Monday, February 11, 2013

Story Tips #5 - The Ticking Clock

By Jax Hunter

Welcome to the fifth, and final, installment of Story Tips From the Big Screen.  This monthly column explores screen writing techniques that will help fiction writers tell a better story. 

***     ***     ***     ***

The ticking clock. . .

As authors, we are always looking for ways to crank up the dramatic tension within our stories.  One of the best ways to do this is with what is known as a time lock. 

Time locks set a deadline for the hero to get what he wants and inject urgency into the story.  They force your hero into situations that could otherwise wait.  They throw obstacles into his path that either limit his time or limit his options.  (Some sources differentiate between time locks and option locks - see Dramatica software for details.)

Dramatica sources tells us that if the primary obstacles thrown in front of your protagonist are delays, then what you’re looking at is a time lock.  If the obstacles are missing parts, the option lock is in effect.

Some stories set the initial stage with a time element.  The FOX TV show 24 sets the ticking clock in place right away, and that element hangs over the heads of the characters all the way through.   The finale of Friends set in place the departure of Rachel to Paris and the clock ticked away as Ross tried to tell her how he felt.  Small delays, followed by bigger and bigger delays, kept him from getting to her until it was too late - or so we thought for a minute.

Other examples of this would include the movie High Noon, where the bad guys are due to show up on the noon train; Armageddon, where doom is coming to earth in the form of an approaching asteroid; and Casablanca, in which the plane will be leaving with or without Ilsa on it.

Other stories use a ticking bomb (so to speak) to crank up the tension in the middle or closer to the climax.  Think of Speed in which the ticking clock was the gas gauge moving toward “E”.  Romeo and Juliet are in no hurry to work out their problems and could have gone on ad infinitum until Juliet’s parents set the wedding date for Juliet and Paris.  Sleepless in Seattle’s final push involves getting to the top of the Empire State Building before it’s too late.  And in Monsters, Inc. Mike Wazowski (all one word at my house) is given thirty minutes to return Boo to her bedroom before the door closes forever and all is lost.

Of course, not all stories can make use of a time lock.  But if you start paying attention to both the books you read and the movies you see, you’ll find that the time lock element can be very subtle.  It is simply a tool for raising the tension in a story.  Give it a try and have fun with it.

Until next month, BICHOK (Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard) 

Cheers, Jax (

(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2004.)

About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.