Narrative Tension and the Ticking Clock

12 May

by Julie Eshbaugh

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“The ticking clock,” is a plot device that is used to constrain your story and put a time limit on your protagonist as he or she works to resolve a conflict. The concept is simple – a certain task must be completed by a certain deadline or the character will fail and suffer the consequences of that failure. An entire story can be a ticking clock (the film RUN LOLA RUN is a good example) or a ticking clock can be part of a single conflict within a larger story (such as the clock tower scene in BACK TO THE FUTURE.)

The addition of a ticking clock instantly creates increased tension. A challenge may feel relatively easy to overcome if time is not an issue. But take away the luxury of unlimited time and you immediately turn up the heat on your characters.

Let’s look at some real life examples. If you’re a student, consider the last paper you had to write. When did you feel the most tension – when you had two weeks to get it written, or 24 hours to hand it in? Writers under contract to a publisher know the reality of the ticking clock all too well when they are up against a deadline to turn in revisions. How about a football team, down by 10 points, at the two minute warning? We all run into ticking clocks in life, and we know the stress they can cause. Sometimes that kind of stress is just what your story needs to increase the pressure on your characters and make the action as compelling as it can be.

Although the ticking clock may feel like a device that is best suited to thrillers, it can be used in almost any kind of story. Below are a few examples taken from films. (I came up with a few from books I’ve read recently, but I was too concerned about spoilers to include them!)

RUN LOLA RUN – Lola (Franka Potente) has 20 minutes to deliver 100,000 German marks to save her boyfriend’s life.

TITANIC – In one scene, Rose (Kate Winslet) has to rescue Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) from a room below deck before it floods and he drowns.

SAY ANYTHING – Lloyd (John Cusack) has until the end of the summer to win the heart of Diane (Ione Skye) before she leaves for a new life in England.

ROMAN HOLIDAY – Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) has just one day to experience all the joys of life as an anonymous citizen, including falling in love with an American reporter (Gregory Peck.)

BACK TO THE FUTURE – Doc (Christopher Lloyd) has until the moment lightning is destined to strike the clock tower to get the DeLorean time machine in position to send Marty (Michael J. Fox) back to 1985.

(While avoiding spoilers is too important to me to mention specific examples, I can at least say that I can think of examples of ticking clocks in all three of Suzanne Collins’s HUNGER GAMES books, as well as INCARCERON by Catherine Fisher, which I just finished and highly recommend.)

Tips on getting the most out of the Ticking Clock:

• It’s important to maintain the tension all the way up to the deadline. The device alone will increase the pressure on your hero, but the conflict still needs to escalate. As your hero runs out of time, the stakes need to stay high. Your protagonist can not accept missing the deadline as a viable solution.

• As the deadline approaches, the obstacles to succeeding should increase. In the eleventh hour, the plan that has been working smoothly should completely crumble. Don’t let your protagonist off the hook by allowing her to solve the problem too early.

• Don’t let your hero know how it turns out. It’s easy to imagine that a ticking clock could come across as a gimmick. This is most likely to occur when your hero doesn’t feel threatened by the deadline. Your hero must respect the danger of the ticking clock. Don’t let your hero become too confident.

In closing, I want to share the clock tower scene from BACK TO THE FUTURE. I’m sure you’ve seen it before, but I’d like to ask you to watch it for the example it gives of a perfectly executed ticking clock within the plot. (Also, watch for the two actual “ticking clocks” in the scene.) ENJOY!

What do you think of the ticking clock device? Have you ever used it? Do you think it’s something that you would like to try in your own writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

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11 Responses to “Narrative Tension and the Ticking Clock”

  1. Laura May 12, 2011 at 4:49 AM #

    Great post Julie! I love the Back to the Future theme music 🙂 … Thanks for the reminder that the hero must respect the danger of the ticking clock and feel threatened by it. That is so obvious, but so easy to forget!

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 12, 2011 at 6:12 AM #

      Hi Laura! Yeah, I tend to forget the obvious stuff myself. 😉 When I watch that BTTF clip, it reminds me of how shocked your characters truly should be when (and if!) they beat the ticking clock! Thanks for commenting.

  2. Cat May 12, 2011 at 7:59 AM #

    Great article, Julia. I’ll definitely try to incorporate that into my writing.
    I think that the best use of the ticking clock device wax in the show ” 24″ which was practically built around it.

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 12, 2011 at 2:52 PM #

      Thanks Cat! I can’t believe I didn’t think of 24! great example. 🙂

  3. Rowenna May 12, 2011 at 11:31 AM #

    Great article–sometimes giving a name to something makes it easier to apply! I can think of plenty of spots in my WIP that I could increase tension–and this would be a great tool to do so in a few areas.

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 12, 2011 at 2:56 PM #

      Hey Rowenna! I’m glad you liked the post. The name of this device is so simple too; I think that’s why I love to see the clocks in the BTTF clip. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  4. Terrell Mims May 13, 2011 at 12:13 PM #

    Great blog and anything with Back to the Future is great. I had a little ticking clock, but after reading your blog, I took a small note and have turned it into the ticking clock. Thanks!

  5. maybellestyle May 13, 2011 at 12:43 PM #

    I think it’s a great device, actually, though I’ve never used it. Most of my writing does escalate in tension at the end anyways – usually I speed up the timeframe or throw in more complications. But I think a literal “deadline” would be a great way to tense up the story.

    “Run Lola Run” was a great movie.

  6. Mary Eplett March 16, 2012 at 12:44 PM #

    Great article! Will definitely use this concept while writing future stories.

  7. Toby Armstrong September 27, 2012 at 7:52 AM #

    Hey Julie, great article! Super insightful, so thanks! I have a couple of questions:
    1) Are there ‘ticking patterns’? For example, Se7en’s premise suggests that all 7 murders are the end point, and the length of the film serves as a natural time limit. Obviously, the down side is that patterns can risk feeling formulaic.
    2) Can the TC be used somewhere on a range between ‘single section’ and ‘the entire story’, say, by making the time-up the end point of the story, but starting the clock further on than simply the beginning? I think of Fight Club *spoilers*, where the final project must be stopped before it’s too late, but this clock only starts about 2/3 into the film. As you mentioned, the TC can risk seeming gimmicky, so are there any risks in doing it this way?

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