Mastering the Clock

Everyone is familiar with the “ticking clock” in stories.  It’s the bomb set to explode in T-Minus five minutes if the hero doesn’t figure out whether to pull the red, green or yellow cable.  Or the meteorite on its way to destroy the Earth if the brilliant scientists or brave soldier cannot figure out how to stop it. The concept of compressing time to increase tension goes back as far as Aristotle who explained that writers of tragedies should limit the setting to 24 hours to take advantage of the pressure gained from a shortened time frame.  And in fact, the clock is a convention required for modern day Crime and Thriller Stories, as well as the Action-Clock sub-genre.     

Clocks are much more than ticking pieces of plastic hanging off the wall.  When used properly, a clock feels less like a TV trope and more like a tension driving engine that pushes your reader to turn the page to see if the characters make it on time!

What is a clock in the storytelling context?

Before we get into the specifics of how to make a clock work, let’s look at the function of a clock in the storytelling context.  You don’t need a literal clock ticking down the seconds to use this device to add urgency to your story.  Rather, the “clock” is symbolic for a time constraint.  Something that forces your characters do something before something else happens. Clocks can provide a time limit for your global story, or provide a time constraint on the scene level.  They come in two varieties – those that tell us when they will expire and those that leave the expiration open.

The clock of a known duration is just that, it is a clock we know will go off at a certain time.  Stories with clocks of a known duration include Cinderella (we know the clock will strike at midnight turning her carriage back into a pumpkin), Back to the Future (Marty has to be in the Delorean when the lighting strikes at exactly 10:04 p.m.), and The Hangover (the guys must get Doug back in time for the start of his wedding).

A clock of an unknown duration is controlled by some event that compresses time, but we don’t know when the time will expire.  Examples include Jaws (Brody and Quint must kill the shark before it kills all aboard the Orca), and The Hunger Games (Katniss must survive until all the other tributes die).  Clocks with an unknown duration can satisfy the countdown is several ways including a countdown to an event that has already happened, as in Bird Box  (we learn early on that the protagonist and her children end up alone in a house that once held lots of people), a clock that counts down to some future event, as in Breaking Bad (Walter White must make some cash to secure a better future for his family before he dies), or a countdown until the achievement of some goal, as in Mrs. Doubtfire (Daniel has to win back the trust of his ex-wife before she and the children discover his disguise).     

Both types of clocks put pressure on your characters to act with urgency, spurring the pace of the story in a way that wouldn’t happen without a deadline.  The clock adds tension to stories in the same way it does in real life. If your writing piece is due whenever you feel like getting it done, it probably isn’t creating a great deal of stress in your life.  If the deadline falls tomorrow, it’s likely you are under a lot of stress and forced to make decisions you didn’t have to make before.  Will you give up dinner with family, pull an all-nighter, miss the deadline, and face the consequences?   Whether you get the writing done just became interesting!

What makes a clock work?

What does it take to make a clock work?  From studying many stories with clocks, some that worked and some that did not, I’ve boiled it down to five steps to build a page driving clock into your story: 1) pick a clock that fits your genre; 2) set a time limit or deadline so you know when the clock ends; 3) give the characters important consequences for failing to meet that time limit; 4) progressively increase the obstacles that stand in their way of making it on time; and 5) give the reader reminders that the clock is ticking down.  

1. Pick a clock that “fits” your story (hint: if you can’t figure one out, let your genre guide the way).

The first step to creating a convincing clock is to come up with a time limit that fits naturally into the plot of your story.  You might think this step a no-brainer, but when writers cheat and insert any clock that comes to mind the clock feels like a generic trope. A literal bomb won’t work for every story because not every story involves situations where a bomb fits. For example, a bomb set in the middle of Darcy’s parent’s living room floor certainly shortens the time that Bridget Jones has to declare her love for Darcy, but it doesn’t work as well as his impending move to New York City. Possible near-permanent separation of the lovers works better than the possibility that both will get blown to smithereens because separation of the lovers fits with the convention of opposing forces in the Love Story. 

Going back to your genre is the best way to find a clock that fits with your plot. You can even use your clock to satisfy elements of your content genre or to enhance the world of your reality genre.  For example, if you are writing an Action-Environment Story perhaps your hero needs to save the victim before the next big earthquake. For a World View Story, perhaps the character must overcome the inciting challenge within a limited time frame, such as one posed by a terminal illness limiting the time he has to grow up and realize he needs to change his view of the world.    

