plots a story he never includes phone calls or Google searches.
"Characters at computer screens never work," he says. "Film is about motion, not information. And to be honest, when you're writing something such as Hotel Babylon, you have to contain the stories within the bubble you've created. The internet, in that environment, doesn't exist. In fact, the outside world as a whole is largely discounted, and if a computer does reveal anything on the show, it's that a room is double booked. They're not exactly lingering moments or plot points."
Basgallop unwittingly stumbles upon a second conundrum: surely screenwriters who deliberately set their stories in the modern world but still eschew technology are not being true to how the world works. But he disagrees. "The thing is, it's drama we're talking about here. And drama, in the end, looks for extreme emotion. Sometimes it's necessary for two characters to talk on a mobile phone, but I avoid it if at all possible. There is a sense of repressed emotion to phone calls."
The English author Jeremy Page shares the view that emotion is lost when technology is introduced. "People hunched over computer screens are inherently undramatic," he says. "Think about it: most of the books that have played an influential part in our lives do not have these things in them, so it's easy to see why writers are wary about their dramatic possibilities." But even Page could not ignore modern technology in his latest novel, released last year. His hero in The Wake is lost, both mentally and geographically, at sea. Page wanted to write about a person in a situation that was beyond the reach of the mobile phone.
"I wrote a scene where he switches one on a hundred miles from any coastline," he says. "He looks at its can-do, optimistic start-up message but he knows that he has no signal." But here lies the rub: Page had to include the phone in his book in the first place, otherwise every reader would have been silently screaming that the novel was unrealistic; reaching for a mobile phone is surely the first thing someone stranded at sea would do.
There is, of course, another way in which technology has an impact on storytelling: potential blockbusters are increasingly nothing more than demonstrations of the latest CGI techniques. Certainly Transformers is an eye-catching trailer in search of a plot, but Avatar particularly illustrates this shift. The storyline isn't as terrible as that of Transformers, but whole scenes are clearly there only to show how much money has been spent on how it looks.
But what if a writer's whole genre actively depends on - and revels in - modern technology as well as future technology that hasn't been invented yet? This is the world of science fiction. It's hugely popular, as the continuing series and remakes of Star Trek and Doctor Who prove, but it's not always taken seriously, either as an art form or because of its futuristic plots. We love hearing about warp speed and time travel, and it gives writers licence to set their stories any time and anywhere. But it can bring new problems: readers and viewers will suspend their disbelief only so far - not to the point when, for the umpteenth time, new technology appears to be invented on the spot to get Captain Kirk and company out of a tight scrape.
"The rule is quite simple: if it's lazy storytelling, then it shouldn't be there," Page says. But he doesn't think that's exclusive to science fiction writing. "I can think of many historical novels where the use of letter writing has a clunky feel, too. And in films, the scene where a character has to go to a library to search through microfiche is one we've all seen thousands of times. So for me, it really doesn't matter whether the character is doing this, or typing a similar search on Google."
Basgallop goes one step further: "The presence of technology shouldn't theoretically ruin anything. You write with the tools you have and develop a style that tells the story." Of course, the inexorable passing of time means that films, television programmes or books that do celebrate tweets, e-mails and laptops will be seen as period drama in years to come. As a professor at the University of Manchester's prestigious creative writing course, Hyland has seen enough undergraduate stories to make some sort of prediction about where modern writing might be going with technology.
"Every second story I get from one of my undergraduates starts with some guy not wanting to get out of bed. And that idea has always been true. It was the case when I was at university myself. But now, instead of getting up and making a cup of tea, they rub their eyes and reach for their mobile phones. So they're just variations on old themes, really. "But I truly believe drama is better when it isn't something completely familiar with the reader's own life. So that's why I would always advise against all these prosaic modern references if possible."
Hyland's writing is influenced by 19th-century novelists, and it's why she may have avoided the modern world in her own writing. But there must be danger in disregarding it completely, as one senses Kelly has with The Box. "There have been fundamental shifts in how we live, and technology has arguably made life easier. I totally agree with all that," Hyland says. "And I think if I were a filmmaker I would be much more annoyed, because the expectations when you go to the cinema are usually for all this stuff to be included. But at the end of the day, the emotions of the characters are what's important. And they have always - always - been the same."