Columns > Published on June 18th, 2018

31 Ways To Remove Phones From Your Fiction

There’s this saying about how there’s more than one way to skin a cat. It’s a pretty weird saying. Why is there enough cat-skinning going on that people get huffy about the multiple ways of doing it? Who is this person who's like, “Hey, just because that’s one of the five PRIMARY ways to remove a cat’s skin doesn’t mean it’s the ONLY way”?

In fiction, especially horror and thrillers, a “cat” that often needs “skinning” is the removal of the smartphone from the story. And like skinning that proverbial cat, there’s more than one way to do it. In fact, I’ve got 31 ways for you to take the phone out of play or at least disable it to an extent.

Sprinkled in here I’ve got some tips to help you concoct your own methods too.

Let’s start with two I don’t particularly like:

1. No Service

It’s a go-to, but it’s increasingly unlikely and just not believable unless you take things a little further (see below).

2. Battery’s Dead

Again, it’s a little easy.

3. Set Your Story In The Past

I don’t buy James Bond dropping his phone in the shitter. I buy Michael Scott doing that.

Doesn’t have to be the distant past. Don’t feel like you have to go crazy and put it in 1974. Just 2002 or so when having a phone meant you were probably a doctor or a drug dealer. You can also go just slightly into the past if you can have phones but not smartphones (the first iPhone was released in ‘07).

4. Cracked Screen

How about a cracked screen that only allows limited navigation on a touchscreen? You could still have a phone, but maybe it has limited practical application if you can’t use some of the touchscreen functionality. If I can’t scroll horizontally or vertically, for instance, so I’m stuck with what I’ve got on the lockscreen.

5. Parents Just Don’t Understand

A quote from a parent: "You give your kid a phone because then you have something to take away from them when they need to be punished."

If your character is a kid, it’s pretty easy.

6. Update Purgatory

“These goddamn updates are taking an hour!” Updates take forever, and interrupting them is a great way to screw up a phone. 

Tip: Use Appropriate Measures

Only disable the phone as much as you need to. If you just need your character to ignore the phone for awhile, it’s easy. If you need to prevent calling emergency services, the only way to manage that is to disable the phone completely. My advice here is to use the level of force necessary and not an inch more. This prevents you from causing your own problems down the line.

7. Blowing It

Maybe your character has a burner phone, and now that they’ve used it to make a call they can’t have traced back, they crack it in half and throw it in the river (or lake or whatever. Bodies of water seem to be where it’s at, although I haven’t seen many dropped in a nice creek). A temporary solution, but a good one.

8. Self-Control

Maybe your character is trying some zen thing of staying away from the phone for stretches during the day, meaning the phone is not at hand. It can be as simple as giving the character a personal reason for not bringing the phone when they leave the house that day. Maybe they leave it at home on date night.

9. Out of Control 

Maybe your character’s taken it even further and has a time lock enabled on their phone, meaning it’s unusable to them until a certain amount of time was passed. That could certainly ramp some tension.

10. I Didn’t Pay The Bill

Note: The interval between non-payment and actually having the phone shut off can be pretty long if you’ve got a good payment history, shorter if this isn’t your first mess-up, shortest on prepaid. This could also be as simple as a credit card switch, which disconnected the autopay. An unpaid bill is a good one because in order to borrow a friend's phone, you've gotta confess to screwing up.

11. Flooding

If you had constant incoming calls, it would effectively disable your phone. So if some autodialer went haywire (intentionally or not) or your character was someone famous whose phone number was released, their phone would be rendered useless.

12. Butterfingers

Most phones will lock with too many incorrect passcode attempts. If someone wanted to disable your phone, maybe for sinister purposes, maybe just as a gag, they could enter the wrong passcode a bunch of times.

13. We Jammin’

Cell jammers aren’t exactly legal, but that doesn’t mean they’re hard to come by either. A modern-day Michael Myers would be smart to buy one of these things. The people who use them tend to get caught, and there are a couple of great stories of highway vigilantes hooking them up. But it takes time. 

14. Slipping My Mind

Have none of you carefully placed your phone somewhere only to completely forget where you set it down? Have none of you texted your phone from your computer in a desperate attempt to find it? And when you texted it, you had to think really hard about what to send, and then ended up with, “Hello? Phone?” And then your girlfriend came home and saw it and thought you were the biggest idiot?

Just me?

Tip: Build Character

Make the loss/disabling of the phone believable to your character. I don’t buy James Bond dropping his phone in the shitter. I buy Michael Scott doing that. The bonus here is that the method of disabling the phone can strengthen my sense of your character. If your character is a cat lady, I will 100% buy a cat knocking a glass of water on a phone, and your character’s reaction to that will tell me something.

