Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and it never feels like the story is moving toward something? There’s no big event, no big game or show, no sense of a ticking clock either literally or figuratively? That lack of a ticking clock can oftentimes result in a meandering story that causes an audience to lose interest pretty fast.
When you set out to create a sense of urgency or stakes – as I talked about in the last post – it’s always good to create a finite end point for your main character to reach by the end of the story. Do they have to get somewhere by a certain time? Do they have to find the killer before he strikes again? Do they have to track down the stolen pygmy goats to get them to the holiday festival?
Creating a deadline for your main character will also help you focus your story and your main character’s goals over the course of the narrative. When you know by what moment the character will know whether not they have reached their goal, you can figure out what obstacles and opposing forces to throw at them that will create the best chaos and sense of urgency for them and the audience.
Let’s use a movie most people have seen: Independence Day. Here’s a movie that starts with a pretty intense ticking clock: one that shows when the alien ships will launch their first coordinated attack around the world. That sense of urgency continues with a ticking clock that gives them an eventual goal to disable the alien mothership in order to stop the alien ships on Earth from executing another mass attack. The film uses literal countdown clocks throughout to show the sense of urgency and to guide the story toward its climax on the 4thof July.
Now, imagine if the ships showed up and David (Jeff Goldblum) discovered that they would attack in six months instead of 28 minutes. Yes, there is a ticking clock, but the stakes and urgency evaporate. In six months they could evacuate all the major cities and probably find a way to defeat the aliens prior to their first attack.
So, as you develop your story, try and see if there is some event or final battle your main character can be moving toward in order to create a deadline with a sense of urgency.