Your reality genre is also helpful.  Writing a fantasy story set in a world where time-travel is possible?  Perhaps your characters need to prevent the travel of a particular person by a particular date or survive until they can get to the next time portal.  Outlander provides a great example of the latter as Claire does what she needs to survive in 1766 until she can figure out how to get back to her own time in the 1940s.  The Time Bound series is a great example of the former, as the protagonist needs to stop the evil-plotting time traveler from going back in time to start his own religion.

Your sub-genre can also drive your clock.  For example, Back to the Future uses a Love Story sub-plot as a clock for a global Action Story. Marty must get his parents to fall in love before he disappears!  The important point (and perhaps the hardest to implement!) is to pick a clock that your readers buy into.  The best clocks work because the reader can identify with the reason for the deadline, and if the reason ties to your genre, it makes for a natural fit.  

2. Set an urgent time limit with a hard deadline.

Give your characters an unreasonable time limit. If Cinderella’s carriage turned into a pumpkin at noon the next day, we probably wouldn’t care about that particular deadline.  Maybe she’d have to get back long before the clock ran out or face other consequences – the discovery of her disappearance or her failure to have breakfast ready for her evil step-sisters, but she’d also have the whole night to get the prince to ask her to stay.  Unreasonable time limits cause the character(s) to make choices that are risky because they impact the overall goal of the character. Cinderella has to leave the party just as she gets closer to the Prince.  In fact, she leaves the prince standing in the middle of the ballroom alone, a risky move that could cause her to lose the prince forever.  We think the prince will never find her and she will stay stuck a slave to her wicked family for the rest of her life.  But as bad as that choice seems, the deadline threatens an even worse situation in Cinderella’s mind. If she doesn’t leave right then, even before giving the prince her name, everyone will discover that she is nothing more than a housemaid with no way home!

Not only do you want a clock that doesn’t linger, you want your reader to understand when time is up, it’s up.  No overtime allowed.  In Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, the children and the Cat must get the house cleaned up before their mother gets home.  Once she returns the children are either absolved of all wrongdoing (because mother won’t know!) or done for (especially in the 2003 live-action movie, in which it looks like they’ll get shipped off to boarding school!).  

Similarly, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry, Hermione and Ron have to make it past the obstacles safeguarding the philosopher’s stone before Professor Quirrell (or Snape as they believe) gets his hands on it.  Harry and the gang rush through the maze of obstacles as quickly as they can, sacrificing their own safety for the sake of time to get to the stone before Voldemort, knowing that if he gets it first, he won’t give them a second chance to stop his return.  

What makes the clock in these examples work is that it forces the characters to make bad decisions.  Ron can’t stand around until he finds some other way to make the pieces in Wizard’s chess work, he has to risk getting hit by the giant concrete statutes to get past the spell and reach the final chamber if he and his friends hope to have any chance to intercept the stone before their enemy.  Cinderella can’t stop to say “hey, here’s my address” because she’s already stayed later than she should and has to run to get back to her carriage before the clock strikes midnight.  The children have to let the Cat help them, even after he ruined their house, because he provides their only hope of getting it straightened up before their mother returns.  It’s the urgency of complying with the hard deadline that drives the characters to take risks and those risks keep the reader turning pages.   

3. Make the Consequences dire and (once again!) driven by the global content genre.

Make the consequences of failure meaningful to your global content genre. The Hunger Games keeps us turning the page because of the irreversible clock that turns on the central value of an Action Story – life to death.  Katniss must outlast all the other tributes to save her own life.  If she doesn’t outlast them all, either by letting them kill each other or killing them herself, she will die. The uncompromising nature of the clock is so understood by Katniss that she risks killing both herself and Peeta just to prevent the Capital from getting a win when the clock winds down.  

The Silence of the Lambs provides another great example of a clock with dire consequences that turn on the value of its global content genre.  The value spectrum that drives a Thriller Story is life to death to a fate worse than death.  This value spectrum drives the clock at play in the story as Clarice must rescue the senator’s daughter before Buffalo Bill not only kills her, but uses her body to create a human suite, a fate worse than death alone.

Dire consequences are essential to a working clock.  The clock does nothing for your story if nothing important happens when it goes off.  If Katniss and the other tributes were playing laser tag no one from District Eleven would care that she went back for Rue when one of the other tributes struck her.  But the stakes were life and death for all the tributes making the reader emotionally invested in the countdown of the tributes lives.