15. Kangaroo Style

Ever been to a show and got your phone locked up in a pouch? Can you imagine a scenario where someone’s phone is locked in one of these things (prank, evil motive, whatever)?

16. Out Of Respect

Ever been to a wedding where cell phones were collected before the ceremony began? They’re out there, and they could easily create a situation where you’ve got a large number of people in a remote location without phones

17. The Hypocrite

Maybe your character is at a movie. Maybe your character takes it upon himself to give another phone user a piece of his mind, and everyone else in the theater claps and cheers. Maybe he then feels his phone vibrate in his pocket, and maybe he can’t answer it for fear of looking like a hypocrite. A moral stance can be a great way to change things up and make them less technological.

18. The Truth About Location Tracking

Here’s a question: Does your phone matter in an emergency if your location can’t be accurately tracked? In 2010 a bunch of rules changed such that calls had to provide accurate information at 100 meters 67% of the time and 400 meters 90% of the time. Carriers are allowed exemptions for 15% of their service area, usually because it’s heavily forested. So, what does this mean? It means that your caller might get in touch with emergency services, but they’ve still got a 10% chance of providing no info, and there are pockets where this info is unlikely to exist at all. Even if a call does provide the info, if it’s accurate within 400 meters, that’s a point with 400 meters radiating out in every direction, which, according to mathamagics, is something like a 500,000 square meter area to search. 

19. Hand Your Phone To A Toddler

It’ll be disabled.

20. All Hands

If your hands don’t function in a typical way, it can be really difficult for you to operate 9 out of 10 phones carried by folks these days. Whether the hands are always that way or somehow disabled by someone else in that moment, taking away the hands can be a way to take away the phone.

21. The Hubris Break

I think we’ve all seen the hubris break, the one where “This case makes my phone indestructible. I’ll prove it.”

Tip: Be Spectacular

I dropped my personal iPod and ran it over with my own car. Yep. Point being, if you’re going to break the phone, break it in a notable way. Don’t just drop it. That’s boring. Drop it in a volcano if you can pull it off.

22. Bricked

Some iPhones can be bricked by setting the date to January 1st, 1970. Which makes sense by Y2K standards. There are lots of weird ways to brick phones out there. Figure one out, or make one up. If the pinnacle of mobile technology can be broken by setting the date wrong, it's perfectly believable for your fictional phone to break from something equally bizarre.

23. Overheat

Overheat the phone by using something like GPS and leaving it on the car seat, in the sun. All you can do at that point is wait for it to cool down. This is more interesting than a battery going out because we can figure on the phone coming back at some point, we just don’t know when.

24. DIY

In my personal experience, a great way to really screw up a piece of new tech is to try and fix it yourself. Maybe your phone is just a little broken, and maybe your attempt to fix it makes things worse. These things are not designed to be repaired by amateurs. I say this with experience.

25. Quick Break

If someone sticks a pair of headphones in and snaps off the jack inside the phone, the phone will still work for texting, but talking will be difficult. What might it do to your story to only allow texting?

26. Jerks Being Jerks

I hate to be so simplistic about it, but you can simply have an antagonist take the phone away. It doesn’t work so well with, say, a Leatherface type, but for any modern day character it’d work just fine.

27. Unfamiliar

Put it in the hands of an inexperienced user. I know that sounds unlikely in 2018, but believe you me, there’s many a person out there who has no idea how to use a smartphone, and a huge number of icons only serves to confuse and disorient.

28. Use The Technology

The technology exists to block phone use inside of a vehicle in motion. You’d only have to imagine a society a few years in the future to implement this, and you’d have a sort of new-fangled Speed movie on your hands (keep driving over 20 MPH!).

Tip: All Or Nothing 

Decide whether your story needs to eliminate ALL phones or just your character’s. If we’re talking about a romantic subplot, if I can’t text my loved one, then you don’t need to lose all phones. But if the broken phone situation is solved by “Buddy, there’s a robbery going on and I need your phone,” then you’re going to have to do something more extreme.

29. Townies

There’s an American town where the only radio communication allowed is for radios held by emergency services. You’ll find no cell service, and that’s by choice, providing a little wrinkle to the classic, “Damn, no bars” thing.

30. Getting Away From It All

A number of AirBNBs are promoting the fact that they don’t have internet or cell signal. Some people go on vacation to get away from that stuff. It’s a thing. A new spin on the cabin in the woods. Bonus points if you do some searching and find a cabin/woods alternative. You could start the new trend: Bungalow in the Desert!

31. Memories

If your character loses their phone, how many numbers do they have memorized? How many numbers do YOU have memorized? You might be able to effectively remove a communication avenue by simply taking away someone's pocket brain. 

That exhausts my ideas for now. What are yours? How have you seen people in real life lose phone access? What are the better ways you've seen this handled in fiction?

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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