Whereas it’s a good idea to have the type of clock you devise for your story come from your content or reality genre, I think it an absolute necessity that the consequences for failure fall within the negative value spectrum of your content genre.  Why? Because tying the very stakes at issue in your story to the clock will make all that work you put into coming up with a unique one even more worthwhile!  The very point of adding a time constraint to your story is to ramp up the tension between what the character needs or wants and the obstacles in her way, since even minor obstacles can feel monumental when we know time is about to expire.  Think back to the last time you hit a red light on your way to a meeting.  Even if you knew the light would only last two-minutes, it probably felt like an overwhelming obstacle sure to doom your quest to arrive on time.  Consequences that tie in the content genre have the same effect because they impact the main goal of the character.

4. Progressively increase the obstacles that stand in the way of the characters making it on time.

Clocks provide tension on their own, but throwing increasingly complicated obstacles in the way of your characters takes full advantage of the time limit.  A detective who has twenty-four hours to find the murderer has a problem, but the detective who wrecked his car, finds himself partner-less after a shootout, and loses his badge as that twenty-four hour period ticks down has enough problems to make us wonder whether even the most talented of his kind can prevail.  All stories must progressively complicate the protagonist’s goal or the story will fall flat.  Using the time limit to increase the pressure on the characters ramps up those progressive complications even more.

The movie High Noon masterfully ups the complications as it counts down to the antagonist’s arrival.  Kane, a newlywed on the brink of his retirement, finds out that an outlaw he previously sent to jail will arrive on the noon train intent on exacting revenge. Kane knows he cannot leave the town undefended, and that even if he runs, the outlaw will track him down and kill him. So, he stays to fight.  But he encounters obstacle after obstacle as he races to get a team together to stand against this vicious criminal who will terrorize everyone when he arrives.  His wife leaves him, his deputy resigns and the townsfolk prove cowardly and disloyal when one by one they turn down his request for help.  The situation gets so bad that Kane returns to his office to write out his will!  Even though the clock adds pressure to Kane to get ready for the outlaw’s arrival by giving him a whopping one hour and twenty-five minutes to prepare, the writer/director up the ante even more by continually stacking complication after complication against him.       

5. Remind your readers the clock is ticking.

I love the 1986 film Labyrinth.  The entire movie is driven by the deadline set for the protagonist to solve a literal labyrinth to find her brother, held hostage in a castle at its end. Jareth, the Goblin King, has taken Sarah, the selfish older sister’s, baby brother at her request and when she decides she to redeem herself by rescuing him, Jareth tells her she must make it to the castle in thirteen hours or her brother will forever turn into a goblin subject to his rule.  The labyrinth that Sarah must navigate abounds with obstacles that push Sarah farther away from her goal. But what makes the tension even greater are the repetitive cutbacks to the clock in the castle continually reminding us it is ticking down.  The screen shots of the clock highlight for the viewer the seriousness of each setback – Sarah has eaten fruit poisoned to make her forget her brother when the clock reveals she has one hour left before the baby is no longer human! 

Gone Girl provides a great example of a way to remind the reader of a countdown to an event without including a clock as the reminder.  Nick, the male protagonist of the story, starts each chapter by informing the reader how many days have passed since his wife went missing.  As the story continues, it becomes clear that the police will arrest Nick for her murder if he cannot prove she faked her own death.  Each time Nick starts a chapter with an increase in the number of days gone by, we cringe because we know he is that much closer to jail time for a crime he didn’t commit.     

Keeping the clock in the forefront of your reader’s mind allows them to feel all the more emotion at each setback.  When the cannon fires in The Hunger Games, we get an update on how many more tributes Katniss must outlast.  In the beginning of the games we feel relief each time the cannon sounds, since it means one less tribute that Katniss must worry about.  But by the end, we know that the fewer the tributes, the more focus each remaining one can put on killing the others. The cannon continually reminds us of the pressure on Katniss to survive.

Isn’t a clock just a rip off of other stories? 

You’ve probably been thinking (at least in the back of your mind) that the use of a clock is a tired trope that can’t possibly add originality to new work.  Even though the clock is an old story telling device (Aristotle is ancient after all), it is one that still serves stories well.  I’ve provided sixteen examples of clocks in stories of various genres that use them masterfully and hopefully you can see the originality in each.  Now comes the hardest part of using any element of storytelling that is fundamentally sound – go innovate a clock for your own story!

About the Author

Renee Decker is a developmental editor, who got her start in storytelling thrilling her family with renditions of “The Three Little Pigs” and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and has not stopped loving stories since.  Her goal is to help every writer transfer the story in their head to the one they want to tell on paper.  In college, as a teaching assistant in The Writing Center at Transylvania University and then later in law school, Renee realized how much she loves teaching others to develop their own skills.  She found The Story Grid in 2015 and recognized what a great set of tools it provides writers to make their stories the best version of themselves.  Now she helps writers of all levels master those techniques to write their best story yet.
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